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May 24, 2024

Sixers stay or go: Has De'Anthony Melton earned a pay day?

De'Anthony Melton was a massive piece for the Sixers in his first year with the team. But in 2023-24, back injuries limited him to 38 games. What does his future hold?

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Melton 5.23.24 Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports

A major pay raise is likely coming for De'Anthony Melton. Will the Sixers give it to him, or will the versatile guard take his talents elsewhere?

It's going to be an offseason like no other. Save for Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and a few other depth players, the Sixers could totally overhaul their roster before the 2024-25 regular season.

With upwards of $60 million in cap space likely to be available, debates as to whether most of the roster should be brought back into the fold for next season and beyond — or not — will be debated for weeks. As the team contemplates major changes in personnel, we ponder the question, should De'Anthony Melton stay or go?

Sixers 'Stay or Go' series

In the final rendition of this "Stay or Go" series, let's talk about the player who is perhaps the Sixers' most unpredictable free agent. Melton has established himself as a starting-caliber NBA guard who can knock down spot-up threes with impressive efficiency at noteworthy volume while also serving as a major plus on the defensive end of the floor. He will be 26 years old when the 2024-25 NBA regular season begins. And yet, it is hard to gauge what his market will look like because of the turbulent season he had in 2023-24.

Melton played in 33 of the Sixers' first 37 regular season games in his second season with the organization, all of them being starts. After a slow start from behind the three-point line, Melton was slowly but surely getting back to the player that had endeared himself to Sixers fans in 2022-23 after the team traded a first-round pick to the Memphis Grizzlies along with injured veteran Danny Green to acquire Melton on the night of the 2022 NBA Draft.

Then, disaster struck for a player in a contract year. For the second straight season, Melton dealt with a back injury. But this time around, it was far more severe. Melton missed about six weeks of action, returned for three games and then went back on the shelf, missing another six weeks or so with the same back ailment. Melton returned, played a game and a half, and was once again sidelined. 

After being inactive for the team's first three postseason games, Melton was activated for the final four, but only played in one of them, making a brief, seven-minute cameo in the team's Game 4 loss at home to the New York Knicks.

Give Melton this: in the final season of a four-year, $35 million contract that turned out to be well below market value for a player with his capabilities, rather than sitting out the remainder of the season and preserving his health ahead of the offseason -- which would have been entirely justifiable -- he worked tirelessly to even make himself an emergency option for Sixers head coach Nick Nurse. It did not ultimately amount to much, but his effort was admirable. 

With that being said, Melton is entering his age-26 season, has suffered multiple recent injury scares and has been vastly underpaid for his entire NBA career. If there was ever a time for him to maximize his earning potential, it would be right now. While in a vacuum, the Sixers would surely love to bring Melton back into the fold, paying him the kind of money he could theoretically command on the open market may not be compatible with their well-known plans of pursuing a third star-level player to put with Embiid and Maxey.

There are a handful of teams out there who, like the Sixers, project to have significant cap space this summer. Any one of them could price Melton out of the Sixers' range. The Charlotte Hornets, for example, could covet a defensive-oriented role player on the perimeter to play alongside building blocks LaMelo Ball and Brandon Miller. After their disastrous 2023-24 season, the Detroit Pistons could covet just about anybody with a track record of being a good NBA player. The Oklahoma City Thunder may need a new starting shoot guard who is more viable on offense in a playoff setting than Josh Giddey. Those are just three teams who could make Melton an offer that he cannot refuse.

If the Sixers want to sign a player to a maximum contract in free agency, they will need anywhere from $42.3 million to $49.3 million available in cap space (depending on said player's years of service). For the sake of this hypothetical, let's say they make a run at their most commonly-rumored target, Paul George of the Los Angeles Clippers. Because George has more than 10 years of experience under his belt, a maximum contract for his services would start at that $49.3 million figure.

Without making any trades, the only way the Sixers can create that much cap room without renouncing their rights to Maxey is by renouncing their rights to everybody on their roster except for Maxey and any two of their free agents who were on veteran's minimum deals or two-way contracts last season (Mo Bamba, KJ Martin, Kelly Oubre Jr., Cam Payne, Terquavion Smith). 

The only way for the Sixers to keep their full Bird rights on Maxey and Melton while freeing enough space for someone like George is to waive Paul Reed (or trade him without taking any salary back) and then either trade the No. 16 overall pick in the 2024 NBA Draft or waive Jeff Dowtin Jr.

Team-building is a complicated process that is ultimately determined by many factors beyond simple on-court value and fit. This is a numbers game, and for that reason, Melton could very well be headed for his fourth NBA team since he was drafted in 2018.

MORE: Sixers offseason FAQ: free agent breakdowns, cap space scenarios and more

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