The Tobias Harris Trade Gives the Sixers Some Jimmy Butler Insurance
There are some fair questions to ask of the Sixers after Wednesday morning's trade for Tobias Harris. For example: Does Philly realize that Joel Embiid is 24 years old and Ben Simmons is 22? Why is there so much pressure to win now? Weren't the Clippers trying to foist Tobias Harris on the entire league, hoping that some team might be foolish or desperate enough to trade them real assets for a free agent that L.A. was prepared to lose for nothing? If the Sixers were that foolish and desperate team, isn't that a strike against them? As one Celtics podcaster tweeted: "My favorite part of The Process is trading all of your assets for two expiring contracts in a year where you have no chance to win the championship."
What the Sixers did with the Harris trade is clearly a risk. They've built a nucleus—Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Harris, Embiid—that is the most talented starting five in the Eastern Conference, but that lineup is also full of holes and chemistry questions that will be answered as we go. Butler's perimeter defense is going to be critical going forward, and so will his willingness to embrace a secondary role on offense. Defensively, Redick and Harris will be liabilities against good teams in the playoffs. Simmons still can't shoot. Embiid remains the most valuable and most dominant player in the East outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but adding another scorer threatens to cannibalize his touches. And what is the endgame in all this? The Sixers now have the talent to challenge the Bucks, Celtics, and Raptors, but even in the best case scenario, it's hard to imagine they can touch a healthy Warriors team.
Trade Grades: The Sixers Go All in for Tobias Harris
In July, Jimmy Butler will command something close to the five-year, $190 million contract for which he's eligible. Tobias Harris is 26 years old and eligible for his own max deal this summer. J.J. Redick is a free agent again, and he'll have suitors all over the league. If the Sixers want to keep everyone, it's going to be very expensive, there will be limited flexibility going forward, and there's no guarantee this nucleus ever adds up to a title team.
In that respect, Philly's trade looks impulsive. The Sixers gave up two first-round picks (their own lottery-protected pick in 2020, and an unprotected Heat pick in 2021) and will now have to spend tons of money to retain a team with a not-quite-championship level ceiling. It really is the antithesis of the process, and if reports are true and the team is determined to keep its "big four" intact this summer, this was probably bad idea.
But if that's the most popular way to understand this deal, there should also be a footnote added to that story: the Sixers don't have to keep Jimmy Butler this summer.
The Sixers felt pressure to add talent around Embiid and Simmons now, despite their age, because Simmons will be due for his own max deal this summer, an extension that will kick-in the following year. After striking out last summer, the looming Simmons extension meant the Sixers were left with roughly 12 months to add another star. Trading for Butler in November was an implicit admission from Philly management that signing superstars this summer was unlikely, and landing a star via trade was their best shot at filling out the nucleus. In other words, the Sixers had no choice but to go "all-in" while they have an opportunity. Once they pay Simmons, "star hunting" ends.
But the Butler story has been complicated. At 29 years old, his athleticism and explosion has already begun to slip. He's been an awkward fit next to Simmons. The post-30 track record for Thibs survivors is not great, and he's due to make so much money that even in the best of circumstances, he will be overpaid for the duration of his next contract. Most of these concerns were easy to foresee the day Philly traded for him, but everything that's happened since the trade has only underscored the risks with Butler. He hasn't given this team as much upside as expected, and there are still all kinds of downsides to consider going forward.
Now the Sixers have options. Harris didn't make sense in L.A. because the Clippers need cap space to sign All-NBA-level superstars. In Philly, though, those players are already in place. Harris could be an ideal third star who fits very nicely next to Simmons and Embiid. Unlike Butler, he doesn't need the ball in his hands to be effective. He's a stretch four who can orbit Embiid, and he can knock wide-open looks from Simmons. He's also 26 years old, not 29.
If Philly were to pay Harris instead of Butler, the Sixers could still use Butler's money to go pursue point guard options on the open market this summer. Likewise, Butler's money could just as easily be used to fill out the roster with depth on the wings and off the bench. Allowing Butler to leave for nothing would have been incredibly painful if the Sixers had no alternatives to add star-level firepower next to Simmons and Embiid, but now they do. Harris fits, and he's a lot more convincing as a third star in Philly than he would be as a franchise player somewhere else.
The real question is whether the Sixers will be confident enough to recognize Butler's limits and act accordingly. As clear as the downsides are, he's still the most accomplished player on the team. The franchise gave up two cult heroes born from the Process (Dario Saric and Robert Covington) to go get him. Losing him for nothing would be bad optics, and even the possibility of losing Butler is the sort of story that could threaten to derail the playoff run over the next few months. Maybe the latter concern explains why news of the Tobias Harris trade was immediately followed by sources telling reporters that Philly wants to keep all four stars; whatever the plan is, it's important for the team, players, and fans to spend the next four months believing that the Sixers are invested in this core for the next four years.
Maybe the commitment is sincere, of course. It's possible that Philly is every bit as clumsy and desperate as rival fanbases think. There's also a real chance that this team could go to the Finals this June, Kevin Durant will leave Golden State on July 1st, and it will make sense for the Sixers to bring everyone back and make a run at a title.
In the meantime, the Butler commitment shouldn't be absolute, and the Harris trade might be smart if it was an acknowledgement by Elton Brand and Sixers management that anything can happen this summer. Two first round picks is a steep cost, but the benefit of flexibility could make the deal worthwhile. And if anyone is worried about post-Butler optics in the event that the Sixers go a different direction this summer, I think it's important to appreciate how NBA fans think in the modern era, and particularly how Sixers fan think. This is the team that birthed the Process cult, a generation of NBA fans religiously dedicated to keeping the big picture in mind at all times. The entire NBA can understand the risks and limited rewards of a massive Butler contract. Philly fans would get it, too—especially because the Sixers now have a third scorer who might be a much better fit.