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June 26, 2023

Making sense of the Tobias Harris trade rumors

Will the Sixers, indeed, find a trade partner for their high priced forward?

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Sixers-Pistons-Tobias-Harris_012821_Kate_Frese105.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Will Tobias Harris bring back any kind of splashy return in a trade this season?

How close is Sixers forward Tobias Harris to getting traded? The answer to that question depends on who you ask, and it's why a lot of people seem to be getting antsy over Philadelphia's offseason to date. Mind you, free agency has not yet begun in earnest in the NBA, and Philadelphia's Harden-sized domino is the most important thing they have to deal with. But I can appreciate the urgency from a fanbase desperate for more success.

Over the weekend, there was a lot of discussion of Tobias Harris' list of potential suitors. The driving force behind most of the rumors was Keith Pompey over at the Inquirer, who characterized the situation like so:

A source said the Suns want Harris to play alongside Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal. And they want to acquire him before the start of free agency on June 30 because of possible second apron ramifications. 

The only thing is Phoenix would have to move Deandre Ayton. The Sixers have no interest in the 7-foot, 250-pounder with three years and $102 million left on his contract. And why would they when franchise player and reigning MVP Joel Embiid, like Ayton, plays center? The Sixers also don’t have any interest in any of the players the Suns would make available.

So Phoenix wants the Sixers to get a third team involved to facilitate the deal, according to a source. However, the Sixers are unwilling to do so. [Inquirer]

The first red flag here that should have been thought of before publishing is the suggestion that Phoenix was actively looking to trade for Harris specifically, but when it came to finding a third team, their position was basically "figure it out yourselves" to the Sixers. Not sure the logic holds up on that one. 

Within 24 hours of posting that initial story, Pompey followed up by essentially saying the time for dealmaking was over

And while the Suns expressed serious interest, a source said Sunday that they have paused their pursuit of Harris. The team now intends to move forward with Deandre Ayton. [Inquirer]

That is indeed what the Suns are telling people at the moment. 

There was a follow-up detail from the initial story regarding the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Pompey alleging that the Sixers were asking for the moon in trade discussions:

Last week, sources told The Inquirer the Sixers are overvaluing Harris and asking for “outrageous packages in return.” That goes in line with what a source said the Sixers told the Cavs what it would take days before the draft: A package of Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley, and a draft pick.

As we tried to explain in a story regarding Cavs trade rumors last week, Cleveland does not have genuinely tradable assets to move in exchange for a contract the size of Harris', unless they were willing to move Donovan Mitchell or Darius Garland. Most of the roster is on cheap-ish contracts between $4-8 million, which makes getting to a workable trade extremely difficult. Allen and Mobley are two of Cleveland's best and most valuable players, yes, but they're also in a very small group of players with contracts that even get close to matching salary.

So let's get into the main problem of this reporting — that trade is straight-up illegal, and would be illegal under either version of the collective bargaining agreement, new or old. 

  1. Harris' 2022-23 salary was roughly 132% of their combined salaries, which is larger than the 125% plus $100,000 rule the trade would have had to clear prior to July 1. 
  2. If executed after July 1st, teams over the first apron can only take back 110% of outgoing salary, making it even more illegal than it would have been prior to July 1st.
  3. This part is unclear because reporting on the subject was scarce, but it appears that the Cavs also exceeded the taxpayer midlevel by signing Danny Green for $2 million midseason after signing Ricky Rubio in the offseason, hard-capping themselves for the rest of 2022-23. That would have made this proposed swap for Harris illegal in another way, if that's the case. 

In any case, it is not my understanding that the Sixers go around hoping to make and propose illegal trades all of the time, but your mileage may vary.

This is also not the first time Pompey (or a source of Pompey's, I suppose) has played up the Sixers' bargaining position in trade talks. This time around, it's being said that Morey, "isn't negotiating in good faith." When the Ben Simmons trade talks were ongoing in 2021,  "One league executive said the Sixers are making 'totally outlandish offers,'" was how that process was described at the time. At the end of that journey, the Sixers came away with James Harden. I won't suggest they will be similarly fortunate this time around, but it should at least offer some perspective on how "outlandish" or "outrageous" their asking price is for players they'd consider trading.

There are some underlying "battles" to consider while trying to figure out what is/isn't happening in the trade market right now. Harris' father and agent, Torrel Harris, has not been shy about trying to secure a big-money extension for his son, whether that means trying to work that angle with the Sixers or getting him traded to a team that would consider extending him. That is part of why the dialogue has been slightly overstated.

As has been reported in this space multiple times over the past few weeks, the Sixers fielded offers and had discussions with a handful of teams around the league regarding Harris, which included the Pacers and Pistons. He is both a readymade contributor and a gigantic expiring contract, both of which offer value to teams depending on their needs and wants under the new CBA, which will be punitive for teams that push deep into the luxury tax over the long term. But so far, any discussions with other teams have been way short of completion, with the Sixers content to keep Harris or at least wait out some other deal-making periods, which will come later this summer or closer to the trade deadline.

(This is not to say that they have the ammunition or motivation to go and trade for Damian Lillard, but it certainly behooves the Sixers to at least see how that situation shakes out, with smoke building in Portland that they're finally at the crossroads. A major star deal could have ramifications for Philadelphia even if they are uninvolved, and moving Harris' giant expiring contract sooner than later likely takes them out of the running for any star who might shake loose this summer.)

The Sixers will continue to consider trades for the veteran forward, but they are under no immediate pressure to move him and are operating as such. While there's an element of gamesmanship to the company lines you hear like, "Nick Nurse is excited to coach Harris," the Sixers value Harris enough not to sell him for pennies on the dollar.

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