76ers aiming to pursue a familiar path this offseason: trying to add another All-Star to Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey

The Indiana Pacers wanted a power forward. They’d long wanted a power forward. Splitting their frontcourt of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner netted a rising All-Star point guard in Tyrese Haliburton, yet Pacers personnel understood how a connective four man was still missing after identifying such a franchise face from Sacramento. In fact, Haliburton deserved that type of running mate.

“Tyrese is one of those transcendent players that with him on the court, anything’s possible,” head coach Rick Carlisle said in December, after Indiana’s victory during the in-season tournament semifinals. “Winning an NBA title is a dream that’s reachable.”

To help make that vision a reality, the Pacers sent three first-round picks to Toronto for All-NBA talent Pascal Siakam this winter. The Boston Celtics, after reaching the NBA Finals in 2022 and Game 7 of the conference finals in 2023, dealt mainstay Marcus Smart and multiple picks to bring in All-Stars Kristaps Porziņģis and Jrue Holiday. Minnesota was once ridiculed for its blockbuster acquisition of four-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, as were the Mavericks — by some detractors — as Dallas acquired All-Star guard Kyrie Irving. And yet, if there’s a shared trait among the four teams remaining in this postseason chase, each franchise, each front office, recognized the incumbent star talent on its roster and then spent aggressively to juice its lineup with more premium playmakers.

That is the same path the Philadelphia 76ers plan to pursue this summer, according to league sources. That has been the strategy of lead executive Daryl Morey dating back to his days piloting the Houston Rockets, and it was the same guiding principle Sam Hinkie — at first a Morey lieutenant with the Rockets — utilized when spearheading the Sixers’ process that produced Joel Embiid. Decades of data, so the thinking goes, is unequivocal: The history of NBA champions is littered with teams that rostered at least three All-Star-caliber players. The odds of winning a championship are not typically swung by role players or veteran minimum signings, but by the game’s greatest.

Since 2012-13, the chance a team reaches the conference finals nearly doubles (18.5% to 30.8%) when a roster boasts three top players compared to two top players, according to team-building reviewed by Yahoo Sports, with “top players” being those who made an All-Star or All-NBA team within two years of the current season and played 29-plus minutes per game. The championship odds for teams with two top players stand at just 0.9% compared to 14% with teams featuring three. Every title winner since 2013 has rostered at least a trio of alphas aside from two teams: Last June’s Nuggets (Nikola Jokić was Denver’s sole All-Star) and the 2020 Lakers, with only James and Anthony Davis meeting such criteria. It’s why Brooklyn tripled down with acquiring James Harden next to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. It’s why Minnesota and Boston now loom as favorites to clash in this year’s Finals. It’s this specific principle underlying Suns governor Mat Ishbia’s bold claim that 26 other teams would want Phoenix’s roster: The Suns have two All-Stars in Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, and Suns officials are optimistic Bradley Beal can return to All-Star form following his first full healthy offseason in some time.

By that rubric, the emergence of Tyrese Maxey certainly helps Philadelphia’s positioning. After his first All-Star campaign, Maxey was as worthy of sharing the post-Game 6 podium with Embiid as he is shouldering the Sixers’ future championship expectations. His near 50-ball in an elimination Game 5 at Madison Square Garden was the exclamation point to a developing belief around the organization’s Camden, New Jersey, waterfront facilities that Maxey is not only a bona fide Robin for Embiid, but someone capable of handling the torch once Embiid’s dominance begins to fade. “[Maxey] has a chance to do something special next year again,” Embiid said after the 76ers were eliminated by New York with this league’s Most Improved Player sitting at his side. “I hope he becomes All-NBA this year, but I think he can be in stuff like MVP conversations. I think he can take that next step.”

With those bookends in place, Philadelphia is focused on filling the gap between them with an elite, two-way wing, sources said. Since the team’s negotiations that sent Harden to Los Angeles, Philadelphia prioritized bringing back expiring contracts all the way through its acquisition of Buddy Hield at the trade deadline, so now the Sixers could have upward of $60 million in cap space. There are oceans of spending room in Detroit and Orlando, but neither situation offers free agents comparable championship upside if the Sixers can further maximize their efforts around Embiid and Maxey. Oklahoma City can create in the ballpark of $35 million in spending power, but Philadelphia, according to league sources, views its opportunity this summer as something just shy of Golden State’s rare opening to sign Durant as a free agent without the league’s cap smoothing in 2016. Teams with an MVP and an All-Star can’t typically afford to sign a maximum-salary third banana into room, while holding other avenues to spend and mid-level levers to pull, plus a cupboard of draft picks. The penalties baked into the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement are almost designed to dissuade that exact coalition.

DALLAS, TEXAS - MAY 03: Paul George #13 of the LA Clippers drives the ball against Derrick Jones Jr. #55 of the Dallas Mavericks during the first quarter in Game Six of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 03, 2024 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
Will the 76ers be interested in Paul George this summer? (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

The list of available players who can complete this formula for Philadelphia, though, is quite short. LeBron James can enter the open market if he declines his 2024-25 player option, and the Sixers did secure a meeting with James in 2018, before the all-time great joined the Lakers in free agency. And yet, there’s been no indication from league personnel with knowledge of the situation that James will truly entertain fleeing Los Angeles. Concerns about Embiid’s availability to both play and play at full strength in the postseason will also be a factor multiple player agents told Yahoo Sports they would advise clients to consider before signing with Philadelphia.

Eliminating James from the equation, Paul George appears to be the best possible player who could reach the open market in general, let alone who would also satisfy the Sixers’ desire of adding a premier two-way wing. George’s uncertain future with the Clippers stands as arguably the largest domino to fall before this offseason’s chain of transactions can materialize, particularly as George has not found an extension with Los Angeles now five months after Kawhi Leonard came to a three-year, $153 million agreement of his own. That number was notably well below the four-year, $223 million maximum the Clippers could have furnished Leonard, which sent immediate shockwaves to rival front offices that George’s situation could prove more complicated than previously imagined. If they weren’t willing to pay Kawhi the max, opposing front offices deliberated, why would they be willing to pay George that salary?

The Clippers, sources said, remain hopeful through continuous dialogue that George and his representatives will agree to terms with his incumbent franchise. But if there’s no maximum contract ultimately available for George with Los Angeles, in theory, a max offer from another organization could be all that’s needed to draw the All-Star forward out of his hometown. Rival teams and agents are conducting business, sources said, under the impression the Clippers aren’t keen on committing to guaranteed money beyond the three-year window of Leonard’s deal that runs through 2026-27. We’ll see if that proves ironclad come June, because maybe a deal below George’s maximum, but with four years of total salary, would be enough to pry him loose as well. Another potential leverage point rival teams are anticipating for George’s situation with the Clippers will be the no-trade clause George becomes eligible to negotiate into a new contract with Los Angeles come June 30 that is not currently available within the Clippers’ talks about an extension. Beal, remember, is the only active NBA player who holds a no-trade clause, and that severely handicapped Washington’s efforts to trade Beal this past summer. It seems quite unlikely Los Angeles would want to award the league’s second, but any club interested in George can happily remind him how the Clippers showed Blake Griffin his jersey in the rafters before turning around and trading the franchise icon to Detroit.

There will be other teams circling George outside of Philadelphia. The Pacers were once mentioned by league personnel as a potential option for George, where he could return to the franchise that drafted him and team with Haliburton. But talk of that possibility pre-dated Indiana’s acquisition of Siakam and the Pacers’ momentous run to the conference finals. Enough NBA decision-makers currently believe the Orlando Magic are a viable suitor for George. The Knicks will continue exploring star upgrades, sources said, until New York has extinguished its war chest of draft picks. Miami has the players and picks to barge into any superstar conversation.

The majority of teams are planning for this era of team building with the league’s more punitive second apron as a landscape where teams can only exceed that additional luxury tax threshold for two seasons before sacrificing future draft picks and having those selections frozen from trades and then stuck at the end of the first round. Clippers president Lawrence Frank went so far as including that context when he met with reporters following news of Leonard’s extension.

"Kawhi was a great partner,” Frank said in January. “Because of this new CBA, there's harsh penalties, but team-building penalties, for high spending teams and Kawhi understood it."

For all those complications, Philadelphia does have the cleanest path to making George a new home. The Sixers are willing to spend future money and sacrifice draft capital, league sources told Yahoo Sports, in the name of chasing next year’s title. George has been on Morey’s radar since the executive’s time running the Rockets, sources said, when Houston personnel were more than aware of George’s affinity for ending up in Los Angeles — where his parents now regularly sit courtside for his games. Will an optimal fit, on paper, be enough to persuade George to abandon all that for Philadelphia or somewhere else? George has never played in a market so demanding of its players, particularly those who’ve been given massive paydays. Harden, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris can cite plenty of first-hand examples of the situation.

Harris, by all accounts, is not expected to be back with the Sixers after a tenuous end to his Philadelphia tenure. To fill that two-way, max-salary slot Harris was once expected to uphold, only OG Anunoby would represent an option close to George’s prowess and close to representing a top-tier third star who can test the open market. Anunoby is widely expected to decline his $19.9 million player option for next season after being dealt to New York before the trade deadline. Of note: While league personnel are of the mind Siakam will certainly be re-signing with Indiana, there was word circling among team officials at last week’s NBA Draft Combine that Anunoby’s situation with the Knicks is not as cut and dried. Perhaps those signals to rival teams will only help Anunoby elicit a larger dollar figure from the Knicks. But various teams left Chicago with the belief that Anunoby could reach unrestricted free agency and consider deals from other franchises in addition to New York, sources said.

DeMar DeRozan will be unrestricted as well and has a relationship with Sixers head coach Nick Nurse from shared days in Toronto. Yet DeRozan has voiced his desire to return to Chicago and is less of an ideal third piece for Philly with his lack of outside shooting and affinity for a similar midrange space that Embiid occupies. If anything, how high a number DeRozan can draw from the Bulls will prove useful context for other free agents around the league, including George, and Harden’s own negotiations with the Clippers.

If Philadelphia can’t sign someone of that magnitude via free agency, the Sixers will likely have several options to pursue on the trade market. Donovan Mitchell’s upcoming extension talks with Cleveland will loom as large as George’s. Without an extension with the Cavaliers, you can add Philadelphia to any proverbial group of interested suitors in Mitchell’s services, sources said. Although Cleveland brass has expressed confidence Mitchell will extend with the Cavs, sources said, the dismissal of head coach J.B. Bickerstaff on Thursday has been seen around the league as an inevitable move in the team’s efforts toward keeping Mitchell long term. The growing possibility of Mitchell remaining in Cleveland, at least through the start of 2024-25, is what also sparked word throughout the Draft Combine of Klutch Sports preparing to ask the Cavaliers for a trade for All-Star point guard Darius Garland.

Rival teams are also preparing for the chance New Orleans looks to move Brandon Ingram this summer as well. A far murkier dynamic is that of Jimmy Butler, who’s extension eligible in Miami. The Sixers, of course, have been in the Butler business before. He and Embiid maintained a close relationship, and Butler may have been the All-Star whom Morey most often attempted to acquire in Houston, sources said. At this juncture, however, league executives are of the mind Butler will most likely remain with the Heat.

In the event Philadelphia is unable to land a big fish this summer, look for the Sixers to flush out their roster with similar non-guaranteed money as of the past season’s approach. Philadelphia, sources said, will prioritize being nimble with salaries in order to move whenever the next disgruntled star becomes available. Rival executives around the league are both applauding Minnesota and Boston’s starry team builds, but optimistic both the Wolves and Celtics will be unable to keep all of their top pieces in place the deeper the NBA wades into this new second-apron era.

The Sixers, sources said, took note of Indiana’s two-year splurge for Bruce Brown that then became the biggest salary headed back to Toronto in exchange for Siakam. Veteran wings like Klay Thompson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would fall on the Sixers’ list of targets for similar one-plus-one contracts, sources said. Striking out on a big-time wing would also leave the door open for Philadelphia to consider taking back a player such as Zach LaVine, sources said, in the event Chicago or another team is willing to attach draft capital to move off salary. Kyle Kuzma will be another advanced wing player on the trade market, although Washington’s asking price for the veteran scorer prior to February’s trade deadline was too rich for most rival teams.