Jimmy Butler

For star-hungry Sixers, this summer could be their last chance

For star-hungry Sixers, this summer could be their last chance

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.

Sixers look like a playoff team in win over Timberwolves

Sixers look like a playoff team in win over Timberwolves

BOX SCORE 

The Timberwolves were an anomaly in a recent stretch of sub-.500 opponents for the Sixers — a playoff contender holding their own without Jimmy Butler in the tough Western Conference.

The Sixers took care of business, 120-108, but it wasn’t without a hitch in the final quarter.

The Sixers had a 98-71 lead after three, a big enough gap for Brett Brown to comfortably sit his starters in the fourth. Well, it should have been a big enough lead. The Timberwolves cut that deficit to 10 points, and Brown turned back to Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Robert Covington, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova to quiet the Timberwolves’ push.

“For us, we don’t want to go back in,” Simmons said after the game. “We want to see our guys play and finish out the game because we know they’re capable of that. But to see our guys not do that, it’s kind of annoying but we’ve got to get on top of that and everybody has to be ready to play.”

This was a less-than-ideal situation as the Sixers are looking for ways to rest their high-minutes players, particularly Embiid, who had only clocked 22 minutes through three quarters. In total, Embiid and Simmons played less than two minutes apiece in the fourth, but the reserves have to take better control of leads so the starters don’t have to return at all.

"I trust the guys that were on the floor," Embiid said. "We just wanted to make sure we had it locked and that nothing was going to happen. But it was nothing."

The Sixers improved to 42-30. They could have clinched a playoff spot with a Pistons loss to the Bulls, but Detroit won Saturday night, 117-95.

• Simmons needed less than three quarters to record his 10th triple-double of the season: 15 points, 12 rebounds, 13 assists.

• Joel Embiid was having a good time out there on his way to 19 points, six rebounds and three blocks.


• Led by those 13 assists from Simmons, the Sixers dished a total of 33 dimes. Their five-straight games of 30-plus assists are their longest such stretch since December 1981. With assists, turnovers can be just as significant. The Sixers committed 14, equal to the Timberwolves, but gave up only 13 points compared to the Timberwolves’ 22.

• The Eagles continue to show their support for the Sixers:

Rockets extend streak as Butler exits with injury

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Rockets extend streak as Butler exits with injury

HOUSTON -- James Harden scored 31 points and the Houston Rockets won their 11th straight game with a 120-102 victory Friday night over the Minnesota Timberwolves, who lost All-Star Jimmy Butler to an apparent right knee injury.

Butler left the game late in the third quarter. After grabbing a rebound late in the third quarter, he pivoted and planted hard on his right foot before collapsing and grabbing his right knee. He was on the floor for at least three minutes before he was carried off the court by two teammates. He appeared to avoid putting weight on his right leg when heading to the locker room.

A Timberwolves official said during the fourth quarter that Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau would provide an update on Butler's injury following the game.

Clint Capela had 25 points and 11 rebounds for Houston, getting his 10th double-double over the past 13 games. Chris Paul added 14 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

The Rockets trailed for much of the first half before going ahead to maintain the NBA's best record.

Andrew Wiggins led Minnesota with 21 points, and Jeff Teague and Karl-Anthony Towns both had 18 points. Towns added 13 rebounds (see full recap).

Davis sensational in Pelicans’ OT victory over Heat
NEW ORLEANS -- Anthony Davis had 45 points, 17 rebounds, five blocked shots and five steals, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Miami Heat 124-123 in overtime Friday night for their fourth consecutive victory.

Goran Dragic scored 30 points and Dwyane Wade hit two runners to give the Heat the lead twice in the last 36 seconds of overtime, but Davis responded to the first with a layup as he was fouled, and Jrue Holiday answered the second with a runner in the lane with 7 seconds left.

Wade had one last shot for the win with Holiday defending him closely. It bounced off the rim to Josh Richardson, whose rushed put-back missed the basket as time expired in Miami's third straight loss.

Davis, who has scored no fewer than 38 points in a game during New Orleans' winning streak -- and 42 or more three times -- raised both arms in triumph as he looked up at the jubilant crowd, and then exchanged high fives with fans along the court.

Holiday finished with 29 points and nine assists, connecting with Davis on a couple of alley-oop dunks. Ian Clark scored a season-high 21 points and Nikola Mirotic capped his 10-point, nine-rebound performance with a crucial 3 in overtime.

Hassan Whiteside had 19 points and 16 rebounds before fouling out in overtime when he hacked Davis on a put-back attempt. Davis hit both free throws to tie it at 117, and then gave New Orleans a brief lead with his fifth alley-oop dunk of the game on a fast-break lob from Holiday with 1:10 to go. Wade had 16 points, while Richardson and Tyler Johnson each scored 15 points (see full recap).

Balanced Celtics rout Pistons
DETROIT -- Kyrie Irving scored 18 points and rookie Daniel Theis added a career-high 19 to lift the Boston Celtics to a 110-98 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Friday night.

Jayson Tatum scored 11 of his 15 points in the first half for the Celtics, who went into the All-Star break on a three-game losing streak but returned with a solid win on the road. Boston took control by outscoring the Pistons 38-21 in the second quarter.

Blake Griffin scored 17 points for Detroit but shot just 5 of 19 from the field.

Theis eclipsed his previous career high of 12 points. He played an important role after Aron Baynes, the starting center for the Celtics, went to the locker room in the first half with left elbow soreness. Baynes ended up playing only 2:39, but Theis shot 8 of 10 from the field and had seven rebounds.

Ish Smith made his first eight shots and finished with 20 points for the Pistons. Detroit led 39-37 in the second quarter before a 21-5 run by Boston. The Celtics were ahead 61-49 at halftime.

The lead was only four late in the third before Boston scored seven straight points -- five by Irving. The Celtics broke the game open at the start of the fourth (see full recap).