What you need to know about the Sixers’ salary sheet as free agency approaches
The NBA free-agency doors open at 6 p.m., Eastern time, on June 30. If you've been following along, you might still be outraged that the Sixers didn't have a pick in Thursday's NBA draft. You might also be laughing that an inconsequential photo of their draft night war room white board leaked on the internet.
But, you also know that, without a pick in the 2023 draft, a significant portion of any offseason shape-shifting was going to take place during the free-agency period.
So, without further ado, here's everything you need to know about what the Sixers have on their salary book and what moves they can make given those financials.
It's important to note that the players the Sixers signed to two-way and exhibit 10 contracts on draft night do not factor into the cap or tax apron math.
The Harden contract
James Harden's 2023-24 salary is a player option. He will have until June 29 - the day before free agency opens - to officially inform the Sixers of his decision. The Sixers will treat him as a player under contract until he declines that option. As we reported here on Friday, the Sixers would view a new multi-year deal with Harden as a good outcome should he elect free agency.
Should Harden pick up that option, the Sixers would head into free agency below both aprons and the luxury tax line.
Unless Harden declines the option and re-signs for less (and every report indicates that he is not inclined to take another discount), the low-end extreme would be the $35.64 million figure. Under that salary figure, our calculations indicate that the Sixers would be $7,224,570 below the tax line, $14,224,570 below the first apron, and $24,724,570 below the second apron before signing anyone in free agency.
Good place to be if you're the billionaire owner of a basketball team, but ultimately not sustainable when you consider the moves the Sixers have to make just to field a roster that can make real noise in the playoffs.
Philadelphia would almost certainly be in the tax in the 2023-24 season just by re-signing the likes of Paul Reed, their best free agent not named James Harden, alone.
Let's say Harden opts out but remains in Philadelphia on a two-year deal for the maximum annual salary. Given his tenure in the NBA, he'd be eligible for a year one salary equal to 35 percent of the 2023-24 salary cap, or $47.6 million. Relative to the value of the player option, that's a raise of nearly $12 million.
Given that extreme - the absolute maximum Harden could make in 2023-24 - our calculations say that Philadelphia would be $4,735,430 over the tax line. The Sixers would be approximately just $2,264,570 below the first apron and $12,764,570 below the second apron.
So, regardless of whether Harden opts in or opts out and re-signs, the Sixers will operate as a tax team for the 2023-24 season.
But, the tax line is more or less a measure of just how willing ownership is to spend to try to win. The real team-building ramifications lie in those aforementioned aprons.
Now that we've established the two extremes for the Sixers keeping their most important (potential) free agent, let's explain what the aprons means.
The first apron versus the second apron
Teams that stay below the first tax apron will have access to the league-provisioned non-taxpayer mid-level exception, which is projected to be $12,403,000 for 2023-24. Teams that go over the first apron lose the right to use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception in free agency.
Teams over the first apron will only have access to the taxpayer mid-level exception, which is projected to be worth exactly $5 million for 2023-24, in free agency.
Should teams go beyond the second apron, they lose access to the taxpayer mid-level exception, too.
Therefore, it makes sense that teams that use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception are hard-capped at the first apron. They cannot go above that first threshold at any point in the league year. Teams that use the taxpayer mid-level exception are hard-capped at the second apron. The same rule applies.
Therefore, beyond the respective mid-level exceptions, the final avenues for Philadelphia to fill in its roster under the apron are re-signing their own free agents using Bird rights and signing other free agents using veteran minimum contracts. The Sixers are not permitted to use the bi-annual exception because they used that to sign Danuel House Jr. last summer.
Perhaps the biggest rule with implications for the Sixers in the summer of 2023 is the traded player salary-matching exception. Teams that go over either apron in free agency will be ineligible to take back more than 110 percent of the salary they send out in a trade.
Teams that go over either apron will be ineligible to sign a player waived during the regular season if that player's salary prior to being waived was larger than the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. Seeing as the Sixers figure to be fighting for one of the top seeds in the Eastern Conference in 2023-24, that rule could come into play for them when the buyout market takes form after the 2024 trade deadline.
Let's briefly go back to the traded player salary-matching exception.
The Tobias Harris situation
Harris, who is scheduled to make $39,270,150 in 2023-24, looms as ostensibly the biggest ticket for Philadelphia to make a big move this offseason. There's a lot of conflicting reporting regarding whether or not the Sixers are looking to move him. Let's pretend that Harris is the biggest roster shakeup the Sixers make after the disappointing end to the Celtics series. There are basically two separate considerations for Philadelphia.
First is finding a deal before the opening bell of free agency. Because teams can't sign free agents yet, there's no going over either apron. Therefore, teams can take back up to 125 percent of the salary they send out in a trade. So, with the pool of eligible trade targets a bit larger, the Sixers have incentive to find a Harris trade by Friday.
The second is finding a deal once free agency begins. More importantly, it's the order of operations and waiting out what happens with other forwards like Kyle Kuzma, Draymond Green, Khris Middleton, and Harrison Barnes.
As money starts flying around, there will be fewer and fewer teams that are below either apron. Therefore, the Sixers' pool of players to trade for will shrink to only those on teams who are eligible to take back up to 110 percent of the salary they send out.
It makes sense that the Sixers would take care of their own free-agent priorities before trading Harris if they cannot find a deal they like by Friday. That way, they'll know exactly how much they can take back in a trade.
Perhaps equally important, as the pool of forwards who might have bigger markets than Harris gets smaller and smaller, there will be a clearer picture of which teams are potential trade partners for Philadelphia. The Sixers will have more leverage, as teams in need of starter-level forwards will have struck out elsewhere.
So, if the Sixers truly are trying to move on from Harris, it follows that they'd try to get something done by Friday. If that doesn't happen, it would make sense for them to wait out the early free-agency rush of the first weekend and see what the landscape of the league looks like before they resume trade talks around the 30-year-old forward.
If they don't trade Harris and they do come to terms on a new contract with Harden, it's very likely that the Sixers will only be able to use the taxpayer mid-level exception, or less, to add to the roster.
In that case, they'd ostensibly be "running it back" with last season's roster. Tough sell for the fans, even with a new head coach at the helm.
Notes on the Sixers' own free agents
Jalen McDaniels (2022-23 salary: $1,930,681/non-taxpayer MLE): Sources say McDaniels is working on corner three-point shooting, his handle and creativity, and his body this offseason. One of his goals is to improve functional strength.
Georges Niang (2022-23 salary: $3,465,000/non-taxpayer MLE): Has made it clear that he's loved being in Philly, and was extremely complimentary of the Nick Nurse hire on an episode of The Hoop Collective podcast.
Paul Reed (2022-23 salary: $1,782,621/minimum): The Sixers were plus-6 in 157 minutes with Reed on the court in the 2023 playoffs. He's the first serviceable backup they've had for Joel Embiid in the playoffs since, well, ever. Reed is the archetype of player that newly minted head coach Nick Nurse has historically liked. And, according to Kyle Neubeck, he likes the area enough that he's made appearances at the Sixers' practice facility in a free-agent offseason.
Shake Milton (2022-23 salary: $1,997,718/cap space): He's the least likely of the team's four core free agents to return, according to Neubeck. Given that all signs point to the Sixers paying up for Harden and Tyrese Maxey, and they already have De'Anthony Melton under contract, I don't see why either side would have much interest in continuing together.