The Sixers wasted no time as the clock hit 6 PM, Eastern time, on Thursday evening. Philadelphia quickly agreed to terms with free agent forward PJ Tucker, wing Danuel House Jr, and guard Trevelin Queen.
Even before the rumors and reports picked up, the union with Tucker appeared destined for quite some time.
“You look at someone like PJ Tucker, great player but it’s not about him knocking down shots. It’s about what he does. Whether it’s on the defensive end, rebounding the ball, you look at, obviously, defensively, plays with so much energy. Believes that he can get from Point A to Point B. He believes that no one can beat him, and he’s tough. Like, he’s just physical and he’s tough and they have a few of those guys, whether it’s Bam and all those guys,” superstar big man Joel Embiid said in the aftermath of the Sixers’ elimination from the 2022 NBA playoffs at the hands of Tucker’s Miami Heat.
“Since I’ve been here, I’d be lying if I said that we’ve had those type of guys. Nothing against what we have, it’s just the truth. We never had PJ Tucker, that’s really what I’m trying to say. So, I think physicality, especially once you get to the playoffs or the later rounds, you need those guys that are really tough.”
We often hyperbolize players or teams telegraphing their desires to play with or add certain league-mates. But, this statement from Embiid after Game 6 was different. It marked the first time he ever publicly and proactively yearned for an outsider that would be available to his team in the upcoming free agency period.
It turns out the Sixers’ braintrust heard him loud and clear.
Just one minute into the 2022 free agency period, Tucker agreed to a three-year deal with Philadelphia in the neighborhood of $33 million.
Tucker isn’t going to drop any jaws with his nightly box score production. But, the 6’6″ forward converted 39 percent of his corner threes in 2021-22. The concern about his being undersized for a forward and how that will affect his play at 37 years of age is valid. But, he played 1,979 minutes over 71 regular-season games for the Miami Heat this past season. He registered an offensive rebounding percentage on missed field goals of 5.4 percent. He registered a defensive rebounding percentage on missed field goals of 13.9 percent. Those numbers would’ve ranked 2nd and 3rd, respectively, of all Sixers to clock at least 1,000 minutes in the 2021-22 season.
Tucker has moments where he’s an intuitive cutter and has certainly made himself into a shooter adequate enough to make defenses think. But, he’s made his money as a lynchpin of toughness. He’s willing to do the dirty work needed to create marginal advantages conducive to winning. Most importantly, he may be one of the only players in the league willing to reprimand Harden if he senses the star guard putting forth less than professional effort.
Philadelphia wasn’t done.
Seven minutes after the consummation of one former Rocket’s deal, the Sixers added another former Houstonian. Danuel House Jr. agreed to come to Philadelphia on a two-year deal valued at $8.5 million.
House Jr. connected on 42 percent of his three-point attempts with the Jazz in 2021-22. He also shot 74 percent at the rim. The efficiency means very little if it’s not supported by a healthy volume. But, 87 percent of House’s field goal attempts came between the three-point arc and the rim. So, House takes the shots that the analytics heads love and doesn’t waste the looks he gets, either. The slight hitch at the top of his shooting mechanic will haunt Sixers fans scorned by those of past players. But, the numbers should hush those worries. House is also well-versed in running out in transition. He knows when to space out or cut to the rim while the defense reels to get back.
On the other end of the floor, House registered a block percentage of 1.3. That ranked in the 94th percentile of the league’s wing players in 2021-22.
The two additions represent efforts to face-lift the supporting cast around the core of Joel Embiid and James Harden in ways that are mutually attractive to the star duo. Both stretch help-defenders with spacing to the corners, while fortifying and deepening Philly’s defensive arsenal with versatility. In other words, the Sixers added two-way players at different positions of need.
Imagine that. Not one-way players whose crippling deficits on one end equal or overwhelm all the good they’re capable of on the other end. Just a pair of normal role players that are expected to make positive contributions on both sides of the ball with consistency.
The histories those players have with Harden may be most important of all to shifting the Sixers’ championship hopes. Harden’s best years largely involved Tucker and House running besides the star lead guard. They have proven to fit next to Harden and he’s proven to be comfortable leading an offense with them as pieces of the puzzle.
Embiid has often dominated despite the ill-fitting or underperforming players next to him. There shouldn’t be much of a worry regarding the fit of any wing providing credible shooting off the catch next to Embiid. But in adding two of Harden’s former teammates to the mix, the Sixers seem to be operating from the strategy of surrounding the aging star with as many pieces with which his prime self was comfortable as possible. The Sixers have to like their chances of coming out of the East in 2023 if they can help Harden re-discover some percentage of his Houston self.
The Sixers had one more move left in the tank on Thursday evening, though. They weren’t done with former Rockets, either.
Fifteen minutes after reaching agreement with House Jr., Philadelphia added Trevelin Queen. According to Derek Bodner of The Daily Six Newsletter, Queen is getting a two-year contract with a partial guarantee of approximately $300,000 in the 2022-23 season.
He’s played a total of 74 minutes on a two-way deal in his lone season with Houston in 2021-22. Queen has, for all intents and purposes, no NBA experience. The lone statistic that stands out in his limited time is a three-point rate of 72.7 percent. But, he averaged 25.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 3.2 steals en route to an MVP award with the G-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers this past season. He averaged 34 points per game in the best-of-3 G-League Finals series against none other than the Delaware Blue Coats, Philadelphia’s affiliate.
As Kyle Neubeck pointed out, Queen has not had a smooth journey to the NBA. Some will theorize that the more difficult a player’s route to the promised land, the hungrier he is to capitalize. So, it seems to be a buy-low investment. With only roughly $300,000 guaranteed, there’s limited downside.
As of Friday morning, the Sixers have not come to terms on a new deal with James Harden. But, Philadelphia’s execution of free agency thus far has been more than professional. Armed with the understanding that Harden is willing to be flexible in negotiations for the sake of improving the roster, the Sixers reportedly began to operate with the intention of having both the Non-taxpayer Mid-Level and Bi-Annual exceptions at their disposal in free agency. Using either exception would hard-cap Philadelphia, prohibiting the Sixers from breaching the 2022-23 tax apron of $156,982,273.
The Sixers exhausted both exceptions before taking care of Harden. Both the Sixers and their star guard know exactly how much space with which they can operate. The exact annual dollar figures on Tucker’s and House’s contracts have not yet been confirmed. But, the thresholds on a Harden deal are pretty clear.
On the high end of the spectrum, Harden signing a deal that pays approximately $37,760,000 in the first year would leave Philadelphia with roughly $4,368 of space below the apron. The Sixers wouldn’t be able to make any more signings. Any trades would have to see exact matches of salary, or more outgoing than incoming. That high-end figure would leave Philadelphia, for all intents and purposes, married to their opening-night roster for the entirety of the league year. Given all public indications of where Harden’s head is, that lack of optionality doesn’t seem appealing to anyone involved.
Assuming Harden agrees to the maximum annual raises, the rest of that high-end contract features $40,780,800 in 2023-24 and $43,801,600 in 2024-25. That’s a three-year deal totaling $122,342,400.
It’s a bit more difficult to project the lower boundary. For now, the reports say that Harden is willing to trim his salary down to “the mid-30s”. On the low end of the spectrum, Harden could take a 2022-23 salary of $35,000,000. That would grant Philadelphia $2,764,368 of space below the apron — a breathable amount of flexibility to make trades.
Assuming the maximum annual raises, the rest of that deal would featured $37,800,000 in 2023-24 and $40,600,000 in 2024-25. That’s a three-year deal valued at $113,400,000.
“Mid-30s” leaves much to interpretation. That low-end figure could still be higher than what ultimately transpires. We’ll know more over the weekend.
For now, the Sixers have made sensible moves to address what they diagnosed as a lack of toughness after they were eliminated by the Heat. And, James Harden has put his money where his mouth is.