Possibilities can be enticing as the NBA trade deadline approaches.
Some fanbases had their wishes granted this year. Kevin Durant is a Sun, Kyrie Irving is a Maverick, and dealmaking across the league was rampant before Thursday at 3 p.m. ET.
Realistically, the season after landing James Harden, the Sixers never appeared at all likely to have that kind of deadline. That’s fine in a broad sense, but it also places a deserved spotlight on both their one pre-deadline move and how the team handles the buyout market.
The Sixers added Jalen McDaniels and sent Matisse Thybulle to the Trail Blazers in a four-team deal also involving second-round draft picks. As most theoretical trades featuring Thybulle would’ve been, it’s consistent with president of basketball operations Daryl Morey’s overarching desire to have more two-way players. While Morey and head coach Doc Rivers were complimentary of Thybulle at last year’s end-of-season press conference, Morey’s comment that the playoffs are “challenging” for “extreme one-way type of players” was telling.
Over his first four seasons with the Hornets, the 25-year-old McDaniels appeared in no playoff games. He’s also not a sterling three-point shooter. Thybulle’s 33.3 percent mark this season is actually slightly better than McDaniels’, albeit on much lower volume.
On the positive side, McDaniels is a 6-foot-9 wing who’s a willing shooter and less limited than Thybulle offensively. He’s also been good statistically this season in terms of forcing turnovers and rebounding well for his position. The former is helpful on paper as far as “replacing” a portion of Thybulle’s defensive impact, while the latter is certainly positive given the Sixers’ woes on the glass (26th in offensive rebounding rate, 19th in defensive rebounding rate, per Cleaning the Glass).
McDaniels will be an unrestricted free agent after the season and the Sixers will hold his Bird rights, which a nice bonus if he ends up being a strong fit.
Whether or not that’s ultimately the case, it’s notable that the McDaniels trade moved the Sixers under the NBA’s luxury tax threshold. As Derek Bodner detailed in his Daily Six newsletter, the Sixers will therefore avoid the repeater tax next year. This trade is not an unjustifiable cost-cutting deal, but it’s understandable if the Sixers dipping under the tax is another source of frustration for fans of a team still aiming to get beyond the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001 with superstar big man Joel Embiid turning 29 years old in March. As for the luxury tax apron, Spotrac now has the Sixers at approximately $8 million below the hard cap.
If McDaniels is useful in the playoffs and makes the Sixers more well-rounded in a difficult series, we imagine few will care about anything related to the salary cap. Morey can still work to improve the team, too. The Sixers have one open roster spot (and of course the ability to waive players as they see fit). In the event that they address their backup center situation through the buyout market, they’ll sure hope to do better than last year’s signing of DeAndre Jordan.
Morey is scheduled to speak with reporters Friday morning and perhaps he'll hint at what the Sixers are seeking. While improving the backup five spot would be logical if it’s doable, the Sixers aren’t deeply abysmal in that area and perfect everywhere else. For instance, parting with Thybulle leaves the Sixers with fewer options to defend star guards.
For the time being, they continue to look like a team that, while very good, would be underdogs in playoff matchups against the Celtics or Bucks. No big name was ever going to whiz in and change that picture this February.