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June 27, 2019

Lakers opening max space makes Sixers' initiative clear — pay up, or else

Sixers NBA

The Sixers have been at risk of losing their big free agents regardless of what has been going on with the Lakers since the season ended. After the Lakers reportedly came to an agreement to ship out some of their young talent on Thursday, the things happening in L.A. suddenly have very real consequences for the Sixers.

According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Zach Lowe, and Bobby Marks, the Lakers will send Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, and Jemerrio Jones to the Washington Wizards in an effort to clear cap space, and in conjunction with that trade, newly acquired big man Anthony Davis will waive his $4 million trade kicker. That chunk of change may stop Davis from owning a new yacht unless he makes it back from Space Jam 2, but it now puts the Lakers in a position to sign a 30 percent max free agent this summer.

If the Lakers decide they want to chase a max-level player, whether that's the top man on the market in Kawhi Leonard or Sixers free agent Jimmy Butler, they now have the means to do so without an incoming player having to take a significant discount*. That is the first and most obvious way the Sixers are impacted by these moves — if one of their free agents has a desire to play in L.A., there are no real restrictions stopping a marriage at this point.

*(A note here — the Lakers may actually end up being about $700,000 short of that full max slot. With raises, that ends up being a $3 million shortage over the length of a four-year contract. Do I personally think this is significant enough to derail a deal? No. But that is ultimately up to the players in question.)

So this should make something very clear to the Philadelphia brain trust if it isn't already — the Sixers are going to have to pay up without a second thought when free agency opens on Sunday. There are too many flight opportunities at this point to play chicken with their top free agents.

Privately, the Sixers have shrugged off concerns about the Houston Rockets potentially coming in to steal Butler from their team. They view that situation for what it is: a team without the cap space to sign a free agent trying to sow uncertainty into the marketplace. Free agency is always fluid, but at this point, the team has been given no reason to believe their hand will be forced to deal Butler to the Rockets specifically.

There have been fewer declarations about their broader free agency concerns or contractual plans for the likes of Butler and Harris. 

Some of this is by design. Incumbent teams have the least to gain leaking their intent to the public. If the Sixers were giving contract details and confidence levels to various members of the media, the most they could gain is a brief period of calmness for their fanbase. The Sixers have also made it a habit to try to keep major moves quiet as much as possible since GM Elton Brand took over before last season, Matisse Thybulle promises aside. At times, they have even gone out of their way to send conflicting information, ostensibly in an effort to hide their true intentions.

But they are also aware that there are a lot of threats to derail their plans this summer. The Clippers have a strong infrastructure and space to bring in two max free agents. The Nets and Knicks have been angling for a spending spree this summer for a while now, even if the latter franchise is a perpetual tire fire. The Lakers, with two of the league's best players, can now recruit basically any player they want to the league's glamour franchise without asking them to make a big financial sacrifice.

Philadelphia's free agents do not have to be at the top of the Lakers' priority list for their presence on the market to matter. If Leonard goes to the Lakers, for example, suddenly the Clippers have more incentive to make a guy like Butler or Tobias Harris a top priority. If Leonard goes to the Clippers, the Lakers are still sitting there with all that money and the incentive to acquire players who can help LeBron James win titles in the twilight years of his career.

As annoying as "Lakers exceptionalism" is to fans of other teams, it matters when the Lakers have the money and incumbent talent to approach free agents. A good chunk of the league already lives in Los Angeles during the offseason. There are opportunities there that you can't always get in other cities, including Philadelphia. It is easier to blend in as a rich and famous person when the city you live in is used to being filled to the brim with them.

The Sixers have one path to derail this before it can begin — presenting full max offers to Butler and Harris at 6:01 p.m. on Sunday. No other team can give either player five years and the extra tens of millions attached. No other team can offer them continuity and concrete examples of how much they were willing to sacrifice to bring them into the fold to begin with.

For most of the other teams on the market, Butler and Harris are going to take a backseat to the likes of Leonard, Kevin Durant, and perhaps Kyrie Irving. This isn't true in Philadelphia, and while you can't put a price tag on that it is powerful all the same. Pro athletes are not different from regular people in this way — they want to feel valued and respected when it comes time to talk business, and not as backup options for gaudier plans. The way you buy loyalty, beyond the money, is to make people feel like no one else is more important than they are.

Publicly, the Sixers have made assurances that the luxury tax is not an issue for this team, but owner Joshua Harris has also hedged those claims by insisting they need to be smart with their money.

"We've said it repeatedly and we'll keep saying it. We'll continue to do what it takes to bring a championship to Philly including spending into the luxury tax," Harris said. "Obviously it's a system where if you make the wrong decisions financially, you hamstring your team. So there's a lot to consider."

Whether you think max deals are appropriate or not for Butler and Harris, at this point, there is not a whole lot to consider. Either the Sixers believe they can win a title with this group or they don't, either they pay up for two of the best players on the market or risk losing them. There are threats on both coasts, opportunities to join established stars or form new threats on their own, and an abundance of cash available.

In other words, Philly has no room to mess around, and the Lakers' maneuvering underlines that fact.

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