For the second time in the last several days, a team has bought in on an upcoming free agent and paid dearly for that privilege. After the Dallas Mavericks sent somewhere between 4 and 5.5 first-round picks worth of value to the New York Knicks for Kristaps Porzingis, the Philadelphia 76ers followed suit, nabbing Tobias Harris from the LA Clippers in a second blockbuster deal for the Sixers this season.
The terms of the deal, so that we have them:
The 76ers receive: Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, and Mike Scott.
The Clippers receive: Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, Philadelphia’s 2020 first-round pick (lottery-protected for three years, rolls into two second-round picks in 2023 and 2024), Miami’s 2021 first-round pick (unprotected), Detroit’s 2021 second-round pick (unprotected), and Detroit’s 2023 second-round pick (unprotected).
We can get this out of the way at the top – this is a MONSTER trade for LA. From an asset perspective, they essentially nabbed three firsts and two seconds in value (Shamet was just drafted in the first round in 2018 and joins their rookie guard corps) for Harris, with the remainder of the trade being comprised of expiring contracts. Harris has been a wonderful piece for the Clippers this year, but they were going nowhere fast, on the treadmill of mediocrity in 2018-19. Keeping him on the roster through the end of the season would have meant balancing his desire to get paid and their free agency ambitions – if they’re too slow on the draw for his contract, he could walk and leave them with nothing. Well, this deal is a whole lot better than nothing, and they didn’t even have to take on any bad money from Philadelphia to get it done.
The Clippers will suffer on the court this season. The playoff berth they currently hold (they’re one game up on Sacramento in the eighth seed in the Western Conference) will probably slip through their hands. Harris was a massive part of what they did offensively, though his on-off ratings weren’t nearly as good as one would expect for a fringe All-Star. Nobody they received in this deal will reasonably be able to replace Harris’s production, but that production and the surrounding talent in LA wasn’t getting the club into the top half of Western Conference playoff picture. What’s better, holding onto Harris and suffering a 4- or 5-game defeat in the first round of the playoffs or moving him for a fantastic package of future assets and slipping into the lottery? In opting for the latter, the Clippers’ front office made the right choice.
The failure to make the playoffs will be a blessing in disguise, as they owe their first-round pick to Boston if they were to compete in the postseason. Adding another early-teens lottery pick to their young core of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson, and Shamet, who of whom already look ready to contribute to playoff-caliber teams, will make them even more attractive to prospective free agents. They’re well-stocked for the future, as well – the non-lottery pick they convey to Boston in 2020 will be replaced by Philadelphia’s, plus they’ve picked up the Miami pick and two seconds from Detroit in the deal. The Miami pick is especially juicy, as the Heat are capped out to hell and back for the next several years and would upset the odds if they were to make the playoffs in 2020-21. There’s a better chance that pick is in the top 8 than it is in the bottom 16.
Trading Harris makes the Clippers’ 2019 free agency plans that much clearer. They’ll wake up on July 1 with a maximum of $57.3 million to spend, which in and of itself is a boatload of money in a star-studded free agency class, but it only gets better for LA from there. Should they find a buyer for Danilo Gallinari’s $22.6 million contract for next season, that would push them to north of $78 million in space, enough to do basically whatever they want this summer. Even keeping a low lottery pick would leave them with two max slots. They’re going to be active this summer in the simultaneous chases for all the big-name free agents, from Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson in Golden State to Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard, Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler, and Boston’s Kyrie Irving. It would be a sick twist of fate for the 76ers to help LA open up the space and flexibility they needed to sign Butler right out from under their noses, but it’s a distinct possibility.
Like the New York Knicks, the Clippers are all-in on 2019 free agency. Both teams can roll their money over to 2020, but that class of free agents has very few stars and likely will generate a ton of overpaid contracts. However, whether they get anybody or not, LA has made out like bandits in this deal – just getting Shamet, a pair of firsts, and a pair of seconds in a trade for a player they likely didn’t want to pay is a coup and a half.
From Philadelphia’s perspective, Harris a wonderfully gifted offensive player, capable of morphing himself into just about any role on that end of the floor. He’s a consistently great three-point shooter who’s only improved over the last two years in that area, he’s able to play both ends of the pick-and-roll and DHO game, and he can punish switches in isolation and in the post. In Philadelphia, he’ll be able to take a quaternary role in crunch time behind Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, and Joel Embiid (perhaps even quinary, given how often the 76ers run plays for J.J. Redick on those situations), but he’ll also give them a distinct floor offensively throughout games, as Brett Brown can use any number of lineup combinations to bring the best out of his five-man core. He’s not a high-level defender, but with three all-NBA-caliber defenders around him in Simmons, Butler, and Embiid, he doesn’t have to be otherworldly on that end to make a difference.
The 76ers we see on the floor in the next few days is likely not going to be the one that takes the court in April’s playoffs. They’ll be a prime buyout destination as they rebolster their depth. Scott and Marjanovic will help, though not as much and Chandler and Muscala did, but if those guys are reserved for deep bench roles behind better bench guys that they find on the buyout market, then the Sixers will be in a good spot. While the Clippers have mostly punted on the rest of the 2018-19 season in search of bigger ambitions, Philadelphia is putting a lot of their eggs into their short-term future. At this point, there’s no differentiating between Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Boston, and Toronto at the top of the Eastern Conference, and it’s going to be an all-out bloodbath in the series played between these four teams. Philadelphia’s five-man unit can compete with just about anybody in the league and if they can add a depth piece or two in the buyout market, they’ll be a formidable foe for any team.
Other than a buyout guy or two, the last looming piece on the 76ers is Markelle Fultz. Where his value lies remains anybody’s guess. Can Philadelphia flip him for two or three role players who can impact winning immediately? Can they flip him for future draft assets to replenish what they’ve just sent out? Can he play for them this season and provide some depth they’ll need behind the starting unit? We’ll find out, but how they and league assess his value is fascinating. There’s no player in the league who generates more confused conversation than Fultz.
How the 76ers pivot this summer will be an important part of grading winners and losers in this deal. Harris and Butler will be free agents this summer and unlike Porzingis in Dallas, they can walk out of Philadelphia without looking back, leaving them with no compensation other than a chasm of cap space. It’s not a particularly likely scenario – Philadelphia wouldn’t have traded for Harris if they didn’t have confidence they were going to bring him back – but the fact that it’s a possibility makes this a heavier risk for the Sixers. On the other hand, are they really going to max out Butler and Harris to make the latter the fourth-best player on their team? Doing so would put them into the tax for the foreseeable future, and at some point there has to be a diminishing return for a fourth max player on a team’s roster. A four-man core of Embiid, Butler, Simmons, and Harris could cost as much as $135.6 million in 2020-21 (if Simmons were to hit the Rose Rule designation); that’s four players earning 95 percent of the projected luxury tax threshold just two years from now. It would only get worse from there for Philadelphia with the raises in each contract.
Harris could also be insurance for Butler, who is as mercurial as they come in the NBA. Nobody’s quite sure whether Butler is fully committed to what Philadelphia is building, and if he decides that he’d rather move on, Harris can replace him as the third star around Embiid and Simmons. Going that route would also allow the 76ers to be active in free agency this year, to the tune of more than $30 million in cap space. That figure includes Harris’s $22.2 million cap hold, but they would have to carve out some of that space for Redick, should they also want to retain his services. It’s not a future they want to see, but moving for Harris now could indicate that Butler is more of a flight risk than previously assumed.
This is a fascinating move for both teams. Philadelphia is taking a risk that Harris will want to stick around come July and that they can build an immensely impressive core with Butler, Embiid, and Simmons, but also are able to pivot away from one or both of Butler and Harris should it come to that this summer. LA decided that Harris’s Bird rights weren’t as valuable as the certainty of double-max space, but they’ve also made out so well in the deal from an asset perspective that they don’t necessarily need to hit a pair of home runs in free agency to make this trade worth their while.