The Philadelphia 76ers have just about as much fluctuation in their roster going into the summer as any team in the league. Just like the Los Angeles Lakers, they have five players on the roster going into free agency, including first-round pick Matisse Thybulle, though they have a much clearer path to filling out their roster than the Lakers do, thanks to their incumbent free agents actually being players they want on their team and the massive cap space those guys will leave behind if they depart for other teams.
As second-round playoff losses go, Philadelphia’s wasn’t nearly as detrimental as it could have been. The other big teams that lost in the second round (Houston, Boston) either have rumors swirling around their team or are almost assuredly breaking up, but there’s been precious little negative news out of Philadelphia with respect to bringing back the same team that was one (of four) bounces away from a legitimate chance at the title. Given how up in the air the rest of the league is after Golden State’s injuries in the Finals, Boston’s impending implosion, and the general sense that a lot of the top free agents are going to stay where they played last season, the 76ers can very easily pitch to free agents, both their own and outsiders, that they’re firmly in the top tier of the league alongside Kawhi Leonard’s team (whether that’s Toronto or the Clippers) and Milwaukee (assuming they get their guys to return as well).
Whether that pitch will be enough for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris remains to be seen. The 76ers can pivot into significant cap space if one of those guys decides to move on and will be major players in free agency if both find new homes. After a slew of draft-day trades, Philadelphia sits with $59.8 million in space if both players leave, $38.5 million if just Harris stays, $30.0 million if just Butler stays, and none if both guys are in the fold, though they’d still have the ability to re-sign J.J. Redick and use their mid-level and bi-annual exceptions to add to the team.
Near-double max space is by no means a horrible outcome, though it’s probably not their preferred route. Normally, having massive cap space to add to a Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons core would be fantastic, but it’s difficult to see a situation in which a max guy (or two) chooses Philadelphia based on the available players and the available options those players will have. Leonard seems to have narrowed his list to Toronto and Los Angeles, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson are significantly injured, Kyrie Irving seems set on Brooklyn, and Khris Middleton will have the full max waiting for him from Milwaukee. In this scenario, two of the top-tier free agents have already denied them, with the rest mostly spoken for. The thing to do with all the money they have, rather than trying to sign the biggest names on the market, would be to add as much depth as possible and try to mimic how the Raptors won the 2019 title – one superstar in Embiid, a secondary star in Simmons, and at least six solid role players who can all play both ends and complement the teams’ stars. With $60 million to spend on the remaining guys, they would have the opportunity to add significantly to a roster that already has a top two intact.
The difference in space with Harris on the team versus Butler is down to their cap holds – since Harris made far less money last season, his $22.2 million cap hold would give the Sixers more cap space if he were to be the one to stick around, while Butler’s $30.7 million cap hold cuts out $8.5 million in spending power for the team. Given their performance in the 2018-19 playoffs and Butler’s overall higher level of play throughout his career, it’s relatively fitting that he costs more on their books going into the summer. Filling out the roster with either of these players signed up to stay in Philadelphia looks very similar to the path the club will take if both decide to leave; they just have less money to do so. With somewhere between $30.0 and $38.5 million in cap space to add depth around the team’s top three players, Philadelphia would still be a force to be reckoned with on the market, but they wouldn’t be able to afford as many high-end role players in this scenario.
Should both players sign up to stick with the 76ers in free agency, that will take up all of their available cap space but leave them with a top four to rival any team in the league. They could also retain Redick’s cap hold to bring him back at just about any reasonable number he could command, as well as free agents Mike Scott and James Ennis, though Ennis will likely need an exception larger than what Non-Bird can pay him this summer. They’d retain their full mid-level and bi-annual exceptions as well, which can be used to flesh out the depth they were sorely missing in their second-round series with the Raptors. The most important thing for them to monitor in this situation, on top of the players they actually sign using those exceptions, is the luxury tax threshold – Philadelphia will want to avoid the tax this year if at all possible, since they will undoubtedly be much, much more expensive in 2020-21 and beyond, when Simmons’ max contract kicks in. In that scenario, they’ll have $129.2 million spread across Butler, Harris, Embiid, and Simmons, less than $12 million from the projected $141 million luxury tax threshold. Knowing that they’ll go into the tax in 2020-21 and beyond would make it necessary to avoid the tax in 2019-20, so as to prevent an earlier repeater tax.
The list of free agent targets for the 76ers looks remarkably similar no matter what Butler and Harris decide. They’ll either have a ton of money to spread throughout the rest of their starting lineup and bench, or they’ll have a mid-tier amount of money to fill fewer spots, or they’ll only have their own free agents and the two over-the-cap exceptions to add significant talent. There are a lot of different names who make sense for what Philadelphia is building, whether they keep two, three, or all four of their top guys from last season. Redick, Scott, and Ennis will have the inside track to return to the team, as they performed well last year, but players like Danny Green, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rudy Gay, JaMychal Green, Jeremy Lamb, Marcus Morris, Patrick Beverley, Rodney Hood, Kelly Oubre, Seth Curry, Wayne Ellington, Malcolm Brogdon, Maxi Kleber, and Jeremy Lin would all significantly improve a Philadelphia rotation that struggled for depth last season. Some of these players would not be attainable if they’re bringing both Butler and Harris back into the team, but if both leave and they have $60+ million to spend in free agency, then a number of these players would make a ton of sense in the team.
The biggest moves of Philadelphia’s offseason are mostly out of their control – they’ll put the max offers on the table for Butler and Harris and will have to figure it out after those guys give them an indication of their decisions. They’ll have the Embiid-Simmons core intact either way, which will put them in a position to succeed next season whether it’s Butler, Harris, and Redick flanking them or multiple free agents they sign on the open market. From an evaluation perspective, it would be very interesting to see what Philadelphia did with their cap space if Butler and Harris were to move on, though we’ll learn a lot about their front office this summer no matter what, as they’ll at least be able to use the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions to add to the team; the players they target with whatever money they have available will tell us a lot about their priorities and how they view both their own personnel and the modern NBA as a whole.