Tomorrow night's game against Cleveland may seem like just another crappy, unwatchable Eastern Conference game for the Philadelphia 76ers, but it could actually be a somewhat historic game for Sixers basketball. That's because just two days later, this Thursday the 20th, is when the NBA hits the trade deadline--the last chance for GM Sam Hinkie to unload some veteran players for future assets before a couple of them slip out of team control this summer. So, for better or worse, Tuesday's contest might be the last time that the Sixers core as we know it takes the floor, before the realities of the NBA motivate the Sixers' front office to willfully tear it apart.
Just how active a trade deadline this will be remains a subject up for debate, and indeed, reports out of All-Star Weekend portend a largely underwhelming run up to this trade deadline, with selling teams demanding future draft picks for their veteran players that buying teams seem unwilling to part with. However, everyone seems to agree that the Sixers will be one of the most active teams this week, and if they make it to Thursday without agreeing to some kind of roster-shaking move, it won't be for lack of trying.
So what should we be expecting, hoping for and/or dreading as this Thursday's deadline approaches? Here's my take on the situation.
What the Sixers are actually hoping to accomplish at this trade deadline could be mutli-faceted, but obviously the main crux of it is that the team will likely look to stockpile as many long-term assets as possible that will help them grow the roster over the next two or three years as they look to get back to contention. Any hope of the team going the other direction, and fortifying the roster for a late-season playoff run, was always at least a little bit laughable, and has been permanently quashed by the eight-game losing streak the Ballers ended the pre-All-Star-Break season on. Even in the laughable East, it's time to start looking towards next season and beyond.
Now, the Sixers can use the trade deadline to help set themselves up for the future in numerous ways here. They could target draft picks--preferably first-rounders, though next year's draft is thought to be deep enough that even second-rounders could end up being decently valuable--with which they could groom their own selections into future parts of the team's core, as they did this year with Michael Carter-Williams and (hopefully, eventually) Nerlens Noel. They could also look to take on a high-upside young player that either hasn't blossomed or just hasn't fit in with his current roster, hoping the playing time and development attention he'd receive on the Sixers could help him reach his potential.
Additionally, they could just get rid of as many of their contributing players as possible for minimal return, just to put the team in a better position to lose games and thus finish higher in the lottery standings. I doubt the last point will end up having a ton to bear on the Sixers' decision-making, though--the team's already plenty bad without their help, and to shed players for the sake of doing so seems like an insult the team's remaining players might not easily forget.
Of course, as a 15-36 team already at least two steps into the rebuilding process, the Sixers aren't exactly overflowing with useful veteran players to sell off to the highest bidder. Most of the discussions center around three players: Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young. Evan and Spencer are both in the final year of their contracts and could thus be attractive to teams looking to make a short-term investment for a playoff and/or title run this season, while Thad has another two years (the second a player option) on his deal, making him more of a target for more patient teams looking to add another long-term piece to build around.
Of the three, Thad is unsurprisingly drawing the most interest, as the player who would seemingly fit the most seamlessly into just about any roster as an athletic, versatile energy guy who can shoot a little bit, rebound competently, defend multiple positions and not overstep his bounds. However, a couple teams in need of a secondary ball-handler or extra scorer have shown interest in Evan, while a skilled seven-footer like Spence will always draw interest from someone somewhere. All three are expected to be on the market, though Hinkie will likely require a much higher price for Young than for the other two, as Thad has the best chance of still being able to produce at a high level for the Sixers in a few years when the team is ready to be good again.
However, the Sixers' best trade asset of all might be their deluge of cap space. The Sixers currently have a payroll of under 48 million, which means they could take up to 11 million on in extra salary in a deal without going over the cap. That space could end up enticing a team who wants to rid themselves of extraneous salary to cut costs and maybe avoid going into the luxury tax, with said team possibly willing to part with a future pick or cheap young guy as a sweetener, as the Warriors did in sending deadweight Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson to the Jazz last summer, with a future first-round pick strapped to each in thanks.
None of these assets are so undeniable that the Sixers are guaranteed to pass the deadline with a third first-round pick in their arsenal, or to poach an exciting young player off a team getting impatient. But taken together, it's not a bad quiver of arrows, and you could easily see Hinkie packaging a couple of them--offering Spence and Evan in a combo deal, or offering cap relief to a team in addition to Thaddeus Young--in order to make a deal attractive enough to entice a buyer.
Since trade speculation started heating up--as early as November, really--a number of teams have been mentioned in conjunction with the Sixers as potential trade partners. These include, but are not necessarily limited to:
- Phoenix Suns. The Suns, who were expected pre-season to be the Sixers' Southwest Partners in Tanking, have instead emerged as surprise contenders in the Western Conference, and are looking to add another difference-making core player to fortify their roster for this postseason and postseasons to come. Thaddeus Young has often been mentioned as such a player, since Thad would likely fit seamlessly into the Suns' run-and-gun, floor-spreading style, and the Suns have an absolute embarrassment of both future draft picks (four first rounders in 2014 alone) and cheap young players with potential (Archie Goodwin, Alex Len, Miles Plumlee, the Morris twins) to send back in return.
- San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs were originally rumored to be interested in Evan Turner--much to my surprise, since it's hard to imagine a player much less Spurs-y than Evan--though now the rumors have been adapted to concern Thad, and actually, I think Spence would fit their system better than anyone as a big man who can shoot and pass. As a contending team, the Spurs might be willing to part with a future first-round pick (likely to fall in the bottom five), or a young asset like intriguing international prospect Livio Jean-Charles or bench-ridden point guard Cory Joseph--not a tremendous bounty, but potentially just enough to make it worth the Sixers' while.
- Charlotte Bobcats. Since the Bobcats refuse to learn from past mistakes, it appears they're willing to make a short-term move or two to try to sneak into the Eastern playoffs, and that might include dealing for Evan Turner at this year's deadline--an interest said to be very legitimate. The Bobcats have their fair share of slow-developing young prospects (Bismack Biyombo, Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) to entice the Sixers, and a first-rounder coming from the Blazers that might end up somewhere in the mid-low 20s that they might be willing to part with.
- Oklahoma City Thunder. Another spot with rumored interest in Turner, though if they plan on having Russell Westbrook healthy for the stretch run, it's hard to see what good Evan would do them. More likely, we could sell them on adding Thad, whose versatility off the bench would give the Thunder all kinds of lineup options, or Hawes, who would be by far the most offensively skilled of their many bulky pivot fillers. OKC is also overflowing with trade assets, including an entire bench full of high-ceilinged young guns (Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III) and a couple first-rounders in this summer's draft, though GM Sam Presti has been historically gunshy to part with young players or picks to land the Thunder veteran help.
- New York Knicks. The Knicks are in desperate need of a playmaking guard and a reliable big man, and though nobody on the Sixers is really a perfect fit for them (and they don't have a ton to offer in return anyway), you never want to count out the desperation of a team like the Knicks at a time of year like this. I guarantee you Sam Hinkie can still feel his heart beat through his chest whenever he seed owner James Dolan's name comes up on his Caller ID.
Some of these teams' reported interest in the Sixers is likely exaggerated, and talks with at least a couple of them have probably already gone as far as they're ultimately going to go. But all Hinkie needs is one team with the right combination of needs and assets, and the Sixers could make a deal to net them a third first-rounder in next year's draft, a new player to grow as part of the Sixers' future core, or possibly even both.
The Most Likely Outcome:
Ultimately, I would be surprised if all three of the Turner-Young-Hawes troika end up being dealt, and in fact, it wouldn't shock me if just one or even none of them ended up getting gone. As previously mentioned, the market isn't overwhelming for any of these guys, and the number of trades that actually come to fruition this week could be precious and few. The Sixers won't ask for the moon for Turner and Hawes, but Hinkie won't let them go for nothing, either, and they'd be foolish not to ask for a good deal for Young, who could very easily still be a large part of the Sixers' future if he was to survive the deadline.
Luckily for us, the Sixers have time on their side, and have no tremendous urgency to get a deal done by Thursday. If they're not going to get anything of value for Evan or Spence, may as well let them finish out their deals as Sixers, see if they can bring them back on some team-friendly deal in the off-season, then in all likelihood let them go elsewhere and wish them well on their way. Then they still have another season (and possibly two) to figure out what to do with Thad--to try to convince him to stick around and see the team's rebuild through, or to see if they can get a little more for him in the off-season or next trade deadline.
In the meantime, the Sixers are in good shape. If they don't take on more money at the deadline, they'll go into the summer with two likely top-12 picks, three second-round picks and about $30 million in cap space, at which point they'll be about as flexible to make moves for the future as any team has been in NBA history. Maybe they make some then, and maybe they don't. It's at least another 15 months, and likely even longer, until it actually becomes incumbent on the Sixers to actively make moves to better their current outlook, and in the meantime, Hinkie can afford to make deals if attractive opportunities present themselves and stand pat if they don't.
I think the best-looking deal likely to be on the table for the Sixers right now takes advantage of the Bobcats' lust for Evan, and the valuable asset the Bobcats have in Ben Gordon's expiring deal. We could either deal Evan along with Spence for Gordon's $13 million expiring and get that Blazers first-rounder in the process, or saddle them instead with Jason Richardson's remaining two years and get J-Rich off the books for 2014-15, and maybe take injured wing defender Jeffery Taylor or bench-ridden interior defender Bismack Boyombo off their hands instead. I'd prefer to deal with the Thunder and their treasure-trove of assets, but GM Sam Presti has never been thirsty enough to sacrifice long-term outlook for immediate success, so I'd imagine the chances of us fleecing OKC with such a deal are pretty small.
Will any such deal have a tremendous effect on the Sixers this season, or moving forward? Probably not. The best-case scenario probably sees us landing a pick that falls in the late teens or early 20s, enabling us to pick up a Montrezl Harrell-type who we can hopefully develop into a third-or-fourth option on the next good Sixers team if everything breaks right. Meanwhile, dealing even one of our veterans would likely have a crippling effect on the team's play this season, given the utter lack of depth on the Sixers' bench, though that probably doesn't matter a ton in the Tanking Rankings, given that the only team still behind the Sixers in the overall standings are the 9-43 Bucks, and they might not win another six games all season. An key move could be made here or there, but the overall future of the Sixers franchise is unlikely to be swayed tremendously by this trade deadline one way or the other.
Mostly, the trade deadline will be interesting in how it gives us a sense of Sam Hinkie's style as a GM. In eight-plus months on the job, Hinkie has yet to really make a predictable move, so it would probably be arrogant to assume we know what his course of action will be this week, but even the decision to make no moves at all would provide a rare insight into the Man with the Plan's grand scheme. It's Hinkie's world, and we should all just be excited to be living in it over the next 72 hours.