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How the Sixers Can Have Their Cake and Eat It, Too

Philadelphia might not be the favorite to land either LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard, but the team has all the resources to acquire both and turn a once-in-a-lifetime pipe dream into a reality

LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and the Philadelphia 76ers Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“The whole notion of star hunting, star chasing, star development is at the forefront of everything we do,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said last Thursday, which echoed the goals detailed in former GM Sam Hinkie’s leaked resignation letter from 2016 that doubled as his manifesto. “The strategy we settled on was straightforward, even if arduous,” Hinkie wrote. “Specifically, we set out to maximize the odds of acquiring star players using all three available methods of acquiring players (draft, free agency, and trade).” Sixers draftees Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons just carried the team to 52 wins and nearly made the Eastern Conference finals. Now the franchise is positioned to take advantage of the two remaining avenues in its pursuit of LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard.

It wouldn’t be hard for the Sixers to create cap space to outright sign LeBron to his projected max salary of $35.35 million. They’d have $26.6 million in space if they renounce the rights to all their free agents, which means they’d be a Jerryd Bayless salary dump (and some change) away from having enough room. Bayless has only one year and $8.6 million left on his deal, and Philadelphia has more than enough assets to facilitate a trade. If LeBron were to opt in to his $35.6 million contract before the June 29 deadline for an opt-in-and-trade similar to last summer’s Rockets trade for Chris Paul, it would be just as simple to shed salary to absorb his money into cap space.

The same idea applies to Leonard, who is owed only $20.1 million this season. San Antonio is currently unwilling to trade Leonard within the Western Conference, per multiple reports, and, as I reported before, the Sixers are expected to chase a Leonard trade. They’re armed with the necessary young players and future draft picks to make a deal.

It sounds like a fantasy, but I’m more interested in what would happen if the Sixers were to decide to go after both LeBron and Kawhi. It seems silly, but is it any sillier than Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joining the Celtics in 2007, Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors in 2016, or any other major star movement from the past decade-plus? Anything is possible in the NBA, especially when a team has as much flexibility as the Sixers do. “Our salary cap position going forward is easily the NBA’s best,” Hinkie wrote in 2016. “The most room, the most flexibility, providing the widest available set of options in free agency or trade of any club. This stockpile can be used all at once or strategically over the ensuing years to acquire players that fit your team, improve in your development program, and help you move up the standings.”

Optionality had long been a buzzword in the Process era. Just a few years later, the Sixers are on the verge of making the ultimate decision. Team executives have long speculated about the possibility of Philadelphia pursuing LeBron and Kawhi this offseason. Though the Lakers are still considered the favorites for James, the Sixers loom as a threat. Whether or not James signs on, why not go all in with Leonard? Philadelphia’s bench would be depleted should it happen, but adding James and Leonard to Embiid and Simmons would create a Big Four with a blend of size, skill, and speed unlike anything the NBA has seen before. The Rockets and Celtics are built to defeat the Warriors, but a Sixers squad with LeBron and Kawhi would raise the bar.

Kawhi Not?

There is obvious risk in acquiring Leonard, namely his health and unrestricted free-agent status in 2019. He missed 18 games with quadriceps tendinitis near his left knee during the 2012-13 season, then his right quad hampered him for portions of the 2015-16 season before tendinopathy in his right quadriceps sidelined him for most of the 2017-18 season. Leonard rehabbed in New York away from the Spurs during the season, and he did so under the guidance of Dr. Jonathan Glashow, the chief medical officer of the Sixers.

The idea of going all in for a physically compromised Kawhi has received pushback from Sixers fans because of the expected heavy cost. But Glashow would know better than anyone whether Leonard’s recurring quadriceps issue will continue to be a problem. If Leonard’s health gets a green light, then the remaining hurdle would be whether the Sixers can keep him beyond the 2017-18 season.

Leonard’s intention to play in Los Angeles has been made clear through numerous channels; ESPN reported last week that Kawhi will likely dissuade any trade outside of his preferred destination by notifying teams that he intends to sign in Los Angeles as a free agent next summer. (Wait. Doesn’t this report already serve as a notification?) If that’s true, there’s nothing teams can do about it. But it’s still worth trying to sign him. Leonard has a relationship with Brown from their two seasons together in San Antonio when Brown was a Spurs assistant coach; his decision to seek a second opinion shows health is a priority, so it’d conceivably help matters that his chosen physician is associated with the Sixers. Perhaps Leonard could be swayed: In Philly, he would reap the benefits of being a winning star in a big market and avoid all the pressure of being the man, since his costars would absorb media attention like solar panels. Leonard will be only 27 next season, and the chance to acquire a star in his prime comes around maybe once a decade.

It wouldn’t make a difference for the Sixers which of the two superstars they try to acquire first. The order of operations with trades can be interchangeable, albeit with different degrees of difficulty to pull off. Every cent of salary cap space will help, but league executives and agents expect the cap to be only slightly higher than—if not exactly—what it’s been projected as: $101 million. Here are two ways the Sixers can have an offseason for the ages:

Order of Operations: Trading for Kawhi First

If the Sixers receive word that James intends to sign with the team, it’d be easier for them to trade for Leonard and then sign LeBron, since they could kill two birds with one stone by freeing cap space in the Leonard trade. Philadelphia would need $35.35 million in room after the trade and for Kawhi to waive his 15 percent trade kicker, which would add $3 million to his 2018-19 salary. (If getting out of San Antonio is Leonard’s first priority and a deal to Philly is to his liking, then he’d conceivably do what’s necessary to make the trade happen, much like Kyrie Irving did for the Celtics.) The Sixers would then need to do the following:

  • Renounce the rights to all their pending free agents, including J.J. Redick, Amir Johnson, Ersan Ilyasova, and Marco Belinelli.
  • Renounce an existing cap hold for Demetrius Jackson.
  • Once again stash (or trade) their 2017 first-round pick, center Anzejs Pasecniks.
  • In the deal for Leonard, include Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and Jerryd Bayless, then an additional $5.79 million in outgoing salary that could come in different forms.

It’s unclear who the Spurs would want. But Sixers draftee Zhaire Smith, a high-flying 18-year-old wing from Texas Tech, met with the Spurs prior to the draft, so he could be one player involved. There’s a hint of Leonard in Smith: He’s raw and athletic with lockdown defensive ability, yet also shows flashes of go-to-scoring upside if his jumper improves. If I were the Spurs, I wouldn’t accept a deal unless Smith were in it with the other asset the Sixers acquired in a draft-night trade with the Suns: Miami’s unprotected first-round pick in 2021. It’s tough to forecast so far ahead—the Heat could be contenders or bottom-feeders—but the 2021 draft is of particular importance. According to a league memo sent out this month, 2021 would be the first year that draft eligibility reform could be enacted, which would potentially abolish the one-and-done rule and allow high school players to enter the draft. The NBA may push back the change to 2022 or 2023, but the mere possibility of it happening in 2021 makes the pick a lottery ticket. It was a brilliant trade for the Sixers, since they not only got better long-term assets but gained about $1 million in cap savings. “That pick might be the key to all this,” Brown said in Philadelphia’s post-draft press conference. “That pick might be the thing that links a possible trade.”

With so much size at forward, Dario Saric would become redundant for the Sixers, though I’d still prefer to keep him. In fact, if I were the Spurs, I’d demand Saric in any trade. The young Croatian forward has untapped playmaking potential that could manifest itself under San Antonio’s equal-opportunity, multiple-ball-handler system.

If Leonard were unwilling to waive his 15 percent trade kicker, then Justin Anderson would also have to go in a deal. For our purposes, we’ll use Saric, Smith, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot as the additional players along with the unprotected first-round pick from Miami. Once that deal is done, then James could be signed to the max. The Sixers would then have $2.2 million in cap space left over and their exceptions available, including the midlevel (worth $4.4 million), and the minimum (worth between $831K and $2.37 million depending on a player’s years of service). They’d also have the option of signing their second-round draft-and-stash players from 2017, including forward Jonah Bolden, whom ex-Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo said is their only overseas player that might join the team this season if they’re able to negotiate a buyout with his current team, Maccabi.

Order of Operations: Acquiring LeBron First

If the Spurs wait until later in the summer to trade Leonard, the Sixers could acquire him after signing James first. In this case, they’d still need to create $35.35 million in cap room to sign LeBron, or the space to absorb his $35.6 million deal in the event of a opt-in-and-trade. There are many scenarios that could make this all work, but for our exercise, let’s go down the path of most resistance—one in which they’re able to retain Redick on a discount and then agree to a trade for LeBron.

They’d again need to renounce the rights to Johnson, Ilyasova, Belinelli, and Jackson, plus stash or trade Pasecniks. Then they’d need Redick to take a discounted contract extension. The lower his salary cap figure is, the easier it’d be to make a deal for LeBron. It’s unclear whether Redick would accept much of a discount; he’s one of the NBA’s best shooters and could conceivably receive healthy offers from other teams in contention. But as we’ve seen from LeBron rumors, location matters, especially when players are looking to build a home for their family. Redick openly said in an Uninterrupted video detailing his 2017 free agency—and it’s been mentioned in passing on his Ringer podcasts—that he and his wife desired to live in Brooklyn. Redick didn’t sign with the Nets, but the Sixers came calling, and Philadelphia is only 100 miles away. If I were the Sixers, I’d try to sell Redick on signing a one-year deal worth roughly $5 million, with a player option the following season (for security in the unfortunate event of injury). Then maybe during the 2019 offseason, a more expensive, longer-term deal could be signed. Either way, after earning $23 million last season, taking a discount to play close to home and compete for a contender wouldn’t be unreasonable. Keeping Redick should be a priority.

Philadelphia would then need to get rid of enough salary in a deal to acquire James. One combination that’d work is: Bayless, Anderson, Luwawu, Furkan Korkmaz, and Richaun Holmes. It would leave the Sixers with $280K in cap space after acquiring James, and they’d still have pieces to save for Leonard (Covington, Fultz, and Smith). The Cavaliers acquired two first-round picks and multiple second-rounders when they dealt James to the Heat in 2010, so conceivably they’d demand future picks. The Sixers could give up their 2019 and 2021 firsts, plus a host of future second-round picks from their assets chest to find an agreeable trade. It’d be preferable to outright sign LeBron without coughing up any draft picks, but courting the King is going to cost them anyway: They would need to shed salary no matter how they add James.

Maybe adding LeBron would be enough to call it a day. The Sixers would already be East favorites with one of the best top-seven rotations in the league, plus McConnell, the same exceptions detailed in the other scenario, the ability to bring over Bolden, and two talented first-rounders: Smith and Landry Shamet. (For what it’s worth, once Smith and Shamet are signed, they’ll be untradable for 30 days.) But if they did choose to pursue Leonard later in the summer or even during the season, they’d retain the flexibility to with Fultz, Covington, Saric, and Smith still on the roster. Fultz and Covington alone would be enough to trade for Leonard even with his 15 percent trade kicker, which would bump his deal to $23.1 million, though the Spurs would likely demand more (such as Smith and the Miami first).

Spurs of the Moment

Most executives have maintained that the Spurs could drag out the Leonard saga for as long as possible, even into training camp. Spurs general manager R.C. Buford underlined this point recently by stating that their priority is to fix the situation with Leonard. “We’re going to do what we can to build the best relationship we can with him, and we’ll explore all of our options,” Buford told reporters. “But the first one would be to do what we can to keep Kawhi as a part of our group.” The Spurs still hold something no other team can offer Leonard: a five-year, $219 million supermax extension. And if Gregg Popovich is able to get through to Leonard the same way he did last summer with LaMarcus Aldridge, then they’ll do all they can to make it work.

The risk is losing leverage. Should the Spurs go past the breaking point with Leonard, there might not be much left on the table: The Raptors were forced to deal a disgruntled Vince Carter in 2004 for an old Alonzo Mourning, two firsts, and two bench players. But sometimes, unforeseen circumstances during the season end up being a boon for teams with star crises: The Knicks got desperate in 2011, when they emptied all their assets in a trade with the Nuggets for Carmelo Anthony. Good and bad things come to those who wait. The Spurs are on thin ice and need to be wary of both possibilities.

San Antonio won 47 games in a season when Leonard played only nine. Adding a handful of Philadelphia’s young pieces to its core could conceivably boost them to more than 50 wins and give them the necessary assets for a brighter future. San Antonio is the perfect situation for Fultz: It’s a small market with fewer pressures than Philly for him to rehabilitate his confidence on the court, and the team has one of the best shot doctors on the planet: Chip Engelland. Fultz is working this summer with Drew Hanlen, so it’s possible his shot will be restored by the regular season, but having Engelland would be a huge bonus. Covington, Saric, Smith, or others would be a boost to the Spurs’ already productive rotation. Unless there’s a superior offer on the table (maybe Boston’s Jaylen Brown has caught their eye, or the Lakers will dangle Brandon Ingram), this deal structure seems like a good one for the Spurs.

After Thursday’s draft, Brown gave an example of going “mobile” to Los Angeles to “deal with a family, an agent, the player,” to pitch the program on July 1. It’s obvious who he’s talking about: LeBron. The King reportedly feels “elaborate presentations” are unnecessary, as his agents Rich Paul and Mark Termini will “handle the process.” Meetings with James may not be fancy, so the Sixers should emphasize how he’d fit well with Philadelphia’s rising stars.

Imagine Simmons screening for a James pick-and-roll, then rumbling down the lane while Embiid, Redick, and possibly Leonard space from 3. James’s presence would force Simmons to learn the intricacies of off-ball offense like shooting, cutting, and screening. James will someday retire, and Simmons could be ready to take the baton as the face of the NBA.

Imagine James being able to take a backseat for the first time in his career, handing the keys to Embiid and Simmons during the regular season to conserve his energy for the playoffs. He’d need all of it to win the NBA Finals. James would receive more open jumpers and cuts from Simmons than he has since his days in Miami.

Imagine Embiid posting up against defenses unable to double-team because of the plethora of talent on the floor. Embiid would have easier scoring chances and could get teams into foul trouble. They’d have über-athletes all cutting off the ball, and if teams did double, there’d be open shooters all over the court. James once played with Chris Bosh, but he’s never felt the benefits of playing with an interior force like Embiid.

Imagine James joining the league’s third-best defense, anchored by Embiid and surrounded by size and length and athleticism. Then imagine the Sixers also acquiring a two-time Defensive Player of the Year in Leonard. Should it all come to fruition, Leonard would hilariously be the “smallest” player of their Big Four, at 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and hands the size of a baseball catcher’s mitt.

“A bevy of young players. A deep and passionate coaching staff. An innovative management team. A beautiful new practice facility … in a city with wonderful basketball heritage,” Hinkie wrote in his manifesto, which should also be sold to James and Leonard. The Sixers are positioned to contend for years to come with their young core. If James and Leonard buy in to the Philadelphia dream, imagining a Sixers dynasty is easy.