Early post-Harden rumor links Sixers to Zach LaVine, OG Anunoby
As one quest for a trade comes to a close, another one begins.
As everyone was sipping their daily coffee and digesting the news that James Harden had finally been dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Sixers - with their new inventory of draft picks - were linked to two prominent players who may become available as the 2023-24 season progresses.
"Some of the early chatter on names to watch with Philadelphia: Zach LaVine and OG Anunoby. LaVine is the kind of scorer/ball handler the Sixers could use. Anunoby is the versatile defender Philly needs against Boston/MIL in the playoffs," Sports Illustrated writer Chris Mannix reported on X.
It's important to understand a disclaimer before delving into Sixers trade rumors between now and the February deadline: they're going to be linked to a bunch of trade candidates because they have new-found draft capital to incentivize teetering teams to part with their best players and they have a top five player in the middle of his prime.
When you have more open wounds from playoff failures than you have scars from surviving playoff battles, you're going to be under a lot of pressure to salvage the window you still have.
That's the situation the Sixers find themselves in, and that's why they're likely going to be linked to a handful of players until they make a trade involving the picks they acquired on Tuesday morning.
A league source confirmed what Mannix heard.
Philadelphia has been linked to LaVine for months, although it's unclear just how highly they regard the potent Bulls guard. Tuesday was the first time we'd heard Philadelphia explicitly linked to Anunoby.
Either player would be a critical acquisition for Philadelphia's hopes of contending in the short-term. However, neither is without his respective warts.
LaVine, who will turn 29 before the end of this season, is in the second year of a five-year, $215 million max deal with the worse-than-middling Chicago Bulls. As great a scorer as LaVine is, taking on that contract just as you're coming to the end of Tobias Harris' inflated deal might not be desirable for Philadelphia. His bloated deal is especially important to consider if LaVine wouldn't be one of the primary targets for Philadelphia's cap space plan in the summer of 2024 anyway.
The financials look quite different for Anunoby. He has a player option for just under $20 million in 2024-25. At just 26 years old, many would argue he has his best basketball ahead of him. As such, teams should be lined up to pay one of the game's best wings in the summer of 2024. Therefore, logic would say he'll decline that option with the Toronto Raptors and hit free agency as one of the top players available in an unimpressive market.
In trading for either of LaVine and Anunoby before this season's deadline, Philadelphia would assume possession of their Bird rights. With LaVine in the middle of his max deal and Anunoby ostensibly poised to enter the market this July, having Bird rights on the latter should impact the Sixers' calculus more right now. It could help them execute other moves in the summer of 2024 that perhaps would be more difficult to stage should they go for LaVine.
I think the basketball side of things favors Anunoby, as well.
A nasty shooting slump early this season aside, LaVine has established himself as an excellent shooter both off the catch and off the dribble. His combination of speed and vertical athleticism have long made him a terror for transition defenses to contain.
The problem applying directly to the Sixers is that his usage has historically been as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, and the volume is overwhelming. That creates a dilemma as you attempt to hand the keys to the offense to Tyrese Maxey. Further complicating the issue, LaVine has never shown much promise as a playmaker for others, averaging an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.5:1 for his career.
Perhaps LaVine would buy into playing more off the ball as a shooter and slasher in an ecosystem where the trade-off is a less ball-dominant role in exchange for a chance at being part of a legitimate contender for the first time in his career. But, that also means Philadelphia has to be damn sure Maxey is a point guard. I don't think there's nearly enough data with Maxey as the primary handler for the Sixers to make that determination yet.
If Maxey is not the point guard of the future, pairing him with another shooting guard in the backcourt marries the Sixers to a roster lacking the requisite playmaking from the most important playmaking position.
Complicating matters further, LaVine has long been a net negative on defense. Sure, he can luck into a play here and there with his athleticism. But, his instincts on that end of the floor have never materialized in a meaningful way. Maxey at least has time to blossom into a stable defensive player even if his size is always a disadvantage.
Still, the Harden-Maxey backcourt obviously had its warts on defense. The thing is, the defensive woes were palatable because of how dynamic of a playmaker Harden was and how flexible Maxey was as an off-ball threat.
That dynamic playmaking wouldn't exist in a Maxey-LaVine backcourt. Thus, it's difficult to see how the offense would make up for the defense.
Anunoby, on the other hand, has never been the off-the-dribble scoring threat that LaVine is. But, he's blossomed into a dangerous spot-up shooter. His calling card is the defensive side of the ball and offensive rebounding, where he's long ranked amongst the league's best wings in block percentage, steal percentage, and offensive rebounding percentage.
What makes Anunoby so alluring is his size. His 6-foot-8 frame coupled with athleticism leave him responsible for guarding the best offensive player on the opposing team on any given night - almost regardless of position. He would walk into Philadelphia as by far the best perimeter defender on the team.
Over the years, the Sixers have watched helplessly as the likes of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and other star perimeter players diced them up in playoff series. Cashing in their draft assets for Anunoby would give the Sixers a credible reason to believe they can shut down the best player on a playoff foe in the most important games of a series.
And, at his age, who knows, maybe there are more offensive skills to unlock.
That's where there might be a layer of complication, though.
In May of 2022, there was reporting that Anunoby was unhappy with his role in Toronto. Dissatisfaction with one's role is usually linked to offensive responsibilities. Perhaps that wouldn't be an issue in Philadelphia, where Maxey would be the only unquestioned ball-handler. That is especially true if Harris departs in the summer.
But, just because Anunoby might assume more ball-handling duties doesn't mean he'll be content with being third in the pecking order every night. It also doesn't mean that he'll be particularly good in whatever offensive role the Sixers offer as a means of accommodating him.
Ultimately, Maxey's fit next to whoever the Sixers acquire with their draft equity needs to be a central part of Philadelphia's calculus. He's earned a legitimate audition as the team's lead guard of the future.
Trading for LaVine to replenish the offensive power in the backcourt would pigeonhole Maxey into being a point guard, which might ultimately be more harmful than good for both him and Philadelphia. Trading for Anunoby to re-shape the wings would give the Sixers flexibility in determining where Maxey fits in the long run, a proposition that has no downside for either the player or the franchise.
Whichever path Philadelphia takes, the best thing they can do for themselves is be patient in finding the next trade. Take some time to discover what you really need, and accumulate data on Maxey as a lead ball-handler. It's too early for other teams to pull the plug on their seasons, anyway.
Whatever the Sixers do, I just request they don't do it between the hours of 1 a.m. and 7 a.m., Eastern time.
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