Regardless of how anyone views the Sixers’ acquisition of wing Jalen McDaniels ahead of Thursdays’ trade deadline, president of basketball operations Daryl Morey made one thing clear when speaking to reporters on Friday:
The Sixers felt that Matisse Thybulle’s offensive limitations overwhelmed what he was capable of on defense. As such, they felt he couldn’t be a meaningful contributor the deeper they went in the playoffs.
“A big theme of our season this year was prepare for the playoffs and championship. We wanted to make sure we gave Doc as many two-way players as possible,” Morey said.
“We think Jalen is one of the up-and-coming solid defenders and gives somebody that’s a little easier to keep on the floor in a lot of matchups.”
That’s why Philadelphia felt that upgrading Thybulle, sending him to Portland in a four-team trade, was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up when McDaniels came along.
The jury is still out on whether McDaniels can be a meaningful contributor in a playoff rotation. But, the Sixers are optimistic that he can flourish with a team that is just as much an upgrade for him as it is for them.
“We looked at all options for the team. We really think Jalen is sort of a hidden gem, a little bit hidden. Sometimes when teams struggle that much, there are players in there that really just need an opportunity to show what they can do on a better team and we feel like Jalen’s a player like that,” Morey said.
The Sixers may genuinely believe that and the trade may ultimately prove to be a home run. But, they won’t escape fan accusations that this was a cost-cutting move. Numerous reports suggested that one of Philadelphia’s goals was to get below the luxury tax line at the trade deadline. The cash flow in this deal saved the Sixers nearly $2.5 million, trimming their salary sheet more than $1.275 below the tax line.
Mathematically, they accomplished that goal. But, that doesn’t mean they took the deal with that as the central focus.
“The focus was just to make the team better. We feel like we did that,” Morey told reporters at Friday’s shootaround.
“I think as part of my job, I have to look at the bigger picture and we have a lot of guys we’re gonna re-sign. The moves we did both improve the team now and make it easier to keep this team together going forward.”
A team with championship upside making decisions on the basis of dollars sends a message to the public that ownership would rather thicken its wallet than dedicate itself to winning the title. That is true in some cases, especially with teams that have limited playoff upside or are out of the postseason picture altogether.
But, there is a tax issue that extends beyond the current season. Star point guard James Harden has a player option for next season. His performance this season suggests he’d decline that and hit free agency in search of a bigger payday. The Sixers also only have one more season of security before they have to make a decision on burgeoning guard Tyrese Maxey.
Factoring in the money committed to Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Danuel House next season, keeping both Harden and Maxey becomes more difficult. Add in that Thybulle is due for a new contract this offseason, and keeping all three becomes more unrealistic. That is especially the case for Thybulle, who hasn’t proved he’s worthy of a significant payday on top of his rookie contract.
So, dodging the luxury tax isn’t just about cost-cutting now. It’s about not limiting the team from making more important decisions in the not-so-distant future, too.
As for retaining McDaniels — an upcoming unrestricted free agent — beyond this season, Morey made it clear that the Sixers don’t view him as a rental. “I think he’s got starter potential. We’d like to obviously have another great run to help us win a championship this year and then re-sign him and hopefully continue it here. We have his bird rights,” Morey said. “But, I do think he’s someone you can, given his size and athleticism, he has everything we need. Someone we could build around going forward.”
As for the roster flexibility the Sixers still have, Morey was quite distinctive in suggesting that Philadelphia isn’t done upgrading. “Some of that flexibility we got allows us to add multiple buyouts if they come,” the former Houston Rockets executive said. “We’re actively looking at that. Nothing to announce yet, but we’re actively looking at several players right now.”
Morey took every opportunity on Friday to relay that the Sixers made the best trade available to them. He even denounced criticism that losing second-round picks as punishment for tampering in the signings of Tucker and House hurt the Sixers’ trade prospects leading up to the deadline.
“All else equal, it’s better to have more draft picks than less. That said, there was no trade that we thought we could do that held that up,” Morey said.
For now, backup center will be a target for the Sixers in upgrades they pursue now that the trade deadline has passed.
“We have a lot of versatility with the lineup, and Doc does a very good job of figuring it out. I think there’s a whole bunch of ways that we can,” Morey said.
“Just to be fair, I think what most people worry about is when Joel is off, like, how are we going to play when Joel is off. I think we’re going to improve that. Hasn’t been as good as we want it to be.”
“Hasn’t been as good as we want it to be” is an understatement. Fortunately for the Sixers, they still have a chance to improve upon that weakness.