Philadelphia 76ers: The costly cap implications of running it back

Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers will need to undertake a serious financial burden to re-sign Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris.

If nothing else, this postseason proved that the Philadelphia 76ers can compete with any team in the league. With a lineup of four stars that played only 10 games together before the postseason began, the Philadelphia 76ers took the Finals-bound Toronto Raptors to seven games. If not for a miraculous jump shot by Kawhi Leonard, it could very well be the Philadelphia 76ers preparing for Golden State right now.

With this knowledge that the Sixers in their current form are among the NBA’s elite teams, it only makes sense to keep the current core together for at least one more season. However, signing Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler to max contracts with Joel Embiid already maxed and a Ben Simmons contract extension looming on the horizon will not be cheap. Keeping those four players together will push the Philadelphia 76ers to their financial limit and hamstring the team’s ability to acquire any new players above anything more than a minimum contract.

Financial limitations

Assuming both Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris each sign max contracts, which would kick in starting at $32.7 million next season, the Philadelphia 76ers would be paying over $92.9 million to three players — Butler, Harris and Embiid. Throw in Ben Simmons at a more manageable $8.1 million, and the Philadelphia 76ers will dedicate $101 million to those four players.

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At $138 million, the Sixers will hit what’s called the apron, which is essentially the team’s hard salary cap. If the Sixers pay more than $138 million in salary, they not only incur massive luxury tax penalties but also have their player movement privileges restricted. For example, if the Sixers go over the apron they cannot sign-and-trade players or match some restricted free agents.

Staying under the apron will be crucial for the Sixers to maintain any kind of financial flexibility, which means that everyone outside of the big four will need to be brought back for under $37 million total. Assuming the Sixers hold on to their other assets like Jonah Bolden and Zhaire Smith and sign their first-round pick this season, they will be left with a little over $30 million to work with. That isn’t good news for bringing back some pending free agents.

Keeping the team together

That $30 million number is even itself a little bit misleading. The Philadelphia 76ers, if they have the good sense to recognize why they lost to the Raptors, will use their $9.2 million mid-level exception to sign a quality backup center like Dewayne Dedmon for Joel Embiid. At that point, the team is looking at $21 million in salary to bring back J.J. Redick, Mike Scott, and perhaps James Ennis, Boban Marjanovic or both.

Hopefully, Redick is willing to take a bit of a pay cut to return — he will turn 35 next season, and hopefully the loyalty the Philadelphia 76ers showed Redick two years ago with a one-year, $23 million contract will pay off. Realistically, though, Redick will command at minimum at least $12 million if the Philadelphia 76ers want to bring him back. Redick may cost even more, but under even this optimistic scenario things start to get really messy.

If ownership wants to be cheap, they could stop re-signing players right here and avoid paying the luxury tax. However, Josh Harris has repeatedly stated that he and the ownership group are willing to pay up for a championship contender. It’s fair to assume that the Philadelphia 76ers will pay up to keep as many players as possible. Mike Scott, after proving his reliability in the postseason, will likely command a small raise in salary. The Sixers have to hope they can bring him back for around $4 or $5 million, and then work some negotiating magic to re-sign Ennis and Marjanovic for less than $4 million combined.

An unlikely scenario

Clearly, a lot has to bounce the Philadelphia 76ers’ way to keep their current team together. More likely than not, if the Sixers re-sign both Butler and Harris, at least one of Redick, Scott, Ennis, and Marjanovic will be offered more than the cheap contracts the Sixers can pay them by another team. Keeping this year’s team together completely is nearly impossible.

Running it back… partially

However, it is not only plausible that the Philadelphia 76ers bring back both Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, but it is actually the scenario that seems to make the most financial sense. If both Butler and Harris want to stay with the team for a $32.7 million max contract, the Sixers will most likely be expensively running it back next year with their four stars.

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However, getting too bogged down in the financial issues that keeping Butler and Harris creates — especially after Ben Simmons gets his extension next season — makes it easy to forget that there’s a reason the Philadelphia 76ers are willing to pay so much. If the Sixers can bring back both Butler and Harris, they will have a very real shot at bringing an NBA title to Philadelphia. For both Sixers fans and the team’s ownership, choosing between financial caution and championship contention should not be a difficult choice.