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NBA Fact or Fiction: Are the 76ers 1 move away from legitimate title contention?

Each week during the 2023-24 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.

This week's topic: The 76ers are one move away from legitimate title contention

James Harden's holdout threatened to unravel the Philadelphia 76ers' season before it began. Instead, it brought into focus precisely how the Sixers need to build a contender around superstar center Joel Embiid.

The emergence of Tyrese Maxey as an All-Star-caliber point guard helps ease the transition from Harden's ball dominance, as does a fresh voice in the locker room. Nick Nurse built a champion in Toronto with high-level role players supporting an all-world Kawhi Leonard. His Raptors featured a rising star (Pascal Siakam) and two aging stars (Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol), but each of them knew they operated in Leonard's orbit.

Should the Philadelphia 76ers add a third complementary star alongside Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey? (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Should the Philadelphia 76ers add a third complementary star alongside Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey? (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

This is the Embiid model. Maxey can replicate a close proximity to Harden's two-man game with Embiid, score in the space that creates (25.4 points per game on 53.2% shooting from 2 and 40.7% shooting from 3) and not view himself as the sole savior when the primary and secondary options are not available. This is where complementary pieces become imperative, because everyone should feel anyone can finish a possession.

Tobias Harris and Kelly Oubre Jr. have been exceptional to start the season, combining to average an uber-efficient 36.7 points per game. Patrick Beverley is content as a defensive pest. All four players who arrived from the Los Angeles Clippers in the Harden deal — Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris and KJ Martin — can fill roles on a highly seeded regular-season team. Their East-best 6-1 record reflects that.

The Sixers lost by one to the Milwaukee Bucks in a game they should have won on opening night, and they beat the Boston Celtics by three points on Wednesday. I am still not convinced Philadelphia belongs on the same tier as those conference favorites, but they are far closer than I imagined in training camp. They just need one or two more invested players around Embiid and Maxey whom they can trust in a playoff series.

This is not Sixers executive Daryl Morey's modus operandi. He chases stars, and he made that clear during the Harden saga. The expiring contracts of all four ex-Clippers and the draft capital Philadelphia received in the deal — an unprotected 2028 first-round pick, a late-round 2026 first-round pick and a 2029 first-round pick swap — were all acquired to maintain flexibility in pursuit of a third star. Morey also controls all but two of his own first-round draft selections, which means they now have a handful of picks and swaps to trade.

This would normally hold Morey's spot in line for the next available star. One of the league's worst-kept secrets is the likelihood Donovan Mitchell leaves the Cleveland Cavaliers if he reaches 2025 free agency. Should the Cavs determine they cannot win a title before then, the time to maximize the return for him is now. It would require everything the Sixers have to trade, and that means both figuring out an offensive balance between Mitchell and Maxey as well as the defensive challenges they create in a small backcourt.

The objective: A third star in a complementary world

The 76ers should instead be chasing length and athleticism, shooting and defense, and none of it in the form of a ball-dominant star. If Morey is going to focus on a single solution, he would be better served seeking stars who might willingly complement Embiid and Maxey and fit Nurse's collaborative matchup-hunting style ...

Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

The Raptors have shown early signs of life as a potential playoff team after losing in last season's play-in tournament (under Nurse), mostly because third-year forward Scottie Barnes is realizing his All-Star potential, but that does not change their reality thereafter. Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby will both enter free agency at season's end, and the Raptors cannot afford to lose two more building blocks for nothing.

The Raptors have only Precious Achiuwa to show for the recent departures of Leonard, Lowry and Fred VanVleet, and that attrition has left them fighting for relevancy three years after winning the team's first championship. Losing either Siakam or Anunoby without acquiring assets in return would set back their retooling effort around the 22-year-old Barnes. Losing both could detonate the project before it begins.

Yet, signing both Siakam and Anunoby to their desired deals could lock into place a redundant roster that never seriously contends for a title. Siakam wants a max contract, and another All-NBA selection makes him eligible for the supermax. Anunoby should only start listening if an offer starts at $30 million annually. Pay them both, and Toronto will not have much flexibility once Barnes comes due for his raise in 2025.

The Raptors rejected serious inquiries into both players earlier this year. Multiple teams dangled three first-round draft picks for Anunoby at the trade deadline, and the Atlanta Hawks offered De'Andre Hunter, A.J. Griffin and draft picks for Siakam over the summer, per multiple reports. The Sixers can make a competitive offer, but they may need Toronto to lower its asking price, rival suitors to bow out of a bidding war or both.

The familiarity Nurse has with both Siakam and Anunoby would help the Sixers prioritize which is the better fit — Siakam's higher ceiling (and price tag) or Anunoby's malleability — and incorporate him into the mix. Nurse's confrontational history with Siakam might answer that question for Philadelphia.

Zach LaVine or DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls

The price is lower for Zach LaVine or DeMar DeRozan from the Chicago Bulls, whose start to this season forebodes a February fire sale. Although, either fit in Philadelphia is less seamless than Siakam or Anunoby.

LaVine is a two-time All-Star signed through the 2026-27 season, when he holds a $49 million option. Statistically, he is an elite scorer, averaging 25 points on 48/39/84 shooting splits over the past six seasons, but he has never meaningfully contributed to a winning atmosphere and has a history of knee problems.

DeRozan is a six-time All-Star working on an expiring contract. His professionalism and midrange mastery would be welcome in the space between Embiid and Maxey, but concerns about DeRozan's defense and 3-point shooting have followed him throughout his 15-year career. He also turned 34 years old in August.

On New Year's Eve, the Sixers will have the expiring contracts of Morris, Covington and Batum to offer, along with a collection of draft assets, if Chicago wants to unload either of its high-scoring wings. Adding DeRozan would also maintain Philadelphia's maximum salary cap flexibility for the summer, when they can either re-sign him or pursue Toronto's top free agents, among others, in a shallow 2024 free-agency class.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves might be finding their way for the first time since pairing Rudy Gobert with Karl-Anthony Towns in their frontcourt. They are also developing a defensive identity around Gobert, Jaden McDaniels and Anthony Edwards that might make Towns expendable, if they believe they are better suited with more complementary talent. Whether the Sixers can provide that is another question, but concerns about the fit between Embiid and Towns — both floor-spacing bigs — should not prevent them from trying.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

The New Orleans Pelicans might be cursed. They finally start the season with a healthy Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and C.J. McCollum, who played only 172 minutes together last season, and McCollum's lung collapsed six games in. He joins Trey Murphy III and Jose Alvarado on the injury list.

Williamson, Ingram and McCollum were outscored by 15 points in their first 61 minutes together this season, by the way. More broadly, Williamson and Ingram are minus-29 in their 105 minutes together so far. (They were plus-72 in 241 minutes last season.) Sample sizes stay small when you cannot keep them all on the floor.

At what point do the Pelicans consider reallocating their financial resources? This team is expensive and only going to get pricier if they retain their appreciating assets. Ingram is due for a new deal in 2025, and there is a world where New Orleans tires of waiting on a theoretical contender by February. The draft capital the Pelicans received from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers for dealing Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis is dwindling, but they still might prefer players to picks, and the Sixers are short on prospects.

Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz

Lauri Markkanen is quietly one of the league's best bargains, owed an average of $18 million in each of the next two seasons. He is 26 years old and averaging 24 points on 47/45/87 shooting splits as a 7-foot wing. Why would the Utah Jazz ever consider trading him? For starters, his value may never be higher than it is now, and the Jazz have no clear path to contention in the next two years. They are 2-7 to start this season.

Utah's future lies in the under-25 prospects on the roster and the many draft assets coming its way from the Cavs and Timberwolves. Maybe the Jazz want more picks. This is the story Morey can tell himself as he salivates over the prospect of adding Markkanen's size and shooting ability to a frontcourt featuring Embiid.

The alternative: Multiple high-level role players

If the swap of Harden for a collection of assets has taught the Sixers anything, it is that they might be better served replacing a third star with multiple top-echelon role players who enhance what is already working ...

Bojan Bogdanović, Detroit Pistons

The Detroit Pistons acquired Bojan Bogdanović during Utah's 2022 fire sale for Kelly Olynyk. They signed Bogdanović to a two-year, $39 million extension through 2025, and he has been a solid veteran presence on a rebuilding team, averaging 21.6 points on 49/41/88 shooting splits last season. A calf strain will cost the 34-year-old forward the season's first four weeks, as the Pistons appear bound for another lottery. Why wouldn't Detroit try to flip Bogdanović into more draft capital to benefit what looks like a promising future?

Buddy Hield, Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers are off to an impressive start, boasting the NBA's best offense through their first nine games. Hield is averaging 12.8 points per game on 37.3% 3-point shooting in 23.2 minutes off the bench, a sharp production decline in a crowded rotation. His $18.6 million salary expires at the end of this season, and he has been made expendable by the addition of Bruce Brown and the emergence of Aaron Nesmith (50% from 3 on 4.4 attempts per game). And here is the list of players who have shot 40% on at least eight 3-point attempts a game since the start of the 2018-19 season: Hield, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

Gordon Hayward, Charlotte Hornets

Gordon Hayward has not played more than 52 games since the 2018-19 season, his first year after a gruesome left ankle injury altered the course of his career. That includes the entirety of the four-year, $120 million contract he signed in 2020 with the Charlotte Hornets, which expires at the end of this season.

When he is healthy, Hayward still raises the collective level of a lineup. He is averaging a 17-6-5 in 32.7 minutes through seven appearances, shooting 47.5% from the field and 44.4% from deep. He will not cost much once Charlotte embraces tanking, and the Sixers can part ways with him if his injury history persists.

Jerami Grant, Portland Trail Blazers

Jerami Grant, one of few bright spots from The Process Era Sixers, signed a five-year, $160 million deal this past summer with the Portland Trail Blazers, a team focused on developing talent for a long-term rebuild. He is a rangy wing averaging 20.8 points (on 44/37/83 shooting splits), 4.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game since the start of the 2020-21 campaign, and he has experience filling a tertiary role on a contender, most notably serving as a 3-and-D weapon on the Denver Nuggets' run to the 2020 Western Conference finals.

The Blazers likely will want a significant return for Grant, and that would leave the Sixers without much else to flip for even more depth. Still, it is easier to find those players once you have a clear picture of your identity, and that might be the most important development for the Sixers moving forward.

(Morey might as well ask about Alex Caruso the next time he calls the Bulls.)

The point is: The Sixers are closer to joining the Celtics and Bucks at the front of the East line to the NBA Finals, and they have the flexibility now to close that gap quickly. Who would have imagined weeks ago?

Determination: Fact. The Sixers are one (or two) moves away from legitimate title contention.