To understand any trade, including the big one executed early Wednesday by the Sixers with Tobias Harris as the centerpiece, you have to look at it from both sides. The Los Angeles Clippers hadn’t simply tired of Harris, or decided to make him a gift to put the 76ers over the top this season. That might be the outcome, but neither front office boss Lawrence Frank nor coach Doc Rivers had charity in mind when the deal was struck.
It’s ironic in a way that a move that could — please hold tightly onto that word — finally propel the Sixers into position to compete for a championship arrived because another team decided it was time to tank. That’s exactly where the Clippers are this season, however, right where the Sixers used to be.
If the season ended today, with the Clippers as the eighth seed in the Western Conference, two things would happen as a result: The Clips would enjoy a lovely opening-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors, and they would forfeit their first-round draft pick to the Boston Celtics. The pick is lottery-protected, however, so if the Clippers slip beneath the waves in the conference playoff race — overtaken by Sacramento or the LeBron-is-back Lakers — they get to keep the pick.
The Clippers are amassing assets and cap room for a big push in the offseason. Getting dusted by the Warriors and having to confront the reality of re-signing Harris, who is a sort-of-max-but-not-necessarily-max kind of guy, wouldn’t have helped that plan at all. Maybe they will make a play for Anthony Davis. Maybe Kawhi Leonard. Maybe Kevin Durant. In any case, the Clips are loaded with draft picks and available money and zero max contracts on their roster. They got exactly what they wanted out of Wednesday morning.
As for the Sixers, the future is a bit murkier, although the presence of a true stretch power forward, which describes the 26-year-old Harris, could help clear the air for the rest of this season. General manager Elton Brand still has more to do, as everyone knows.
The Sixers need help on the perimeter, and could particularly use a rangy, switchable defender. If he could make a jump shot, that would be a nice bonus. Brand got another trade chip on Wednesday, when he essentially bought a future second-round pick from Toronto, taking some of the Raptors' unwanted inventory in the process. Malachi Richardson, a 6-foot-6, lightly used shooting guard, arrived in the deal, but NBA observers don’t feel he is ready to contribute, and, having taken up the last available roster spot, his term with the Sixers could be brief indeed.
Although they added real talent in Harris, the trade left a thin team even thinner. If you consider that Harris and throw-in Mike Scott will take the power-forward minutes allotted to Wilson Chandler (when healthy) and Mike Muscala, then the body-for-body trade comes down to 7-foot-3 backup center Boban Marjanovic for guard Landry Shamet, who was a bit of a revelation as a rookie. In Jonah Bolden, the Sixers already have a player who is a serviceable 15-minute backup to Joel Embiid at the center position. Marjanovic represents a duplication, with no replacement for Shamet’s contribution.
So, depending on what Brand does by the trade deadline Thursday afternoon, or what he finds in the buyout bin of expensive discards, the Sixers will either be set for this season — as in a team capable of reaching the Finals — or they will continue to be an enticing doughnut with too big a hole.
Let’s assume they find someone. If you want it to be Wesley Matthews, that’s fine, but the Sixers won’t be the only shopper at that counter. Whomever they get, the rest of the season and the postseason will still be fascinating, possibly earth-shaking.
The future, however, is another matter. Harris will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, as will Jimmy Butler. With Embiid and Ben Simmons already on the roster, it doesn’t seem possible that all four will be around for the long haul. Harris, as said earlier, might not get every possible dollar, but he’s going to get a lot of them. Butler, as we know, will not sign anywhere unless it is for a max contract.
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The move makes you wonder whether the Sixers, having gotten a taste of Butler when he’s trying to be good, have already decided not to keep him when he hits free agency in the offseason. And, trust me, if that has occurred to others, it occurred to Butler about six seconds after he found out about the Harris trade.
If that’s the way it shakes out, the Butler trade was good only if the Sixers win the Eastern Conference this season. The same is true of the Harris trade, by the way. The two first-round picks that went to the Clippers are a hefty price for an expiring contract.
When the Sixers acquired the unprotected 2021 Miami first-rounder on draft day, coach Brett Brown said the team would use that asset for “star hunting,” which didn’t quite pan out last offseason. Instead, it became part of the trade for Harris, who was certainly a star with the Clippers, but he wasn’t playing next to Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons.
In a complete reversal of how they got here, the Sixers have actually imperiled the future to some extent in favor of the present. That’s an interesting change for a franchise that has played the long game for a number of years. Maybe, after all this time, the future really is now. Put it this way: It better be.