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June 29, 2024

How the Sixers can sign Paul George and trade for Lauri Markkanen this offseason

Mapping out a scenario in which the Sixers add not one star this offseason, but two of them.

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George Lauri Rob Gray/USA TODAY Sports

Paul George and Lauri Markkanen could be the two best players to change teams this offseason. Could they both land with the Sixers?

News broke just over 24 hours before the start of NBA free agency on Sunday evening that Los Angeles Clippers star wing Paul George is opting out of his contract and entering free agency, with the Sixers looming as a "legitimate threat" to sign the nine-time All-Star.

The Sixers have been positioning themselves for this moment for the better part of a year as their quest for the ideal third star next to Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey continued. 

But what if they found a fourth star, too?

Lauri Markkanen of the Utah Jazz has become one of the most dynamic offensive forwards in the entire NBA over the last two seasons, a genuine three-level scorer who can put the ball in the basket at the highest of levels. As he enters the final year of his current contract, reports have circulated that teams are monitoring whether or not Markkanen, who is only entering his age-27 season, could become available for trade in the near future.

Sixers free agency primer: Literally everything you need to know

It could take a massive amount of draft picks to woo the Jazz -- rightfully so given how good the Finnish seven-footer has become. But if it is possible, the Sixers are armed with a collection of future first-round selections to make a competitive offer.

Pulling off a trade for Markkanen after signing George to the maximum offer he is expected to command -- which is projected to be worth $49,350,000 in its first season -- would be extremely tricky.

But after a few hours of crunching numbers and asking various salary cap experts, it does seem that this path is feasible if things broke right: that is, the Sixers could theoretically put these four players together without violating any of the league's salary cap rules.

Before we get to all of the salary cap machinations, it is worth pointing out that there are some potential downsides to doing this: Markkanen is, of course, due for a new and hefty contract soon. The Sixers' financial flexibility after assembling this hypothetical four-star unit would be incredibly limited, resembling the hellish situation the Phoenix Suns are currently in. There is a real argument to be made that going down this road would be reckless, giving the Sixers a one- or two-year window at best and then putting them in an extremely precarious position.

But with the Boston Celtics looking like a juggernaut and teams like the New York Knicks pushing all of their chips in, it is not unreasonable to expect the Sixers to do the same -- and if there was ever a group of four players to do it for, it would be this one.

So, come on a journey with me as I outline the path to building a team featuring Embiid, Maxey, George and Markkanen:

Step No. 1: Renounce all free agents other than Maxey

According to the projections of salary cap expert Yossi Gozlan on, if the Sixers renounce the rights to all of their free agents other than Maxey -- Tobias Harris, Buddy Hield, Nic Batum, Robert Covington, De'Anthony Melton, Kyle Lowry, Mo Bamba, Jeff Dowtin Jr., KJ Martin, Kelly Oubre Jr., Cam Payne and Terquavion Smith -- they would have $54,781,404 in cap space. That is our starting point in this exercise.

Step No. 2: Sign Paul George to max contract

The first year of George's max contract is projected to be worth $49,350,000. His deal eating up that chunk of salary cap space trims their cap room to $5,431,404. But, the NBA salary cap has something called incomplete roster charges: when a team does not have at least 13 players who they either have under contract or own the Bird rights of, the team is charged one rookie minimum salary against their cap space for each number below 13 that they are at. 

So, signing George would remove one incomplete roster charge, which is projected to be valued at $1,160,564. So, that gives the Sixers $6,591,948 in cap space.

Step No. 3: Trade for soon-to-be salary filler

When a team makes a normal in-season trade, any player they trade for cannot be traded along with other players for a certain period of time. Free agent signings are not allowed to be traded at all until Dec. 15. But if a team absorbs a player into their cap space via trade, that player can be rerouted at any time, and they are allowed to be aggregated with other salaries.

So, the idea here is that the Sixers would use this $6.5 million or so of cap space to absorb salary via trade so that they can eventually be sent to Utah in a Markkanen deal.

There are a few players on expiring contracts who they could likely acquire from teams for little to no cost. Reggie Jackson of the Charlotte Hornets, for example, will make $5,250,000 next season and has no place with his new team in the short- or long-term.

Of course, the Sixers would only perform Step No. 3 if they knew Step No. 4 was going to immediately follow:

Step No. 4: Trade for Lauri Markkanen

This is, of course, the hardest part -- and the component of this plan that makes it the hardest to see actually coming to fruition. First, the Jazz have to decide that they are ready to move Markkanen. Then, the Sixers have to hope that no other team makes a stronger offer than what they are capable of. Unfortunately for the Sixers, there are teams out there with stronger collections of future first-round picks, so even if the Jazz did decide it was time to trade their best player, it is not exactly a lock that the Sixers could get him if they want to do so.

So, the structure of the trade would be Markkanen going to the Sixers in exchange for Paul Reed, Ricky Council IV, whichever player(s) they acquire to satisfy Step No. 3 and a collection of future draft picks.

A quick note: the Jazz are the team that signed Reed to his unusual three-year deal last summer, before the Sixers matched the offer sheet and ensured he would return to Philadelphia, so it is entirely plausible that Utah would value him to some extent beyond just being salary filler.

Again, though, things would need to break right for the Sixers to make this offer appealing to Utah beyond its simple legality.

Step No. 5: Find depth

With George and Markkanen secured in this hypothetical world, the Sixers would have the room mid-level exception -- worth a hair over $8 million -- and veteran's minimum contracts to fill out the remainder of their roster. They could choose to offer the entirety of that MLE to one player in hopes of finding a strong fifth starter, or they could split it up among two viable rotation contributors.

Step No. 6: Sign Tyrese Maxey to max contract

This will be the Sixers' final piece of business officially, but it will be their easiest: Maxey will agree with the team on a five-year contract worth just below $205 million.

And just like that, Embiid, Maxey, George and Markkanen would all be on the same roster. Take a deep breath.

Step No. 7: Hope for a title next season, because tough times are coming

Putting these four incredible talents on the same team in today's NBA would be a remarkable feat in itself, even just on the level of displaying tremendous creativity. But beyond the 2024-25 season, the team would be in an unspeakably disadvantageous situation from a financial standpoint moving forward if they were to re-sign Markkanen.

One final disclaimer: none of this is to say the Sixers are going pull all of this off, or that it is a remotely realistic outcome, or even that they should attempt to do it if it was possible. It is merely an attempt to outline the procedural path to assembling a roster featuring these four-star players.

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