Mailbag: What Would A Joel Embiid Trade Even Look Like? 2024 Free Agent Targets + More
Answering your questions as we wait for the impending doom.
Adam Aaronson, whose legal name is Sixers Adam (@SixersAdam on Twitter), covers the Sixers for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez. He believes cantaloupe is the best food in existence, and is brought to you by the Official Realtor of The Process, Adam Ksebe.
While there are many fireworks to come as the Sixers attempt to resolve their James Harden problem, the many theatrics in the NBA world are relaxing for a little while. That gives us a chance to take a deep breath and reevaluate things. How about a mailbag?
@Schmidt87J: “Why wait until next season to get rid of Harden by letting him walk? Isn’t it more valuable to see if Maxey can be a point guard moving forward while keeping flexibility for next year by acquiring expirings?”
The only obvious answer to this question, in short, is this: the Sixers will be a worse team, and it will be noticeable. Even if you think Harden is overrated and declining while Maxey is underrated and improving, sheer quality of player is not the only factor here. Harden’s job in his time with the Sixers has been tremendously more difficult than Maxey’s during that same period, as he is responsible for everyone on the court producing in a way that Maxey just has not been.
The sample size we have of Tyrese Maxey being a “true” point guard is pretty small. The only time he has played that position full-time for a considerable period is the first 51 games he played in 2021-22 before Harden first took the floor as a Sixer.
Maxey was good, certainly, and his ability to step up and assume many of Ben Simmons’ responsibilities helped keep the Sixers afloat until they could complete the trade that sent Simmons, Seth Curry and Andre Drummond to Brooklyn for Harden and Paul Millsap (remember he was a Sixer?).
Maxey’s per-game stats during those 51 games were as follows: 35.6 minutes, 16.9 points, 4.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 1.2 turnovers, 3.6 three-point attempts and 3.4 free throw attempts. He shot 46.9 percent from the field, 39.0 percent from beyond the arc and 87.1 percent from the line, with the latter two numbers bringing his true shooting up to 56.7 percent (the league average in 2021-22 was 56.6%).
These numbers are not exceptional, but for a then-20-to-21 year-old second-year NBA guard, it’s a great place to start. Of course, Maxey has gotten considerably better in the year and a half or so that have passed since February of 2022. Most notably, he is a far more willing shooter from deep -- Maxey used to have great efficiency on disappointingly-low volume, now he is a full-blown sniper in every sense of the world.
While his increased shooting volume clearly makes him a much better scorer, what must come next is for him to use that improvement as a scorer to become a better creator for others. It simply has not been a major part of his role over the last year and a half, as Harden is going to command the playmaking duties on any team he plays for.
Maxey’s talent and work ethic are beyond reproach. But after finding the optimized version of himself as a shooting guard next to a reliable decision-maker like Harden, transitioning back to a full-time point guard is going to be an immense challenge. As Harden very possibly nears an exit from Philadelphia, whether or not Maxey can assume many of his responsibilities may become one of the single most crucial storylines within the Sixers organization.
@JDuker: “What would be the downside of just cutting Harrell? They have to pay him anyway, he won't play anyway, and he takes up a roster spot. Is there some reason they can't do this?”
Harrell returning to the Sixers on a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal was a bit of a shocker initially, but has become easier to understand. Harrell declined a player option for next season last month. In retrospect, the team likely asked him to do so with the promise of a fully-guaranteed deal at the veteran’s minimum to reduce his cap hit and, believe it or not, also generate more money for Harrell.
In a vacuum, there is very little downside to cutting Harrell before the season even starts. His cap hit would remain on their books, but with the Sixers’ current financial standing, one extra minimum salary on their cap sheet will have very little impact.
This is where the politics of sports come into play, though. If the Sixers and Harrell did work on the aforementioned opt-out-and-re-sign agreement, the Sixers made Harrell and his agency a promise. Backing out of it instantly would do them no favors as far as relationships across the league go. Agents talk, and one misled agent venting to another agent can cause problems.
This is not supposed to read like a Bryan Colangelo quote, but it is true to an extent that maintaining strong relationships with agents is important. Not doing so was one of former Sixers General Manager Sam Hinkie’s downfalls. Current Sixers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey is certainly not afraid to ruffle feathers, but teams must pick their spots with when to do so. Who the 15th man on the roster is from opening night until the trade deadline at the latest is probably just not important enough to the Sixers to feel it is worth doing.
@zteutsch: “Have you covered players who would be strong targets in the shop next off-season plan? Who is Joel Embiid close to who will also be available and a good on court fit?”
The Sixers have repeatedly made a point to acknowledge that, depending on how the Harden situation is resolved, they could have considerable cap space next summer -- enough to sign a star who can play alongside Embiid. But next summer’s free agency class is a light one on true stars, and the obvious fits in Philadelphia are hard to find.
New Sixers Head Coach Nick Nurse’s former pupil, Pascal Siakam, will be a free agent next summer, and is known to have a good relationship with Embiid. However, so far Siakam has only indicated that he wants to remain with the Toronto Raptors. And if he did leave Toronto, his fit in Philadelphia is far from perfect. He and Embiid like to operate in similar spaces on the floor.
It is hard to imagine Klay Thompson leaving the Golden State Warriors any time soon, and it is even harder to imagine a 34 year-old version of him being the second-best player on a notably good NBA team, let alone one supposedly contending for a championship.
There are some very intriguing young players who may hit restricted free agency -- Jaden McDaniels comes to mind first, but also players like Devin Vassell and Immanuel Quickley are intriguing -- but (A) there is no reason for their incumbent teams to let them walk, and (B) those players are also not good enough to be the second- or even third-best player on a title contender.
DeMar DeRozan is a tremendous player, but the fit concerns mentioned for Siakam only escalate with DeRozan, who would also be nearing his age 35 season at that point.
That’s when you get into a sea of role players who would be helpful pieces, but nothing resembling a second star. There are players like Buddy Hield, Spencer Dinwiddie and Josh Hart out there who can help a team win a few additional games but are nowhere near star status.
In short… I’m not sure a valid answer to that question exists.
@SixersRANK: “Given how much asks for / overvalues his own players + how much Embiid is actually worth + how many picks/players a team can offer -- is an Embiid trade structurally impossible?”
Of course, the Sixers are already doing everything they can to prevent Embiid from ever needing to request a trade, and they’ll never consider moving him without some sort of demand hanging over their heads. But even Morey has a price, and if things got so bad that a trade and ensuing rebuild was the only viable option, he would have to play with the cards he had been dealt.
It has become standard for superstars -- and sometimes even just stars -- to get dealt for gigantic collections of draft picks, pick swaps and young players. In just the last four years or so, we’ve seen Paul George, Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, DeJounte Murray and Kevin Durant all get moved for massive collections of assets.
As this archetype of trade becomes increasingly popular, it does take teams who have recently traded for a superstar out of the running to deal for another one. But it also creates sleeping giants: teams who traded the aforementioned players to kickstart a rebuild with an enormous head start thanks to ridiculous amounts of draft picks, who in the future can use those assets to get their new guy when the time is right.
Just think about the handful of trades mentioned earlier for a minute: every team who dealt at least one of those players is now back on the rise with loads of valuable draft picks and young players. Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Utah, San Antonio and Brooklyn have all put themselves in position to have a chance at acquiring the next superstar who wants out from their current situation.
I bring all of that up to say this: there is always going to be a market for true superstars. Embiid is not the 34 year-old declining malcontent that Harden is. He is the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player and back-to-back scoring champion. If he and/or the Sixers ever decide it is time to pull the plug, the offers will be as satisfactory as ones can be when you are trading a perennial MVP candidate.