This was always going to be an important summer for the star-hungry Sixers.
But it may be even more dire than it seems.
The Athletic Bay Area reported last week that Klay Thompson and the Warriors have already engaged in discussions about a contract extension. While the two sides reportedly won’t re-engage talks until the offseason, it’s a somewhat surprising development.
As the report notes, if Thompson waits to become a free agent in 2019, he can re-sign for five years, $188 million. But there are serious questions as to whether Warriors ownership would sign off on that deal, as an already expensive Golden State team is going to cost only more and more with the repeater tax looming. So if Thompson wants to stay with the Warriors and they’ll do it only at a bargain price, he could sign a cheaper four-year extension, which would put a serious dent into those projected luxury tax bills.
But if Thompson, who would be an absolutely perfect fit in Philly, wasn’t going to be a free agent until 2019 anyway, what does this have to do with the Sixers’ upcoming offseason?
The Sixers right now have a two-year window in which they can readily access max cap space to sign a third star. After the summer of 2019, they’ll have to start extending some of their young core, starting with Ben Simmons.
If the Sixers lock up Simmons prior to his fourth season, similar to what they did with Joel Embiid, they can give him a designated maximum rookie extension that would start in the 2020-21 season. While the league’s salary cap numbers for that season haven’t been released yet (the cap is projected to rise from $101 million in 2018 to $108 million in 2019 for what it’s worth), Simmons will make at least 25 percent of the cap (he can earn up to 30 percent if he meets certain criteria).
So if we assume Simmons will just sign for the 25 percent max and project the cap to make a reasonable jump to $114 million, he and Embiid alone will account for just under $58 million in 2020. Add the final year of Markelle Fultz’s rookie deal and they’re near $71 million. Throw in Robert Covington’s contract and they’re over $83 million. Include Dario Saric’s cap hold as he hits restricted free agency and they’re eclipsing $90 million, and that’s working under a scenario in which Saric wasn’t previously extended at an even higher number.
The point here is that the path to a 30- and 35-percent max contract, valued at $34.2 million and $39.9 million, respectively in this example, won’t be as easy past 2019, when the cost of opening significant cap space will come at the expense of quality pieces and depth.
And that’s why this summer will be so important, because if the Sixers truly believe another established star is “required” to compete for a title, this may be their only chance to land one for the foreseeable future.
Let’s say the Sixers strike out this summer on the three megastars who project to be available. LeBron James and Paul George team up on the Lakers. Kawhi Leonard forces his way to a team he has serious interest re-signing with (similar to Kyrie Irving last summer) or he puts pen to paper on the $219 million super-max the Spurs can offer him. And to top it off, Thompson signs an extension with Golden State.
All of the sudden, the only notable star projected to hit the open market in 2019 would be Jimmy Butler, who will be entering his age 30 season and isn’t as seamless a fit as Thompson, George, Leonard and James, whose supreme talent eases fit concerns.
Will disgruntled stars become available via trade past this summer, as Irving and George have? Probably. And who knows, maybe both Thompson and Leonard become free agents and the Sixers are serious players for both.
But with dwindling high-value assets, trading for a star will become much tougher for the Sixers as time wears on. And banking on Leonard and/or Thompson becoming free agents in a year seems overly optimistic at this point.
Rather than waiting on stars to demand trades or hoping they test free agency, the Sixers have the ability to bring in James or George without surrendering any of their young core. Or if Leonard is actually on the block, the Sixers could acquire him and still have legit cap space to make up for the depth lost in a potential trade.
The Sixers could have three legitimate shots at landing a third star this summer, and if they feel they need another star to win a title, they better hope they land at least one.
Because this could be the closest they get for a while.