With the Philadelphia 76ers sitting on top of the Eastern Conference standings with a 12-6 record (9-0 when they have their regular starting five available) it would be easy for the Sixers brass to rest on their laurels. Fortunately that hasn’t been the modus operandi for the Sixers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey who has a reputation of constantly searching for ways to improve his teams via trades or free agent signings throughout the season. Will Morey convince ownership to invest more assets (money and/or future draft capital) to maximise the chances of winning a championship this year? If so, what areas of improvement should he focus on?
The early success on the court has been driven largely by an MVP calibre performance by Joel Embiid (disturbingly the team is 0-4 in the games that Embiid hasn’t played) and the improved play of Tobias Harris. The personnel changes in the offseason have helped to improve the spacing but the team does still lack a dominant perimeter creator in the half court, and this weakness becomes even more evident when Embiid sits and the team cannot run the offense through the post.
Whilst being the backup center to Joel Embiid is not conducive to positive on/off numbers, Dwight Howard has been serviceable as a backup. He has been rebounding like a champion (particularly on the offensive end), but his team high turnover rate and foul rates are hurting the team. Spacing (and scoring) also becomes more difficult when Howard and Ben Simmons share the floor together. Howard definitely has a role to play on this team, but it would be useful if the Sixers had a stretch five option to play with Simmons, and ideally a better option at backup four.
The Sixers are a pretty solid defensive team, but could do with another big wing defender. Danny Green is a pretty savvy veteran defender but he and second year player Matisse Thybulle have often been physically overmatched trying to defend bigger players when they are better suited to cover guards. Ben Simmons will need some help in the playoffs trying to tackle Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and Kevin Durant.
The Sixers were heavily involved in the James Harden trade rumors, adding Harden would certainly have solved the perimeter creation issues, but trading away Ben Simmons (and a boat load of young players and draft picks) would have opened up other holes (wing defense, depth) that would need to be filled with very few resources available.
Once Harden was traded to the Nets, the rumors shifted to Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine. Both are outstanding perimeter scorers and would fit very well with Joel Embiid. The problem for the Sixers is that neither the Wizards or Bulls appear to be inclined to make their stars available in trade, and if they were, it would require a Harden level of trade package as every team in the league would be interested. Our own Tyler Strasser addressed these potential trades in his article on January 21
If we assume these mega deals aren’t available are their other moves the Sixers can make to meaningfully improve their roster prior to the March 25 deadline without mortgaging all of their future assets? The most obvious avenue is using the traded player exception (TPE) created in the Al Horford trade with Oklahoma City. This means the Sixers can take on a player (or players) that earn up to $8.219m without having to send out any players for matching salary. The players most often mentioned in twitter discussions are Sacramento Kings stretch four Nemanja Bjelica and Houston Rockets defensive specialist P.J. Tucker who are both in the final year of their contracts.
Bjelica, who famously reneged on an agreement to join the Sixers as a free agent in 2018, had a career season for the Kings last year. He is an elite shooting stretch four (shot above 40% from three over the last three seasons) but has fallen out of the rotation this year. He would be an upgrade over Mike Scott as a backup four as he has a little more offensive versatility (can attack a closeout and is a good pick and pop operator) but is similarly limited defensively and is not really a ring protector. Bjelica is on a $7.15m expiring contract and could likely be had for a second round draft pick or two at the deadline.
P.J. Tucker on the other hand, despite being 35 year old, is considered one of the leagues best and most versatile defensive players. Despite his lack of size (he is listed as a 6’5″ Power Forward) his long arms and strong 245 pound frame have allowed him to match up on big wings and even hold up pretty well in the post as a small ball center. He is one of the lowest usage offensive players in the league and he has been used almost exclusively as a spot-up corner three point shooter in Houston where he owns a .384 corner three point percentage for his career. Adding Tucker fills several needs for the Sixers, and for that reason he would be my number one priority to acquire with the TPE. Recent rumours suggested the Timberwolves were interested and the Rockets were asking for three second round picks to move Tucker.
Adding either Bjelica or Tucker would be marginal upgrades, but is it enough? To find that shot creator to get them to the next level, Sixers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey is going to need to be at his creative and persuasive best – both to negotiate a trade, and to convince the Sixers ownership group that dipping further into the luxury tax will be worth it.
One option that he is very familiar with is Eric Gordon, who is in the first of a four year (final year non-guaranteed) $76m extension which was ironically signed by Morey when he was the GM in Houston. Gordon’s name invariably appears on any list of ‘worst contracts in the league’ but this, coupled with Gordon’s extensive age (32) and injury history are the precise reasons that he may be available in trade. After trading Harden, Robert Covington and Russell Westbrook for draft picks, the Rockets appear to be in the process of stripping down and rebuilding. Getting off Gordon’s contract would give the Rockets the opportunity to open up enough cap space to sign a maximum free agent in the offseason. Trading Gordon’s negative value contract Rockets would essentially be a salary dump for the Rockets. It is unlikely that any team would be willing to take on Gordon’s contract without getting some form of draft pick compensation (likely at least one first round pick) from the Rockets.
On the court, Gordon is a great fit for the Sixers. He is a bomber, that gets up three point shots at a high rate (in excess of 10 attempts per 36 minutes in each of the last four seasons) and can also attack and finish at the rim and get to the free throw line. He is a very good scorer who is averaging 24ppg in his last four games and been given more of a ball-handling role since the departure of Harden. Per Synergy, 34.6% of his offensive possessions this season have been as the pick and roll ball handler where he is ranked in the 86th percentile as a pick and roll scorer. He is also 82nd percentile in Isolation situations, a skill that is lacking in Philadelphia . He can also be effective off the ball running off screens and converting on spot ups with his very deep range. To highlight his scoring ability, he dropped 50 points on the Jazz just 12 months ago.
Sixers twitter identity Marty Teller (@mwteller) has come up with a trade proposal that combines the acquisition of Tucker (with the TPE) and Gordon. It could be argued that the amount of draft compensation that the Sixers should receive to take on Gordon’s contract would outweight the draft picks required in exchange for Tucker, but we will let Morey and new Rockets GM Rafael Stone argue over the minor details.
WHY WOULD THE ROCKETS DO THIS TRADE – They are unlikely to want to re-sign a 36 year old P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon is on the wrong timeline to be on the next good Rockets team. By trading both Tucker and Gordon to the Sixers the Rockets reduce their salary by $11.5m this season (which would no doubt be pleasing for owner Tillman Fertita) and could potentially open max cap space in the summer (if Victor Oladipo leaves in free agency). They would also create a $16.8m Trade Player Exception which could be used to acquire another player by trade in the next 12 months.
WHY WOULD THE SIXERS DO THIS TRADE – On the court this is a home run trade for the Sixers They improve their team without giving up any future draft assets or promising young players. Neither Scott, Ferguson, Bradley or Poirier project to be in the Sixers playoff rotation and are all on expiring contracts. Gordon provides perimeter shot creation (either as a starter or instant offense off the bench) while Tucker addresses multiple other needs. The only downside for the Sixers in this trade is the amount of cash it would cost, and this is where Morey’s negotiation skills will come to the fore as he meets with Sixers ownership. This trade increases the current Sixers salary by $11.5m and would push the Sixers (on paper) luxury tax bill from $21m to a whopping $49m. Fortunately though, it will not likely be that dramatic as an adjustment in the CBA allows the amount of luxury tax to be reduced based on how much league revenues fall below the budgeted ‘pre-Covid’ amounts. For example, if the actual league revenue comes in at 25% below the budgeted levels, the Sixers tax bill would drop from $49m to around $31m. Still a huge amount in real people terms, but it could be the difference in the Sixers chase for a championship.
Another interesting point to remember, if this, or any other trade is completed prior to February 2 the acquired players will be eligible to be aggregated again in trade at the March 25 trade deadline.
If I am the Sixers GM- this is ‘The Move’ (Trademark Marty Teller) that I am trying to make. Let me know your thoughts.
Jason Timperley – Twitter @jason_timperley