- If Philadelphia can make this work, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid create a legitimate contention window. Meanwhile, the Clippers have garnered contending assets to acquire Anthony Davis.
The first major trade deadline domino fell in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, as the Clippers and 76ers agreed upon a deal headlined by Tobias Harris joining Philadelphia and valuable draft capital headed to Los Angeles in exchange. The Clippers also sent Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott to Philly, with Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala headed the other way—in addition to Philadelphia’s 2020 lottery-protected, first-rounder and Miami’s unprotected 2021 first, plus two future second-rounders by way of Detroit in 2021 and 2023.
It’s a lot to process, no pun intended, so let’s break down the deal.
If you’re going to move draft picks of substance, this is the way to do it. The Sixers continue to make abundantly clear that they’re all in on winning this season, adding a fringe All-Star-type talent in Harris—whose contract expires this summer and becomes the league’s most talented fourth banana east of the Bay Area. Nobody is looking forward to defending a five-man lineup of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Harris and Joel Embiid in crunch time, and the possibilities are immense. The Sixers were able to get this done while sacrificing only a trio of role players from their roster, and now might be the most fearsome roster in the East, at least on paper.
Philadelphia will be able to stagger its stars and space the floor even more effectively with Harris at power forward, opening up space inside for Embiid and stretching out the driving lanes for Simmons. While Harris is now on his fifth team in eight seasons, it’s not a knock on him at this point. He’s an ideal fit for what the Sixers want out of their four-man and has been playing the best basketball of his career after turning down an $80 million extension from the Clippers last summer. He’s averaging a career-high 20.7 points per game, contributing on the glass, shooting 42% from outside, and playing efficient ball at age 26. To a much lesser extent, Marjanovic at least partially fills the Sixers’ need for a backup center, and Scott’s floor-spacing capability at least vibes with Philly’s preferences at the four. There’s a chance they get some useful run out of those guys down the stretch, too.
Thinking big-picture, this move gets more fascinating. The obvious catch is that Harris and Butler are both set to command max-type money in free agency this summer, and that Philadelphia appears likely to end up in a situation where it can only pay one of the two without incurring heavy cap penalties. However, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Sixers are planning for a future (by my inference, at least a short-term one) with all four of their stars on board. The reason this is tenable is that Simmons is still on his rookie contract—although, crucially, he will be extension-eligible in July. If there is a creative way for Philadelphia to make this work, they are looking at a legitimate contention window with all four guys. Of course, they need to hope all their pieces and personalities mesh to the point where that becomes feasible, making the rest of this season even more critical, final playoff result aside.
While Philadelphia may come to rue the loss of these draft choices, particularly if Butler, Harris, or both end up walking in the off-season, their gall here is commendable in an Eastern Conference that is still up for grabs. The primary asset of value is the 2021 Miami first, acquired in a draft-night trade from Phoenix, which based on the Heat’s present state could certainly end up in the lottery, but true to the nature of future draft picks remains highly variable. If their plan to keep their stars holds, Philly’s own first next season will be a late first-rounder. And at the end of the day, moving those two picks, (much less the seconds) is a relatively small price for creating a championship-caliber roster, and one that suddenly may net the premier personnel to switchably guard Golden State's multiple death lineups in a theoretical postseason matchup. Bottom line, if the Sixers get two or three deep playoff runs out of this deal, it’s unlikely they’ll have too much remorse. Expect them to continue exploring the buyout market and stay aggressive, with the rest of the conference now on notice.
This deal is exclusively about the bigger picture for Los Angeles, and if you understand the Clippers’ intended trajectory, then it’s more or less a no-brainer. The Clips have an aggressive, deep-pocketed owner in Steve Ballmer, and intend to turn their franchise into a destination. There’s no secret that L.A. has designs on pitching elite free agents this summer and in years to come, with Kawhi Leonard at the top of their wish list, and this move accomplishes several forward-thinking things of value in one swoop.
Although Harris had fully blossomed this season and will have earned every penny of his next contract, he was never going to be the first priority for the Clippers in free agency this summer. Moving him for real value as opposed to watching him walk is a massive win for L.A., particularly when the return is two first-rounders. The critical thing to recognize is that the two draft picks (particularly Miami’s) are now movable, desirable elements of any Clippers trade package, enabling them to enter the bidding for star players whose situations become unstable over the next couple years.
Additionally, if this deal leads to L.A. missing the playoffs, it could immediately create a third draft asset: the Clippers’ 2019 first-rounder is owed to Boston, yet remains lottery-protected. And without thinking too far ahead, this influx of first-round capital could make the Clippers legitimate players for Anthony Davis, should the Pelicans hold onto him at the deadline and field trade offers in June. If they’re serious about Davis, who listed them as a team he’d re-sign with, the Clippers can dangle multiple firsts and seconds and hypothetically, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as a centerpiece. This is all about the possibilities.
Of course, the big risk with this deal is a scenario where the Clippers whiff on top tier free agents and remain stuck in the middle next season, pining away for a franchise player. Still it’s unlikely that they wanted to commit elite-level money to Harris, who is more of a third-tier star at best, and getting this type of return for him is a major win. Whether they end up using the picks or not, the move makes L.A. infinitely more flexible going forward, preserves cap space with Chandler and Muscala’s expiring deals, and adds a moderately useful rookie-contract role player in Shamet. No matter the future means, this is a move that facilitates the acquisition of talent and improvement of the roster.
Clearly, the Clippers can stomach missing this year’s playoffs to make gains for 2020 and beyond. Their fan base will have to adopt the same patience. When it comes to attracting NBA players, there are always worse things to double down on than the appeal of the Los Angeles market. Applaud the Clips for being shrewd and transparent with this one, which looks like a philosophical win for both sides.