For months, the James Harden saga loomed like a black cloud over the Philadelphia 76ers’ organization. Those days are now in the rearview mirror. The team agreed to trade Harden to the Los Angeles Clippers early Tuesday morning for a package including four players, four draft picks and a pick swap.
The trade was a masterstroke by Sixers’ president of basketball operations Daryl Morey. He spoke during the offseason about wanting to remain competitive this season while also maintaining as much future flexibility as possible. After the Harden trade, it appears he successfully threaded the needle of continuing to compete this season while also opening up flexibility for future moves.
The Sixers might have less talent on paper than they did before trading Harden away. After all, the team finished third in the league in offensive rating (117) with Harden at the helm last season. However, Harden made it clear he had no desire to suit up again in a Sixers uniform. Despite that, the Sixers were able to flip Harden for a package that should help the team continue to compete. The team’s wing depth is much improved with the additions of Robert Covington, Nic Batum and Marcus Morris. All three players, despite being in the latter stages of their careers, are still capable of being useful role players. The Sixers also acquired KJ Martin, a young, explosive player with a lot of room to grow.
The inclusion of P.J. Tucker in the Harden trade leaves an opening in the Sixers’ starting lineup. After practice on Wednesday, head coach Nick Nurse told reporters Kelly Oubre Jr. would temporarily step into the starting five. Oubre, who the team signed late in the offseason, is having a strong start to the season. The 27-year old is averaging 19 points and 4 rebounds per game while shooting 50% from the field. However, Nurse said the team prefers to utilize Oubre’s scoring abilities off the bench. Whomever replaces Tucker in the starting lineup will be re-evaluated in the days and weeks to come. Other options include Covington and Batum, both of whom would be solid fits with the rest of the starting lineup.
The Sixers are off to a 2-1 start to this season due in large part to the play of Tyrese Maxey. He is averaging an impressive 30.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. His efficiency is off the charts. The 22-year-old guard is shooting 50% from the field and 56% from 3-point range on 8.3 attempts per game. He was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the opening week of the season.
This season is a big one for Maxey, who is stepping into the lead point guard duties for the Sixers. Through the first three games, he is flourishing in his increased role. After the Harden trade, the Sixers are formally handing the keys to the car over to Maxey. The team’s success this season will be defined by the play of Maxey along with reigning MVP Joel Embiid. Having the increased depth from the Harden trade is beneficial. However, the Sixers’ chances at competing with both the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks lie in the hands of the Embiid-Maxey duo.
While the Sixers are still in a position to compete this season, they now also have the flexibility to significantly improve the roster either via trade or through free agency next offseason. The Sixers have three first-round picks available for trade. They also have as much as $55.6 million in available salary cap space next offseason.
“Look, we’re really excited for what this trade brings as far as our ability to keep improving the team going forward, both in the draft capital we got that we thought was extremely important for our ability to keep improving and being a championship-caliber team,” Morey said on Wednesday afternoon in his first appearance in front of the media since the trade, according to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Noah Levick.
The Sixers are a real threat to either trade for or sign another star player to pair with Embiid and Maxey. They reportedly were among the teams heavily pursuing Jrue Holiday before he was ultimately traded to the Celtics. The Sixers did not have enough valuable assets to put up via trade, something that is no longer the case.
“We set a bar in June really when James [Harden] requested the trade and said, ‘Look, if we can get it to here, that generally allows you to go out and get a player,” Morey said. “Having a player like Jrue go for a similar package was encouraging. So we set that bar and it came together where the Clippers met that price.”
According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, “teams around the league believe the Sixers will be active the remainder of the season to see if they can go get another star-caliber player.” Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated reported Zach LaVine and OG Anunoby have emerged as “names to watch.”
If the Sixers do not trade for a star player during the season, they will still have the salary cap space to go after a premier free agent. At the top of next offseason’s projected free agent class are Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Klay Thompson, Clippers’ stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George or Raptors’ forwards Pascal Siakam and Anunoby.
Regardless of what the Sixers do, they undoubtedly have the resources and flexibility to significantly improve their roster. The Sixers are one of the lone competitive teams that are also positioned to add another star player. The Harden trade gave the Sixers many potential opportunities to extend their championship window further into the future.