Will the Sixers trade their first-round draft pick? In any scenario, they almost have to.
The hard part isn’t figuring out what the Sixers should do with the No. 23 pick in the draft. It’s figuring out whether they can actually do it.
Maybe you are the kind of person who likes doing mock drafts simply for the intellectual stimulation. If so, feel free to keep workshopping options for the Sixers at No. 23. Otherwise, let’s turn our attention to the dilemma Daryl Morey and his front office should actually be trying to solve between now and next Thursday.
Does anybody please have a playoff-caliber rotation player they would please like to trade us for our first-round pick?
Pretty please with Matisse Thybulle on top?
The hard part isn’t figuring out what the Sixers should do at No. 23. It’s figuring out whether they can actually do it. A recent report by The Ringer that the Sixers are exploring the possibility of packaging their first-round pick with Danny Green was mostly just stating the obvious. Considering the following premises, the conclusion is pretty close to self-evident:
The Sixers’ trade for James Harden was the last in a long series of attempts to build a championship core. At worst, they have an elite point guard in Harden and the best two-way big man in the game in Joel Embiid. They will not improve upon that identity. They need to build the best possible team around it.
With a Harden-Embiid core, the best year to win a championship will be next year, followed by the year after that, followed by the year after that, and so on. In short, the Sixers are looking at a three-year window, max. By the end of that window, Harden will be heading into his 36-year-old season. Embiid will be 30(!).
Even if you count Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris as constants, the Sixers are at least two players away from fielding a rotation that they can talk themselves into thinking is capable of advancing past the second round of the playoffs, assuming that Embiid and Harden are the same players they were last season.
In the previous premise, “at least” is a phrase that is doing a heck of a lot of work. They probably need three players, and there’s a good argument for four.
The bare minimum the Sixers need is two starting-caliber wings: one who can replace Green in the starting lineup, and one who can back up the first guy while giving Doc Rivers the ability to replace Harden or Maxey with a better defender or Harris with a player who better complements Harden and Maxey. They need a couple of guys who can knock down catch-and-shoot threes, battle for loose balls, and be the best on-ball defender on the court.
In addition to those two wings, they could really use a sixth-man-type guard who can handle the ball and score buckets alongside Maxey or Harden. And they need some sort of big man, ideally one who can back up both Embiid and Harris.
In short, the Sixers need players who can be the players they needed Thybulle, Shake Milton, and Paul Reed to be against the Heat. Plus Green’s replacement.
They are unlikely to find any of the aforementioned at No. 23 in next week’s draft.
Obviously, that last premise is the one on which the conclusion hinges. Finding an immediate contributor this late in the first round is not unheard of. Just last year, the Nuggets used the No. 26 pick on Bones Hyland, who was a spark plug scorer off the bench throughout the regular season and playoffs. In 2020, Payton Pritchard and Desmond Bane went to the Celtics and Nuggets at No. 26 and No. 30. The Sixers themselves got some first-year utility out of Landry Shamet at No. 26 in 2018.
That being said, the odds say that the Sixers are much more likely to be in a position to draft somebody like Jaden Springer, or Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, or Furkan Korkmaz. The Sixers are not in a position where they can afford for No. 23 to wind up as anything other than a viable rotation player. This is the only first-round pick they have the ability to trade until 2029. The Nets have 2023 and 2027. The Thunder have 2025. They can’t trade 2024, 2026 or 2028 because the NBA forbids teams from trading away their first-round pick in consecutive years.
In short, the No. 23 pick might be the Sixers’ most valuable trade asset, and it expires in a week. Between Green, Korkmaz, and Thybulle, they have the salaries it could take to add a couple of the pieces they need. Along with No. 23, they have a few assets that could be attractive to teams. In Jaden Springer, Isaiah Joe, Charles Bassey, and Reed, they have some lottery tickets to offer. Maybe two of the pieces they need are within that group. Otherwise, it will be a chore to turn it into a team that can contend.
With Harris’ contract on the books, there isn’t a realistic path for the Sixers to enter free agency with salary-cap room. The only way for them to sign players above the veteran minimum (about $2.5 million) would be to use their mid-level exception, which gives them the ability to offer a contract or contracts totaling three years and about $20 million. That might be enough to add a bench piece, but little else. For context, the Sixers signed Georges Niang last offseason for about $3.5 million per season using the mid-level exception.
Trading Harris is one scenario in which it could make some sense to use No. 23 on a player who has a chance to be an asset down the road. If they can exchange Harris’ salary for a couple of rotation pieces that leave them with a net benefit, that would go a long way. The problem is finding such a deal. More likely, they would be better off attaching the No. 23 pick to Harris’ contract for a team with cap room. Such a trade could leave the Sixers with a sizable chunk of cap room to spend on free agents, especially if it is coupled with a Harden contract extension that cuts next year’s cap number.
If Harris returns, the Sixers are mostly at the mercy of the trade market. The ideal world might look something like this:
Find a team that values Thybulle and package him and Korkmaz for a veteran making in the neighborhood of $12 million.
Guarantee Danny Green’s $10 million salary and package it with the No. 23 pick and Jaden Springer for a veteran with a salary around $15 million.
There are a variety of iterations on this framework, but it’s hard to see one that involves the No. 23 pick being on the Sixers’ roster at the start of the season.