As it turns out, the Philadelphia Sixers’ press conferences following their Game 6 loss to the Miami Heat were revealing. The roadmap for most of their off-season was set shortly after the season’s disappointing finish.
James Harden spoke of “wanting to do anything” to build a Championship-level squad around him. While the final terms of Harden’s deal are unofficial and still of significant interest, he certainly gave the team some breathing room in 2022-23 by withdrawing from his $47.4 million player option.
After Harden spoke, Joel Embiid offered an unsolicited monologue about Miami Heat roleplayer PJ Tucker, who had just helped end Philly’s season.
“You’re looking at someone like PJ Tucker, a great player,” Embiid said. “But it’s not about him putting down shots. It’s about what he’s doing, whether that’s on defense or rebounding the ball. You look at him defensively, he plays with so much energy. He believes he can get from point A to point B and he believes that nobody can beat him and that he is strong. He’s just physical and he’s tough.
“And they have a bunch of these guys, be it Bam (Adebayo) and all these guys. And since I’ve been here, I’d be lying if I said we have guys like this. Nothing against what we have, it’s just the truth. We never had PJ Tucker, I’m trying to say that. I think physicality, especially when you get to the playoffs or the later rounds, you need the guys that are tough.
Add Harden’s willingness to work with management to Embiid’s desire to add physicality and you have a total of everything that happened for the 76ers this week. First, Harden gave up his $47.4 million player option for next season. With the added maneuverability afforded by basketball operations president Daryl Morey and the front office, the Sixers will sign two players who meet the toughness and physicality requirements: the aforementioned Tucker and Daniel House Jr., most recently at Utah Jazz.
A source tells the athlete that the Sixers would do business with those players, with the two salary cap exemptions that Harden’s newly trimmed salary allowed them. You can now access Tucker’s mid-level non-taxpayer exemption (three years, $33.2 million) and House’s semi-annual exemption (two years, $8.5 million). Had Harden chosen to do so, the Sixers’ overall team salary would have exceeded the luxury tax, reducing it to a smaller exceptional mid-level salary that would not have been in Tucker’s price range.
The team also signed Trevelin Queen to a two-year, partially guaranteed contract. Those moves come with the acquisition of shooting guard De’Anthony Melton in a draft-night trade with the Grizzlies involving Danny Green and the No. 23.
Two years ago, the Sixers went into the offseason with a game plan to surround Embiid and Ben Simmons in shooters. Now with a core of Embiid, Harden, and Tyrese Maxey, the goal is to bolster their wing depth with physicality and a defensively-focused approach that works in the playoffs while maintaining enough catch-and-shoot options around the primary playmakers. Will this philosophy work and did they make the right decisions? That remains to be seen. But as the Sixers took on shooters Danny Green and Seth Curry last offseason, they executed on their plan for the offseason.
With Green injured, the Sixers needed a lot of position on the wing. Matisse Thybulle and Tobias Harris were the only other players in the squad able to play there last season. But the need for wing play runs deeper. The Sixers are trying to win a title, and that means they have to face teams led by wing superstars at some point in the playoffs. These opponents could appear 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 packed the Sixers last season. It could be Kevin Durant if he stays in the conference after requesting a trade from the Nets. Giannis Antetokounmpo is going nowhere, offering a challenge that requires a different kind of strength and discipline. If the Sixers are lucky enough to make it out of the Eastern Conference, their final Test will also likely feature at least one of the big, playful, and scoring wings that tend to shine in the postseason.
The Sixers weren’t equipped to handle these players last season. Simmons was her best option but he refused to play for her. He was traded to Harden, who isn’t a viable defensive option against athletic wings. There were times early in the season when the smaller Curry by choice was the matchup against Brown. Green was a valuable rotational cog, but a step too slow for the league’s elite wings. Harris did his best to embrace this 3-and-D role, but was outclassed by his former teammate Butler. Thybulle has a good reputation but is better at defending smaller players.
The Sixers won’t stop any of these opposing stars. But they had to put up a degree of resistance to allow their elite players to leverage their offensive advantages. Because of this, they attacked Tucker and House Jr. with their two exemptions from the salary cap. Harris, Melton and Thybulle (if he’s still in the squad) will all contribute, but these two players will be expected to guard the opposition’s best flanks.
As Embiid mentioned above, these are playoff-oriented moves. The Sixers learned the hard way that one-way players are vulnerable in the postseason. Georges Niang and Thybulle can help win regular-season games, and both add extra depth to game rotation. But teams win in the playoffs with two-way players, not those who can expose themselves to liabilities defensively (Niang) or offensively (Thybulle). Tucker and House Jr. are useful at 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 wheels in a team that turned on defense, bombed 3ers on offense and relied heavily on Harden’s brilliance. Now it will be up to Sixers coach Doc Rivers to fuse the skills of the signings around Embiid, Maxey and an older Harden.
Tucker and House Jr. are both 36 percent career 3-point shooters, which is good enough to be honored by defenders. Since signing with Houston in 2017-18, Tucker has led the league in corner 3s three times in a single season. He led the NBA in this category in three different seasons. In his best season with Harden in 2018-19, House Jr. averaged 1.25 points per possession on catch-and-shoot attempts.
Tucker’s signing, in particular, comes with a degree of risk. If he plays like he did for Miami in the playoffs a season ago, it will prove to be a smart move. But the Sixers are giving a three-year deal to a player who turns 37 in next season’s playoffs. There’s no escaping the uncertainty of a multi-year commitment to a player in his late 30s, although Tucker isn’t the type to overly rely on his athleticism.
Tucker will also help the Sixers stamp out another weakness. Last season, the Sixers were the worst offensive rebounding team in the league. Tucker’s ability to dash out of the corner will help.
Now the Sixers must negotiate a contract with Harden in addition to any other moves they make at the bottom of the roster. Right now, the Sixers are about $36 million under the apron, a hard cap of $6 million above the luxury tax limit, which they can’t exceed under any circumstances after taking full advantage of the middle class and semi-annual exemptions by Tucker and House Jr. to sign. Unless other roster moves are made (which is a possibility), Harden’s next contract must start at a number below that number.
The Sixers’ offseason is a bet on many things: playoff experience, familiarity, physicality, and Tucker battling Father Time for a few more seasons. But more than anything, it’s a bet that these defensively oriented, catch-and-shoot, physical wings are the right players to slot in between the core of the team.
If only we had listened more closely to Embiid and Harden in May.
(Top photo by PJ Tucker and Danuel House: Erik Williams/USA Today)