The Sixers have some decisions to make with a singular vacant roster spot following their 3-for-2 blockbuster trade at the deadline. As Philadelphia approaches the final quarter of its regular season, there is an opportunity to reinforce the hands on deck.
Philadelphia fans were perhaps disillusioned into thinking that there is an abundance of resources on the buyout market after the team hit the lottery on Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova in 2018. Those two provided Philadelphia with valuable rotation minutes, fitting like a pair of gloves as snipers next to a rookie Ben Simmons. In most cases — and as the Sixers have seen in each buyout season following the 2018 fortunate — the resources available are scarce. You don’t go to a thrift shop to pay thousands of dollars for a brand new leather jacket. You go there to take a heavy discount on a used product.
Regardless, there exists a possibility that value exists in the buyout market, especially as it is relative to team need. So before surveying the resources available on the buyout market, it’s important to define what the Sixers need.
Given the versatility across positions in the modern game, it is most sensible to categorize positions as Guards, Wings, and Bigs.
As the positions increase in size, the less flexible they become. Guards are either Point Guards or Shooting Guards, sometimes both. Wings are never Point Guards, but they can be Shooting Guards. They have the versatility to slide between the two and the three, sometimes expanding to the four. Bigs encompass Power Forwards and Centers.
Guards were eliminated from the team’s positions of need because Philadelphia already has 3 primary ball-handlers in James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and Shake Milton and 3 secondary ball-handlers in Furkan Korkmaz, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid. Adding another ball-handler to the mix would mean either that new player is out of the rotation or someone else would be removed from it. Aside from potentially taking the underperforming Korkmaz, who is more of a wing anyway, out of the rotation, adding another ball-handler would present little merit.
Wings were the focus for two reasons. First, the Sixers just don’t have enough 3-and-D guys who will shoot off the catch in bunches. With Joel Embiid and James Harden commanding heavy usage, the Sixers need spacing on the wings to keep helpers at home on the shooters. Second, James Harden loves switching on defense. It’s the path of least resistance. Matisse Thybulle can function in that scheme, but the Sixers lack both the size and agility beyond him to be passable as a switch-centric defense in the playoffs. Against the Celtics, you saw, and will see against other self-provisioning wing duos, that switching ultimately leads to hunting the most advantageous matchup and then going to work.
Although Daryl Morey seemed to give away his position on a recent episode of The Rights To Ricky Sanchez podcast, bigs were secondary in priority in my evaluation. Not only has second-year big Paul Reed been effective with high-energy play in recent spot opportunities, but Charles Bassey has looked like a capable rim-protector and rim-runner in his limited minutes this season.
Additionally, Paul Millsap was directed to Philly as part of the Harden trade. Millsap is in his late 30s, so he has the veteran status that Doc Rivers craves. Beyond that, he can actually space the floor. And whenever Embiid isn’t the floor, the offensive strategy should be to force the opposing big out of the paint to guard on the perimeter so that drivers and cutters can attack gaps. Millsap’s credibility as a shooter is conducive to that strategy. Furthermore, you’re realistically only going to need 10-12 minutes per game from the backup big in the playoffs. And there’s enough shooting and athleticism between the 3 aforementioned names to stabilize the team in those non-Embiid minutes.
The Play-In tournament squeezes the number of teams considering buying out spare parts because all they need is the 10th seed to have a shot at the big tournament. As such, context and record were considered in assessing which teams may be open to buyouts.
In the Eastern Conference, the Knicks are 9 games under .500 and only 3.5 games out of the 10th seed. However, their season has been spiraling for months. There also now seems to be some internal displeasure about head coach Tom Thibodeau. So the culture doesn’t appear to be great, either. And if Thibodeau is terminated, a new head coach may want to take the roster in a different direction anyway. However, you could also make the case that perhaps the Knicks would rather be petty and not buy out a player who they think will then go sign with a divisional foe.
The Pacers, Pistons, and Magic are all at least 20 games below .500 and were candidates for buyouts, too.
Out west, the Kings are 16 games below .500 and are 3.5 games back of the 10th seed, as well. However, it is well-known that they are going for the Play-In tournament. Beyond that, they just made a significant trade ahead of the deadline to shake up their roster. So it’s hard to envision them selling off pieces when they’ve convinced themselves to fight for something, as silly as it sounds.
The Thunder and Rockets, each worse than 20 games under .500, were the only teams in the Western Conference admitted to the buyout pool.
TJ Warren hasn’t played since the bubble in 2020 due to foot injuries. But, he’s 28 and can give you versatile minutes on the wings. He’s also an unrestricted free agent this summer. Warren is not a volume three-point shooter, but he hit nearly 41 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc in his last healthy campaign in 2019-20. He also shot 57.6 percent on twos (82nd percentile) and 58.3 effective (91st). So, he was near the top of the league in shooting efficiency.
Beyond that, 90 percent of his made triples per assisted. His usage that season was 20.8 percent, which is high. But as he slowly returns from a season-and-a-half absence due to the foot injury, his role would ostensibly be reduced. The possibility of the injury returning or limiting his time on the court is a reasonable concern. But, a healthy Warren affords the Sixers comfort in switching and provides needed shooting. And if the Sixers find themselves playing the Bucks in a playoff series, he has the size to give Philly options at the 3 and 4 instead of having to default to starting Georges Niang like they did this past week in Milwaukee.
Gary Harris is making nearly $20.5 million this season and is an unrestricted free agent this summer. So perhaps he wouldn’t be too keen on a buyout, anyway. But, there would be plenty of opportunity for the 27-year-old wing if he were to decide to forfeit some money now for the sake of latching onto a contender and gambling on a bigger payday this summer should he perform well in front of a national audience.
51 percent of Harris’ shots are triples. He’s hitting 38 percent of those overall. Of particular intrigue is his prowess from the corners. 24 percent of Harris’ shots are corner triples. He’s making 47 percent (83rd percentile) of those. So if your goal is to keep helpers at home in the corners, he’s going to do that. Defensively, his 6-foot-4 frame limits positional versatility. But, Harris only commits fouls on 2.6 percent of Orlando’s plays when he’s on the floor this season. So, he’s at least disciplined and can hold his own against secondary and tertiary threats.
Alfonzo McKinnie is already a free agent after being waived by the Bulls. But if there’s not a high demand for his services, he’ll be cost-effective. The 29-year-old is 6-foot-8. He can theoretically maneuver screens across multiple positions, switch, and beat opposing matchups to spots.
His NBA staying power has lost traction since breaking out with Golden State in 2018-19. But, he shot 37 percent on threes that season. He also received more than 100 attempts from deep that season — the only time he’s received nearly that much opportunity in his NBA career. If you buy that effectiveness on the biggest sample size of his career, perhaps he’s worth a flyer.
Al-Farouq Aminu is also a free agent, so he figures to be a cheap option, too. In his 11-year career, Aminu has shot better than 35 percent from deep just twice. But he’s 6-foot-9 and 31 years old, and has ranked near the top of his position in steal, foul, and defensive rebound percentage throughout his career. So, perhaps you buy that he can make an open three with two guys commanding double-teams, guard across positions, and help clean up the rebounding weakness.
Taj Gibson is almost 37 years old, so he fits the experienced veteran bill that Rivers will favor. He is making $4.9 million this season, but his contract is not guaranteed for next season. If Gibson wants a chance to win a ring as his career comes to a conclusion, perhaps he’ll eat some of the money. His reputation is in doing the dirty work. He is in the top 26 percent of bigs in block percentage. Perhaps more helpful to the Sixers is his offensive rebounding. He is an above-average offensive rebounder, while the Sixers are dead last in the league in offensive rebound percentage.
Seeing as Rivers has said he’s going to stagger Embiid, Harden, Maxey, and Harris together so that at least two of them are always on the floor, I’m not focused on offensive production out of any of the bigs identified unless something is worth noting.
Robin Lopez is 33 years old and heading into unrestricted free agency this summer. He signed with Orlando for $5 million this past offseason. But, he may have already been paid a majority of his deal. If so, perhaps he’d eat some of the remaining amount owed for a chance at a ring. Neither Lopez brother is mobile. So, versatility won’t be a trait. But, Robin ranked in the top 20 percentile of bigs in foul percentage from 2012 to 2019 and 2020-21. So, he’s established a reputation of defending with discipline. Beyond that, he’s a hook shot machine — shooting 53.7 percent on 108 attempts this season.
Derrick Favors has generated a lot of buzz amongst Sixers fan. But, it seems unrealistic. He’s making nearly $10 million this season and has a player option for more than $10 million next season. Would you forfeit that bag to play a small role on a contender?
Mike Muscala, like Favors, is cashing checks out in Oklahoma City. But, he’s only making $3.5 million this season. The Thunder have a $3.5 million option on him for next season. So, this would appear to be more about how he’s valued as a veteran in the Thunder locker room. He won’t give you much of anything defensively. But, Muscala will stretch the floor. He’s hit at least 37 percent of his threes in each of his 2.5 seasons in Oklahoma City. Muscala has ranked in the top 3 percent of bigs in three-point volume relative to total field goal attempts since the start of the 2018-19 season.
Willie Cauley-Stein is a free agent at 28 years of age. With a 7-foot frame, he ranked in the top 25 percent of bigs in block percentage from 2019 to 2021. He doesn’t offer much of anything on offense. But, a 7-footer with decent shot-blocking instincts should profile as a lob threat next to Harden. That potential, along with his experience to date and remaining youth, may be of value considering the likely minimal cost.
It would be deceitful of me to say that any buyout candidate or free agent option is going to change your world. But, that’s not what the Sixers are looking for. Right now, you’re looking to make some minor tweaks to a Ferrari with spare parts at a scrap heap. The buyout market and free agent pool are serviceable resources in that regard.