It appears that one of the sources of tension between James Harden and the Philadelphia 76ers is their desire to maintain flexibility and spending power for the 2024 offseason. That opportunity arose because, while Joel Embiid is on his lucrative supermax deal, Tyrese Maxey’s second contract will not start until next season, and the 2020 first-rounder has a cap hold of only $13 million until it gets replaced by his eventual agreed-upon salary. If Daryl Morey can keep the rest of the 76ers’ obligations relatively clean, they have a clear path to a 30 percent max contract and a plausible one to a full 35 percent max offer as well.
A championship contender with the reigning regular-season MVP wielding legit cap space so soon is exciting, and it’s worth going through the players and possibilities that having spending power in 2024 and could potentially be brought into the fold in Philadelphia.
One note before we really get going: Harden’s recent comments have brought the new collective bargaining agreement’s language on “withholding services” to a larger audience, but I sincerely doubt it will be relevant in this case both because the CBA’s consequences are so severe and because Harden’s form of agitation at previous times has been disruption while present rather than not showing up at all. It is good to be familiar with the concept, but it would be a big departure for “withholding services” to become relevant.
Cap space to add one star
If the 76ers’ goal in 2024 is to use cap space to bring in a key contributor, the main path is signing a free agent. The 76ers can negotiate directly with any unrestricted free agents when the time is right (and presumably when the time is not right as well…) with the added benefit of not having to sacrifice any assets to bring them aboard. While inevitably some players will follow Jaylen Brown’s lead and sign extensions between now and then, the 2024 free-agent class could have some high-end talent who would be fascinating fits alongside Embiid and Maxey, who is a restricted free agent next summer but is expected to remain in Philly as the 76ers can match rights to retain him.
Technically speaking, James is the highest-profile player who could be a free agent next summer, but it feels unlikely that he would make that kind of jump.
The next most prominent free agent is someone with some … bouncy history with the 76ers. The best-case scenario sales pitch is straightforward. Leonard, who has a player option for 2024-25, can create his own offense even against elite competition, and while he has taken some steps back as a possession-by-possession defender, he can still take on tough assignments in big spots. Leonard and James are also the only potential free agents who have already established themselves as the best player on a championship team, which would be an absolute luxury alongside Embiid. Of course, the challenges are also abundantly clear with Leonard. He has battled injuries for years, and the franchise would be betting that both Leonard and Embiid can stay healthy for a full playoff run, the first of which would start shortly before Leonard’s 34th birthday. On top of that, Leonard already plays for a championship contender he chose as a free agent, one that is also near where he grew up, and the Clippers have the theoretical ability to offer him more years and more money than the 76ers. Still, the two-time NBA Finals MVP would be a game-changer for the 76ers when he is on the court.
There are credible arguments for a few other free agents to take the next slot, but for me, considering the personnel fit, it’s Leonard’s current teammate. It has flown under the radar a bit, but George has made 39 percent or more of his 3-pointers on high volume in six of his last seven seasons; the only exception was 2021-22 when he only played just 31 games. George’s on-ball game can leave something to be desired, but management presumably wants the ball in Embiid’s and Maxey’s hands, and George, who like Leonard has a player option for 2024-25, has the ability to scale his offensive role better than most stars. Like Leonard, George’s defensive prowess has toned down with age, but he opens up additional possibilities on that end while also allowing the front office to prioritize offense a little more to maximize spacing around Embiid. It is concerning that George turns 34 before next summer and may have a short window at his current level of success, but he should age reasonably well through his mid-30s.
Embiid’s fellow Cameroonian and a two-time All-NBA selection. Siakam’s defense would be huge for the 76ers since he can impact the game by forcing turnovers, guarding on-ball and cleaning up as a help defender. It is no coincidence that the Raptors have had an above-average defense while Siakam has been on the floor every season since his rookie year despite some nasty opponent shooting luck in some of those seasons. The offensive side is more of a concern, as Siakam’s jump shot is not at the level of someone like George; however, it is important to note that Siakam has been solid on catch-and-shoot opportunities for years, but his overall stats get dragged down by pull-up attempts, something he presumably would do less on the 76ers. Another plus for Siakam is that he is far younger than the previous three candidates, turning 30 shortly before the 2024 offseason. Additionally, Siakam could only sign for the 30 percent max with the 76ers, so both the logistics of getting him and the remaining spending power would be stronger.
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For some (including me), the more tantalizing Raptor is actually Anunoby due to his age and skill fit. One of the league’s best one-on-one defenders, Anunoby can take on various assignments to make life easier on both the 76ers’ perimeter players and Embiid since he will have fewer messes to clean up. Like Siakam, there is an argument that Anunoby’s efficiency would improve dramatically on a roster that needs him to do less, though the role reduction would come from the same head coach that ramped it up for him as a Raptor in Nick Nurse. Still, Anunoby has made 39 percent of his 3s in three of the last four seasons (on a lower volume than George) and has been a consistently good finisher around the basket throughout his career. Anunoby will only be 26 when he starts his next contract and would only require the 30 percent max.
The last potential free-agent headliner is the former 76er Holiday, who could theoretically play a similar role to the one he has thrived in with the Bucks but potentially be amplified by more dynamic offensive teammates. Holiday turns 34 shortly before deciding on his player option but has established himself as one of the NBA’s best point-of-attack defenders, and his ability to guard wings as well would be fantastic from a team-building perspective even if he partially overlaps with De’Anthony Melton. Like Leonard and George, the 76ers front office has to negotiate against an existing contender rather than a player who may be looking for a new place to play, but they can absolutely get their foot in the door.
Outside of this group, it’s hard to see any other 2024 free agent as the sole standout unless someone has a breakout season. It is also important to note that while restricted free agents Jaden McDaniels and Devin Vassell make a lot of sense playing with Embiid and Maxey, it is notoriously hard to pry exciting young talent away from teams with match rights.
A non-max duo
The other free-agent strategy is adding multiple high-level contributors who are not going to command a full max salary.
DeMar DeRozan could function similarly to Leonard offensively but is a far more reluctant 3-point shooter and far more limited defender who will likely procure a big payday with the Bulls or elsewhere, possibly even his maximum. Klay Thompson’s movement shooting would be a phenomenal fit in Philadelphia even if he has turned into more of a wing defender than guard defender, but his contract expectations and level of play are huge questions that will have to be answered this season. Miles Bridges is a complicated case due to his off-court issues but will definitely hit the open market next summer since he is not eligible for an extension. An on-ball guard like Mike Conley, Spencer Dinwiddie or old friend Markelle Fultz could be a part of a free-agent duo to take some of the playmaking burden throughout the season, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been a key part of title teams with two different franchises in the last four seasons. Two sleepers to watch in this category are Caleb Martin, as the intriguing wing contributes on both ends of the floor and may get squeezed out of the Heat’s thorny salary structure like Max Strus and Gabe Vincent did this summer, and Gordon Hayward, who may take less money to fill a key role on a championship contender.
One challenge of this approach is that players of this caliber end up with significantly more variance in the contracts they get offered, and it would only take one or two suitors for a bid that takes a potential target out of the 76ers’ price range, which seems likely for at least DeRozan and Thompson but potentially others too. It is a fairly narrow pool of talent that may be signable in tandem while also moving the needle dramatically, so it can be a risky approach unless the front office sees more viable options than I do.
One other note: The new CBA significantly strengthened the room exception that teams can use separately from their cap space. At the current projection, the room exception will start at $8.1 million for 2024-25, which may not be enough for a full-time starter or closer unless someone is willing to take a pay cut but definitely viable to bring in a valued rotation player. Considering the depth the 76ers would have to part with to sign either one max player or two splitting roughly a max slot, the room exception would be a big deal.
Trading for a star (or as close as they can get)
The other major path for the 76ers to explore is using their spending power to acquire a player already under contract. This opens up the acquisition universe far beyond just the players who happen to be free agents next summer but complicates matters by adding in another entity they have to negotiate with who has their own expectations and evaluations.
In some ways, the dream in this section is a star-caliber player who is ready to leave his current situation, with a current team that would prefer a full reset rather than reloading with established talent since cap space would save the trade partner a ton of money and financial obligations. The problem is that a vast majority of the players worth prioritizing here will either not be on the market at all or would cost real assets to acquire, which presents a few different challenges for the 76ers.
First, the franchise is fairly asset-poor at the moment, owing first-round picks in 2025 to the Thunder and 2027 to the Nets, both of which have light protection and thus could convey in later years. That means the 76ers could realistically only offer three first-round picks (2024 after the player is selected, 2029 and 2031, which will be conveyable next summer) and only one first before next summer due to the Stepien rule. The second issue is that the franchise needs those picks to shore up its talent base and ideally produce some cost-controlled production while Embiid, Maxey and the new acquisition are all on big contracts. In the current CBA, this may actually matter more from a talent perspective than a financial management one as the league’s most expensive teams have very few ways to improve now that they do not get access to the taxpayer midlevel exception each year they are over the second apron.
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Still, this could be the best approach in terms of overall talent depending on what they can bring in via free agency. I do not expect the best of the best to be on the trade block next summer, and the 76ers likely only have the strongest offer if the trade target in question narrows the field by insisting on a smaller group of destinations. But it has become inevitable that someone talented will shake loose every summer in the modern NBA.
There are a couple of other key considerations for the trade route. First, it gets challenging if the 76ers wait until July to make a deal if the trade target in question makes more money than their available cap space. For example, going after Jaylen Brown if this season goes poorly for the Celtics would be complicated because he will make $52 million, more than the 76ers project to open up. That said, the current CBA’s rules on matching salaries in trades are very flexible, but the 76ers are setting up basically a blank cupboard to potentially wield cap space. Accumulating enough salary to make a trade work likely requires massive sign-and-trades, which necessitates the players in question negotiating those terms and agreeing to them plus the trade partner being on board. The payday is likely enough to make it worthwhile for the players, but the overall negotiations would get thorny.
The other way to execute this path is to make a trade before the 2024 offseason, either now or closer to the trade deadline in February. That carries the additional benefit of having the player in question for the 2024 playoffs and resolves the matching-salary problem considering Tobias Harris and Harden make enough to facilitate a deal for a high-priced player. Inevitably, part of the challenge will be that the 76ers front office will set an incredibly high bar for such an acquisition because it fully replaces the cap space route. If they think Leonard, Siakam, Anunoby or someone else will say yes in July, why settle for lesser talent ahead of time? Waiting until July 2024 is an incredibly risky choice, but front offices often get very excited about the possibilities that cap space can open up, even if there is no guarantee of success.
Is this worth it?
The fundamental question at the heart of this whole discussion is whether aggressively prioritizing 2024 cap space is the right move for the franchise. After all, there are consequences for the current season — remember, the 76ers have said goodbye to a number of their own free agents this season likely in part because of this plan, not to mention the possibility that it changed their dynamic with Harden.
Still, it is totally fair to argue that even though cap space has become less valuable than it was a decade ago when a higher proportion of stars become free agents, it is still the 76ers’ best path to creating the strongest possible foundation alongside Embiid and presumably Maxey, particularly as one of the strongest foundations to also potentially have max cap space in recent years. Trading for elite talent is notoriously difficult, and the potential 2024 free-agent class includes some fascinating players who make sense with their current core even if no one is perfect. Additionally, the cap space path(s) allow the franchise to keep their remaining draft assets either to use themselves or eventually trade for additional upgrades, ideally producing a stronger overall roster for the remainder of Embiid’s prime.
My answer to the question posed above is, “Yes, if…” and the “if” is all about Embiid. There are plenty of examples in Philadelphia and elsewhere of the reality that, once a relationship with a star is fractured, it is extremely uncommon for it to become whole again. The 2024 cap-space plan does not require truly punting on the 2023-24 season but sacrifices the 76ers’ overall talent level in the short term to further a longer-term goal, and that may be hard to take for the reigning MVP who turns 30 shortly before the playoffs.
The other challenge is that, even if Embiid understands or embraces this concept, the front office still has to actually succeed both in terms of adding talent and that talent working out since it will basically be their one bite at the apple. It is risky, but there is plenty of risk maintaining the status quo too, if that is even possible at this stage.
The biggest reason why I support the approach (without knowing Embiid’s mindset, which obviously is important) is the difficulty of trading for that third foundational piece considering the 76ers’ comparative lack of assets. Most players good enough to fit the bill never hit the trade market to begin with, and most of the ones who do yield a strong return. If you could guarantee someone with top-10 or even top-20 upside would be available in a trade between now and February and somehow would not require a ton of assets to acquire, I would be on board, but that does not appear to be on the horizon.
As such, it looks like the league’s most compelling roll of the dice will be in Philadelphia, and the result will change the league landscape no matter what ends up happening.
(Photo of Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid: Kyle Ross / USA Today)