For a team on the brink of Finals contention with ample cap space to add another star, there’s been precious little leaked out of the new-look Philadelphia front office. Head-coach-turned-head-of-basketball-operations Brett Brown has kept a tight ship thus far in his interim tenure, with nary a word about free agent targets nor potential news about a Kawhi Leonard trade offer exiting the building. The 76ers are chock full of young talent and are ready to take the next step to competing for the Eastern Conference crown, but what they do (or don’t do) this summer could make or break their franchise’s success in the next half-decade.
With a ton of financial flexibility but precious few open roster spots, a consolidating trade for Leonard makes sense, depending on which of their young players would be shipped out as a result. Names like Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, and Robert Covington have been speculated to be involved in a possible deal, but to this point there hasn’t been a reported offer made to San Antonio for the disgruntled star. Add in the dwindling chances the 76ers have at signing LeBron James or Paul George, and it certainly feels as though the team will have to go in a very different direction from what analysts had expected of them a month ago.
Philadelphia opens the summer with $24.5 million in usable space, but no regular season roster spots available to them. With 13 holdovers from 2017-18 and second-round picks Shake Milton (2018) and Jonah Bolden (2017) expected to join the roster, the only flexibility they have is in non-guaranteed contracts for Richaun Holmes and T.J. McConnell. Both guys played significant roles for them last season and would be good waiver claims for almost any team if they were to be cut, but if the 76ers are to try to take a step forward this season, one or both might end up falling off the roster. They could always push back Bolden to 2019, but all indications are that he’ll be coming over this summer. And that doesn’t even address 2017 first-round pick Anzejs Pasecniks, the 7’2 Latvian center who spent last year with Gran Canaria in Spain’s Liga ACB—he may also want to compete for a spot on the 2018-19 roster.
If they can open up a roster spot, either through Bolden staying overseas for another year, cutting Holmes or McConnell, or finding a trade partner to take on Jerryd Bayless’s $8.6 million salary, then a similar path as their 2017 offseason emerges. With ample space last year, the 76ers signed J.J Redick and Amir Johnson to lucrative one-year deals, filling their cap space for 2017-18 while not hampering themselves going forward. If they do strike out on a Leonard deal and are unable to bring in James or George, look for Philadelphia to do much of the same this year, perhaps with Redick filling the same role as least year. A few other veterans who could provide leadership to a young team on the wing: Will Barton, Trevor Ariza, Avery Bradley, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Bradley in particular would be an interesting fit in Philadelphia, as he can defend point guards at a high level without needing the ball in his hands on the other end of the floor. Whichever direction they go with their space this summer, overpaying for a one-year signing will give them the ability to roll their money into 2019, when names like Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, and the aforementioned Leoanrd will all likely be free agents. While there will be more money around the league next year, it’s hard to imagine a team with cap space looking more attractive to prospective free agents than Philadelphia. Of course, that’s what we’ve been saying for this offseason and it doesn’t seem as though they’re going to get much of a look from James or George.
Another route for Philadelphia’s cap space this summer that mimics last year: they can use some of their remaining space to renegotiate-and-extend Holmes or McConnell, as they did with Robert Covington in November. Neither Holmes nor McConnell has shown enough to warrant the kind of payday Covington got, but if the 76ers are happy with both guys and want them to stick around long-term, they may open negotiations to gauge each player’s interest in a low-level extension after a 2018-19 pay raise. While not the no-brainer renegotiation-and-extension that Covington was, there’s a wide middle ground between the minimum contracts each guy earns this year and the full maximum they’re allowed to give this summer. Something that averages around $4-5 million for each player over the next five years but puts most of that money in Year One would give them the same sort of future financial flexibility that Covington’s contract provides, though obviously on a much smaller scale. At those numbers, each would be easily tradeable down the line if the team was unhappy with their fit in the team or simply needed a spot for a big-name free agent next summer.
Patience is the name of the game for the 76ers, who would do well not to go wild this summer without a commitment from James or George. The blueprint from last year is still there, even if the man who executed it is no longer employed with the organization: sign high-level role players to one-year contracts to compete as well as possible in 2018-19, then get back on the market in 2019 to make a huge splash. Already thought to be one of the East’s next great teams, Philadelphia will have a chance over the next 13 months to cement their place among the elite franchises in the NBA, but that all starts with not overextending themselves financially this summer.