Are the Philadelphia 76ers good enough to win the NBA championship in 2024? Most of the metrics suggest that yes, they are. They are one of three teams along with the Celtics and Thunder to rank in the top five in the NBA in both offense and defense. They’ve never done that during the post-Process era. Their plus-8.4 net rating is comfortably their best with Joel Embiid on the team, and it’s better than any champion since the 2017 Warriors. Embiid is having what is quite possibly the best individual offensive season of the 21st century. At the very least, they credibly meet the threshold for team president Daryl Morey’s 5% rule.
“If you’ve got even a 5% chance to win the title — and that group includes a very small number of teams every year — you’ve gotta be focused all on winning the title,” Morey told Zach Lowe all the way back in 2012. He’s largely held to that idea ever since, making more all-in-type trades than any other executive over the past decade and change. He seemingly has a 5% team this year, and thanks to his October trade of James Harden, he has the assets to improve it meaningfully. He still might, but the general tone of the reporting surrounding the 76ers is that they are approaching this trade deadline cautiously.
Thus far, the 76ers have turned up their nose at starry, typically Morey-esque targets like Zach LaVine. They watched Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby get traded to other teams, and while there’s been reporting surrounding some interest in Dejounte Murray, they haven’t been mentioned especially frequently compared to more desperate, older teams (cough Lakers cough). Shams Charania said that he expects the 76ers to be “measured” at the trade deadline. There are cogent basketball reasons for that. They’ve found this season that their offense works just fine with two high-usage ball-handlers instead of three. Embiid and Tyrese Maxey are having career seasons, so cutting their usage for a LaVine type makes little sense. A defensive-minded wing would go a long way, but such players tend to be expensive. Most viable playoff-caliber players are on hefty long-term deals, and Morey has reason to exercise financial caution.
The 76ers can create max cap space fairly easily this offseason. The exact amount is nebulous and dependent on a number of factors, but the general range that is floated about is $55 million. The highest tier of max salary would command a projected $49.7 million salary next season, so there’s a bit of wiggle room if the Sixers do plan to go star-hunting, but generally speaking, the price of doing so would be allowing the bulk of their own free agents to walk. Though Morey is a master at manipulating the cap and likely could preserve some depth, he’d essentially be deciding between retaining some version of this possibly championship-caliber group and using cap space to form a three-headed monster with another star.
Morey has gone to great lengths to create this cap space. He forced Maxey to wait an extra year on his rookie extension to create it—a move that, historically, has not gone well for teams that have tried it. He snuck P.J. Tucker into the Harden deal as the last significant salary left on his 2024-25 books. Philadelphia has added no long-term money. They largely haven’t been linked to players with long-term contracts on the trade market. Preserving that space has a ton of theoretical value, but avoiding long-term money on the trade market with a team this good would directly violate Morey’s 5% rule. If he does so, it’s probably because he has a target in mind for that space over the summer.
The trouble here is that most of the theoretical fits he may have had in mind last offseason are falling off of the board due to trades and extensions. Anunoby and Siakam are likely to re-up with their new teams. So is Jrue Holiday, who landed on the best team in the NBA when he got traded to Boston. Kawhi Leonard has already inked a new deal with the Clippers. Paul George hasn’t signed a new deal yet, but after Leonard’s extension he said that he was “very, very optimistic something will get done on my behalf, as well.” Perhaps a playoff collapse might change his mind, and the Sixers know firsthand how capable Harden is of engineering one, but for the time being, the Clippers don’t exactly seem ripe for a breakup. That covers most of the top 2024 free agents, though there has been one superstar whose possible free agency has thus far gone largely uncovered, and he happens to be Morey’s white whale.
LeBron James has a player option for next season. He has given no indication that he plans to explore the market, and there has been little reporting suggesting that he might other than Dave McMenamin’s recent nugget that the Lakers “have not preemptively spoken to James’ representatives about the star’s future plans.” It’s also fair to wonder if a team built around a 29-year-old and a 23-year-old would want to pay huge money to someone who is about to turn 40, though their playoff performance will likely dictate whether or not such a pursuit makes sense.
On all fronts, we are several dozen steps away from legitimacy. This is tinfoil hat territory here, but the deeper you look into the possibility, the more it makes sense. While we cannot say anything for certain, it seems reasonable to assume that LeBron is looking for the three following things as his career comes to a close:
A chance to meaningfully compete for championships. The chance to play with his oldest son Bronny. He’s spoken about this desire numerous times on the record.The ability to earn max or near-max salaries for as long as possible. James took a discount on his Miami Heat contract, but during his 2014 free agency, he reportedly told suitors that he would accept no less than his max salary and he has held to that ever since.
So let’s see how the Sixers, Lakers and the field stack up by those criteria. As we’ve covered, the Sixers are firmly in the championship mix with Maxey and Embiid, and their presence would allow James to scale down his usage in the regular season. That’s something he’s been trying to do for years, and was seemingly a major motivator behind his desire to play with Russell Westbrook (and later Kyrie Irving). The Lakers reached the Western Conference Finals last season, but their odds of doing so this season appear slim. They are 23-23 despite missing only seven combined games from James and Anthony Davis. They could make a big trade at the deadline to improve their chances, but the West has four juggernauts at the top and as it stands, the Lakers are four games out of even a top-six seed. The likeliest outcome here is another play-in berth. If the Lakers sneak into the playoffs from there, they would likely be underdogs against every opponent they face from that point forward.
One of the potential advantages of having such an underwhelming season should be a high first-round pick… except the Lakers might not even have one. They still owe the New Orleans Pelicans one pick from the Anthony Davis trade. New Orleans has the option of taking their 2024 pick or deferring the obligation to 2025. If the Pelicans do take their pick, the Lakers would be at a marked disadvantage in their pursuit of Bronny. Klutch Sports could try to deter other teams, but there is only so much they can do on that front. If the younger James declares for the draft and another team wants him, they have every right to draft him.
The 76ers wouldn’t be the only team thinking about using junior to lure senior, and the area ahead of them on the current draft board is a bit of a minefield. The 76ers are currently projected to pick at No. 26. Both of James’ former teams are ahead of them at the moment, with the Heat coming in at No. 16 and the Cavaliers at No. 23. Several teams in that range stand out as possible James options, including the Knicks at No. 18 simply given their desperation for a star and the Thunder at No. 24 given the security their mountain of draft picks offers them to take home run swings. There is no guarantee that Morey could land James at No. 26 or thereabouts. He might need to trade up to do so.
Of course, the 76ers have one advantage over those other teams: money. They are one of seven teams currently projected to have significant cap space this offseason. The other six? Detroit, Charlotte, Orlando, Utah, Toronto and San Antonio. Do any of those teams sound like likely James destinations? Perhaps the Spurs on some level, given their surplus of draft capital, the presence of Victor Wembanyama and James’ longstanding respect for Gregg Popovich, but they are probably years away from contending and would need to clear a good deal more space to pay James anyway.
No, if there’s one team outside of Los Angeles that can check the boxes for contention, Bronny and salary, it’s the 76ers, and Morey is a seasoned James pursuer. He met with Rich Paul to make a pitch during James’ 2014 free agency, but as we now know, his heart was set on Cleveland at the time. He tried again in 2018, and had not only Harden, but James’ close friend Chris Paul to serve as recruiters. But the Rockets would have needed to engineer a complicated sign-and-trade, and James ultimately decided he wanted to live in Los Angeles. If that is still a requirement? There is nothing the 76ers can do. He’ll remain a Laker indefinitely, perhaps until his retirement. The Lakers can make the choice easy for him in a number of ways. Winning would be a good start. Perhaps the James family could try to game the system to get Bronny to the Lakers by holding him out of the draft until a year in which the Lakers have a pick to take him with.
But the Cavaliers and Heat surely thought James would retire with them. He didn’t. James has proven time and time again that he is prepared to move to whichever situation suits his current needs. If that is no longer the Lakers, the 76ers stand out as the obvious alternative.
He still has a long time to figure all of this out. How the Lakers and 76ers finish their seasons will certainly play some role here. But Morey is working under a much harsher time crunch. He has less than two weeks left before the trade deadline, and if he is operating under the parameters of his 5% rule, he might have to sacrifice some of the cap space he’s so carefully carved out before he has a chance to use it on James.
Should he do so? Both sides are reasonable. Seasons like the one Embiid is having are rare. There’s no guarantee that he will play at this level again next season because there’s so little precedent for anyone ever reaching this level in the first place. One could argue that there will never be a more attainable title for Philadelphia than this one. Yes, the field is deep this season, but there’s no overwhelming favorite dominating the field. That might change in the near future. What happens if you wait a year and suddenly the Thunder make their all-in trade? Heck, what happens if a disappointing playoff run shakes Embiid’s faith in the organization?
Chances at an immediate title are rare and to be treasured, but historically speaking, perhaps no player has ever done more to boost a team’s odds than James. Between 2011 and 2020, teams that employed LeBron reached the Finals 90% of the time. Morey’s never gotten there, and he’s not favored to do so this season. His self-professed roster-building philosophy is to “get more USA Basketball team members.” James might be playing for his third gold medal this summer, and Embiid is set to join him on that team.
Perhaps there’s a middle-ground approach to the trade deadline that sees Philadelphia target players with low salaries—either on rookie deals, bargain veteran contracts or with low cap holds as free agents next summer—that could improve the current team and potentially be a part of the next one. Former James running mate Alex Caruso and his $9.5 million salary would be perfect in this respect if Philadelphia is willing to cough up the multiple first-round picks it would reportedly take to pry him away. If the 76ers are prepared to give up assets for players they might not retain beyond the season, they could add heftier expiring salaries or trade for players they feel confident they could dump into someone else’s space over the summer if needed.
But it’s likelier that the 76ers ultimately need to make a decision between two of Morey’s core principles as an executive: do they abide by the “gather as many Team USA players as possible” rule and preserve the cap space to make a run at James or someone like him? Or do they follow the 5% rule and pay what it takes to maximize this team’s championship odds, future be damned? It’s probably the single most important decision any team will make in the next two weeks. Philadelphia is going to make a major push in the near future, and whether that comes this year or beyond is going to shape the next several championship races.