As it turns out, the Philadelphia Sixers’ postgame news conferences after their Game 6 loss to the Miami Heat were revealing. The roadmap to the bulk of their offseason was laid out moments after the season ended in disappointing fashion.
James Harden spoke about wanting to do “whatever it takes” to build a championship-level roster around him. While the final terms of Harden’s deal are not official and still of great interest, he certainly gave the team some breathing room in 2022-23 by opting out of his $47.4 million player option.
After Harden spoke, Joel Embiid offered an unprompted soliloquy about Miami Heat role-player PJ Tucker, who had just helped end Philly’s season.
“You look at someone like PJ Tucker, great player,” Embiid said. “But it’s not about him knocking down shots. It’s about what he does, whether he it’s on the defensive end or rebounding the ball. You look at him defensively, he plays with so much energy. He believes that he can get from Point A to Point B, and he believes that no one can beat him and he’s tough. Like, he’s just physical, and he’s tough.
“And they have a few of those guys, whether it’s Bam (Adebayo) and all those guys. And since I’ve been here, I’d be lying if I said that we had those type of guys. Nothing against what we have, it’s just the truth. We never had PJ Tucker, that’s what I’m trying to say. I think physicality, especially once you get to the playoffs or the later rounds, you need those guys that are tough.”
Add up Harden’s willingness to work with management to Embiid’s desire to add physicality, and you get a sum of everything that’s happened for the 76ers this week. First, Harden opted out of his $47.4 million player option for next season. With the extra maneuverability that move provided for president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and the front office, the Sixers will sign two players who fit the toughness and physicality bill: the aforementioned Tucker and Danuel House Jr., most recently of the Utah Jazz.
A source told The Athletic that the Sixers are finalizing deals with these players with the two salary-cap exceptions that Harden’s newly trimmed salary allowed them to use. They can now access the non-taxpayer mid-level exception for Tucker (three years, $33.2 million) and the bi-annual exception for House (two years, $8.5 million). Had Harden opted in, the Sixers’ total team salary would have exceeded the luxury tax and reduced them to a smaller midlevel exception salary that would not have been in Tucker’s price range.
The team also is signing Trevelin Queen to a two-year, partially guaranteed deal. These moves go along with the acquisition of shooting guard De’Anthony Melton in a draft-night trade with the Grizzlies involving Danny Green and the No. 23 picks.
Two years ago, the Sixers went into the offseason with a game plan to surround Embiid and Ben Simmons with shooters. Now with a core of Embiid, Harden and Tyrese Maxey, the goal is to beef up their wing depth with physicality and a defensive-minded approach that will work in the playoffs while maintaining enough catch-and-shoot options around the primary playmakers. Will this philosophy work, and did they make the right choices? That remains to be seen. But as the Sixers did last offseason in acquiring shooters Danny Green and Seth Curry, they have executed their offseason plan.
With Green injured, the Sixers had a major positional need on the wing. Matisse Thybulle and Tobias Harris were the only other players on the roster who could play there last season. But the need for wing play runs deeper than that. The Sixers are trying to win a title, and at some point in the playoffs, that means going through teams led by wing superstars. Those opponents could loom in the first, second or third round.
It could be Boston’s Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, the defending Eastern Conference champions. It could be Jimmy Butler, the leader of a Heat team that sent the Sixers packing last season. It could be Kevin Durant if he remains in the conference after requesting a trade from the Nets. Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t going anywhere, and he offers a challenge that requires a different type of strength and discipline. If the Sixers are fortunate enough to make it out of the Eastern Conference, their final test also will likely feature at least one of the big, playmaking, high-scoring wings that tend to shine in the postseason.
The Sixers were not equipped to deal with those players last season. Simmons was their best option, but he refused to play for them. He was traded for Harden, who is not a viable defensive option against athletic wings. There were times early in the season when the smaller Curry was the matchup on Brown by choice. Green was a valuable rotation cog but was a step too slow for the league’s elite wings. Harris did his best to embrace that 3-and-D role but was overmatched against his former teammate, Butler. Thybulle has a strong reputation but is better at defending smaller players.
The Sixers are not going to stop any of these opposing stars. But they needed to offer some level of resistance to allow their elite players to exert their offensive advantages. That is why they took swings on Tucker and House Jr. with their two salary-cap exceptions. Harris, Melton and Thybulle (if he’s still on the roster) will contribute, but those two players will be expected to guard the best opposing wings.
As Embiid mentioned at the top, these are playoff-focused moves. The Sixers learned the hard way that one-way players are vulnerable in the postseason. Georges Niang and Thybulle can contribute to winning regular-season games, and both add additional depth to the playing rotation. But teams win with two-way players in the playoffs, not those who can be exposed on defense (Niang) or offense (Thybulle) assets. Tucker and House Jr. are useful on both ends of the floor.
There will be plenty of jokes about how both new Sixers players spent most of their careers in Houston with Morey and Harden. They were key cogs on a team that switched on defense, bombed 3s on offense and relied heavily on Harden’s brilliance. Now, it will be on Sixers coach Doc Rivers to meld the new signings’ skill-sets around Embiid, Maxey and an older Harden.
Tucker and House Jr. are both 36 percent 3-point shooters for their careers, which is good enough to be honored by defenders. Since Tucker signed in Houston in 2017-18, he has thrice led the league in corner 3s attempted in a single season. He led the NBA in that category in three separate seasons. In his best season with Harden in 2018-19, House Jr. averaged 1.25 points per possession on catch-and-shoot attempts.
The Tucker signing in particular comes with some risk. If he performs as he did for Miami in the playoffs a season ago, it will prove to be a shrewd move. But the Sixers are giving a three-year contract to a player who will turn 37 during next season’s playoffs. There is no getting around the uncertainty of a multi-year commitment to a late-30s player, even if Tucker is not the type to be overly reliant on his athleticism.
Tucker also will help the Sixers shore up another weakness. Last season, the Sixers were the worst offensive rebounding team in the league. Tucker’s ability to crash from the corner will help.
Now the Sixers have to hammer out a contract with Harden, in addition to any other moves they make at the end of the roster. At the moment, the Sixers are about $36 million under the Apron, a hard cap set at $6 million above the luxury-tax line that they cannot exceed under any circumstances now that they’ve used the full mid-level and bi-annual exceptions to sign Tucker and House Jr. Unless any other roster moves are made (which is a possibility), Harden’s next contract must start at a figure below that number.
The Sixers offseason is a bet on many things: playoff experience, familiarity, physicality and Tucker fighting off Father Time for a few more seasons. But more than anything, it’s a bet that these defensive-minded, physical, catch-and-shoot wings are the right players to slot in between the team’s core.
If only we had listened a little closer to Embiid and Harden in May.
(Top photo of PJ Tucker and Danuel House: Erik Williams / USA Today)