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Chris Szagola/Associated Press
The Philadelphia 76ers have an NBA MVP candidate in Joel Embiid, a young, ascending talent in Tyrese Maxey and a slew of question marks around them.
As far as the elite-tiered teams go, this might be the one to watch during the 2022 offseason.
Between James Harden’s player option and a potential trade of Tobias Harris, this heavyweight hoops could look a lot different by the time training camp begins. To set the stage for those possible changes, let’s spotlight the team’s top three priorities in free agency.
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Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Back in February, the Sixers bet the farm on the Beard. Their deadline deal for Harden will look brilliant in hindsight if they punctuate this season with a title, but if not, history could remember the cost as substantial: Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and a pair of first-round picks.
And that says nothing of the financial cost for Harden himself.
He holds a $47.4 million player option for next season, per Spotrac, but he hasn’t picked it up (or declined it) yet. It’s hard to say if the Sixers (or Harden) should want him to. On one hand, it would eliminate the possibility of him walking out the door this summer. On the other, it would put a massive number on the books and potentially tie the organization’s hands as far as making any other impact upgrades.
Harden, now 32, just had one of his worst shooting seasons to date and posted his lowest scoring average (22.0) since serving as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s sixth man. There are reasons to wonder if he’ll ever even approach his MVP levels of the past. Still, though, the Sixers might feel pot-committed to him as Embiid’s co-star, so they could wind up paying Harden more than they would otherwise like.
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When the Sixers split with Simmons at the deadline, they lost one of the league’s most versatile stoppers.
They also made Matisse Thybulle their most valuable perimeter defender—by a mile. Surely, that status locks him into the organization’s long-term plans, right?
Well…the fact he is three years into his NBA career and still lacks a discernible offensive identity complicates things. No matter how much Philly might value his defense of him, the contributions only go so far if they are restricted to one end of the floor.
His limitations have led to a diminished role this postseason. After averaging 25.5 minutes during the regular season, he entered Tuesday at just 16.3 this playoffs—then proceeded to play only 11 (which the Sixers lost by 15 points) in a 35-point defeat.
All of this sets a complicated stage ahead of his extension-eligibility this summer. His defense of him can be as disruptive as any, but do the Sixers believe the 25-year-old can expand his offensive repertoire? Answer that question, and you’ll have a good idea of Philly’s interest in extending this relationship.
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Chris Szagola/Associated Press
The Sixers are designed to be top-heavy.
Embiid, Harris and Harden each collected more than $33 million this season, per Spotrac. Maxey seems on his way to one day commanding a similarly hefty salary. The wager from Philly’s front office seems to be that this quartet can outplay any other. There’s a chance the Sixers’ decision-makers could be proved right.
And yet, you have to think Philly hoped to squeeze more from its reserves than it has received so far this postseason. Entering Tuesday, Georges Niang paced Sixers second-teamers in the playoffs with 5.8 points per game. He went scoreless Tuesday night, misfiring on all six of his three-point attempts by him. Shake Milton, who previously handled mop-up duty earlier this series, led Philly’s bench with nine points, despite shooting just 2-of-8 from the field.
The Sixers need to uncover more reliable reserves. There is likely to be changes at the center spot, as DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap—who never saw the floor Tuesday—are both approaching unrestricted free agency. But will the front office stop there? Philly is desperate for more multi-dimensional players around its stars, and it falls on the decision-makers to somehow sniff those players out for cheap in free agency.