P.J. Tucker is the perfect fit for the 76ers.
The same can be said about the Miami Heat, his current team. The spot where the gritty power forward has had the most success, however, is the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks acquired Tucker on March 19, 2021, and he turned out to be the missing piece to propel their 2021 NBA championship team.
However, several league sources say Tucker will choose the Sixers’ three-year, $30 million offer over opportunities to remain in Miami or go back to Milwaukee after free agency begins at 6 p.m. Thursday. Tucker could receive $27 million guaranteed with reachable incentives that could get him to $30 million, sources say.
The problem is, the Sixers won’t have the available salary-cap space if James Harden picks up his $47.36 million player option, as he previously said he would.
Sources believe Harden will sign a two-year extension for a little less than the maximum after picking up that option. But if Harden picks up his player option, the Sixers will have $151.7 million in salary tied up with 13 players. And this is where things get tricky.
» READ MORE: Sixers free agency story lines: James Harden’s future, Tobias Harris’ trade potential, and more
If the Sixers add a player via sign-and-trade this summer or use their $4.1 million biannual exception or the $10.3 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which is the best path for Tucker), they can’t go over the $155.7 million luxury-tax apron next season.
So the team would have to shed about $8.2 million to use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception and have enough room under the luxury-tax apron to afford a veteran-minimum contract ($1.8 million) for their 15th roster spot.
Right now, all the Sixers have to offer are minimum contracts and an MLE around $6.4 million after acquiring De’Anthony Melton and his $8.25 million salary in a draft-night trade with the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Sixers could send Melton to a team that would take on his salary without sending a player back to create the space needed to acquire Tucker. They just wouldn’t be able to aggregate his salary along with another player to make the deal work. However, it wouldn’t make sense to get rid of the three-and-D player who provides what they need.
Another avenue for the Sixers could be an attempt to package a combination of Furkan Korkmaz ($5 million), Matisse Thybulle ($4.3 million), and George Niang ($3.4 million) to a team without getting a player back in return.
An outside option could be trying to do a sign-and-trade with the Heat for Tucker.
The Bucks County Courier Times reported that an NBA source said the Sixers aren’t planning to trade just “to trim salary to use on [the] non-taxpayer MLE.” As a result, the report added that Tucker almost surely won’t become a Sixer.
But that hasn’t changed the thinking of rival executives and league sources, who all expect to see Tucker in Philly. Three sources have said Tucker to the Sixers is a “done deal.” A fourth source has said he would be shocked if Tucker wasn’t in a Sixers uniform next season.
We’ll find out shortly.
But a “done deal” in the NBA is only a done deal once it becomes clear that a preferred team won’t match or exceed an offer.
Of course, there has been leaguewide chatter surrounding the Sixers’ pursuit of Tucker for more than a week. Despite that, a person close to the team refuted what league sources said about the situation.
To be clear, teams are not allowed to negotiate with free agents until the free-agency period starts on Thursday. Any discussion beforehand is considered tampering. Teams can’t officially announce or sign their free-agent acquisitions until the league moratorium period ends at 12:01 p.m. on July 6.
It’s obvious that the Sixers and Tucker have mutual interest and intend to link up when given the opportunity.
» READ MORE: James Harden plans to sign a short-term extension with Sixers after picking up option
Harden’s deadline to opt out of the final year of his contract is Wednesday. Once he opts into his deal, Harden can only sign a two-year extension with 5% annual raises until Aug. 10. After that date, he’ll be eligible to sign a four-year extension that would have a 5% salary increase in 2023-24. Then he’ll be eligible for 8% annual raises over the final three seasons.
Sources have said that Harden, 32, has looked good while he is working out in the Houston area. He spent a little over eight seasons with the Houston Rockets before forcing a trade to the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 13, 2021.
Sixers trade target and Rockets shooting guard Eric Gordon has also participated in some of the Houston-area workouts. Sources have said Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey continues to pursue Gordon after failing to acquire him via a three-team trade on draft night.
Gordon’s acquisition, along with Harden’s decision to opt in and Tucker’s expected signing, would turn the Sixers into the Houston Rockets East.
Morey was the Rockets general manager for 13 seasons before being hired by the Sixers in November 2020. Gordon, 33, has spent the last six seasons of his 14-year career with the Rockets. Tucker, 37, spent 3½ seasons in Houston before being traded to Milwaukee at the 2021 trade deadline.
On paper, the Heat and the Bucks are better positioned to win the 2023 NBA title than the Sixers. But Tucker’s agent, Andre Buck, is a Philadelphia-area resident and a University of Delaware graduate. Sources have said that Tucker’s decision is bigger than basketball. The North Carolina native could have a few business ventures he would like to take up in the Philadelphia area. And he’s also looking to get a third year in a contract and take home a nice payday to cap off his career.
We’ll find out soon where the Sixers’ offer lands and whether they can fit Tucker’s desired salary. We’ll also see if the Heat or some other team can entice the veteran forward to go elsewhere.
But for now, the sense around the league is that he’ll join forces with the Sixers — and former Rockets Harden and Morey.