What Paul George’s Sixers deal could say about the future of free agency (2024)

When the Philadelphia 76ers sign Paul George later this month, they will have officially pulled off a coup of some impressive doing.

Ever since James Harden-Daryl Moreydrama of last summer, the Sixers projected they would accrue enough salary-cap space to make a splash. One of the ways was to use that cap space to make a marketplace-shaking trade. Instead, here comes George from Los Angeles, on a four-year, $212 million contract.

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George is the first max-level player to change teams via free agencysince 2019. Free agency had become a meeting ground for two kinds of undesirable partners: mostly uncompetitive teams with cap space and the players not good enough to get big extensions from their own teams. It was like a dating app of the last resort. But George and the Sixers have tethered together in interesting ways, and it’s worthwhile to wonder if this is a unique transaction or if the weathervane is pointing a new direction.

It’s hard to think of many times over the last few years when a team has taken an intractable negotiating tact with a star player, which George, an All-Star just a few months ago, certainly still is. The Sixers drew a hard line with Harden, but he was already on the decline and didn’t have a bunch of suitors once Philadelphia made it clear it would be willing to deal him. The Clippers drew limits with George, just as they were able to get Kawhi Leonard to sign a three-year, sub-max deal.

Will this be a harbinger of future austerity across the league? Not for the very best players still in their prime, of course, but what about everyone else? George is 34, and this next contract will take him through age 37. A 37-year-old making more than $56 million is a risky proposition, spring-loaded salary-cap projections or not.

GO DEEPERNBA's apron era marks end of exceptionalism + free-agency winners, losers

Every marginal dollar is going to have a price under the new collective bargaining agreement with its restrictive aprons. The tax rates are going to jump 40 percent for teams $20 million above the luxury tax line for the 2025-26 season and 52.6 percent for the repeater tax above that threshold. The CBA was constructed to have teams operating just around the tax, not way above it, and it will try to obliterate the teams that dare to ignore its warnings.

Surely, some teams will use the CBA as a Boogeyman to fans and player agents alike to skirt further spending. It’s likely already happening. But there is real trepidation too.

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The Clippers cited the CBA three times when the franchise released a statement explaining why it is not re-signing George. The Golden State Warriors have slowly disarmed over the last two summers, tired of being light-years over the tax line. The Denver Nuggets leadership group has repeatedly mentioned the restrictions of the CBA, though the luxury tax was an annual concern before there was a second apron. The Boston Celtics seem willing to be in the second apron for the next few years after they just won the title; also, Wyc Grousbeck announced he’s ready to cash out and sell the team. Certainly, the Phoenix Suns have been a cautionary tale to others so far, though they also farmed out a significant portion of their draft future, curtailing their ability to make other moves.

Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, however, has his own way of doing business. He sees no other way than to try to collect talent and figure out the rest. This is the third time he’s lured a star away from Los Angeles (Dwight Howard and Chris Paul made leaps to Houston). Time will tell if Sixers ownership is willing to go deep into the tax or the second apron, but Morey was not scared off by signing three max-contract players.

“In those situations, I like having the challenge,” Morey said in April after the New York Knicks eliminated the Sixers in the first round of the playoffs. “To me, finding the guys who are overlooked — the Kelly Oubres of the world, getting a Kyle Lowry or getting players like that — I like that challenge. I think that’s something that the front office is very good at. And so I think, yeah, compared to — basically, you’re [saying] have less good players, but more role players. I think, generally, the history of the NBA would favor — even with the new CBA — (getting) studs who then you can put the work and the onus on the front office to find the players that fit around (them).”

The Sixers will be supremely talented. Joel Embiid is one of the best players in the NBA. Tyrese Maxey proved himself this past season as a top scoring guard, and his 46-point performance in Game 5 against the Knicks was one of the best of the playoffs. Is George the best teammate Embiid has had in Philadelphia? He is an easy fit alongside him and Maxey. The hardest part will be building a team around that trio. The Sixers barely have enough players on the roster to fill out a rotation and about $136 million committed to their three stars in 2024-25.

Will Paul George be the best teammate Joel Embiid has ever had in Philadelphia? pic.twitter.com/38S1zZPinX

— Mike Vorkunov (@MikeVorkunov) July 2, 2024

The Eastern Conference will be brutal next season, a far cry from the gilded path the Celtics took to the NBA Finals this spring. The Knicks have powered up with Mikal Bridges. The Milwaukee Bucks still have Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard. The Indiana Pacers are getting better. The Miami Heat are the Heat.

But Philadelphia has positioned itself well, even if caveats about depth and health apply. Morey is all about incurring risk for a chance at glory. This Sixers team epitomizes that.

GO DEEPERAmick: With Paul George deal, Sixers swing for fences — a move they had to make

Buckle up in the East

An observation about the Eastern Conference arms race: There hasn’t been one in a long time.

The last time three East teams won 55 or more games was during the 2010-2011 season. That was two CBAs and a commissioner ago, and LeBron James had yet to win a ring when that regular season ended. It’s only happened twice since Michael Jordan retired, but next year, it’s certainly reasonable that there are three or more 55-win teams between the Celtics, Sixers, Bucks and Knicks.

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The Sixers played at a 65-win pace in the 39 games Embiid was healthy this past season. The Knicks won 50 games and were 20-3 in the games OG Anunoby played, and they just added Bridges. Milwaukee won a disappointing 49 games in 2023-24, but it still had Antetokounmpo and Lillard and had a plus-10.2 net rating with those two on the floor.

GO DEEPERAs the Celtics re-sign free agents, Knicks and Sixers are posing a serious challenge

Ownership changes

The NBA has made a change to its team ownership rules. The league has barred new ownership groups from having governors rotate control, according to league sources.

The Bucks had Marc Lasry and Wes Edens rotate terms as the franchise’s governor when they bought the team. Lasry was the governor at the time he sold his share of the team last year, and Edens took over and he’ll serve in the role until 2028. Rick Schnall and Gabe Plotkin led the group that bought the Charlotte Hornets last summer, and will rotate governors with Schnall currently in control. Those two franchises, however, have been grandfathered in.

CBA makes its mark

When the new CBA was ratified, commissioner Adam Silver said he was fine with super teams, as long as they were built the right way.

“Smart drafting, smart trades, et cetera, as opposed to one team has the ability to spend an enormous amount more than another team does,” Silver said. “I think the new provisions in this collective bargaining agreement go a long way toward a leavening impact across the league.”

It is interesting to see the impact of the NBA’s governing document on a few prominent teamsthis offseason. The Clippers might be the prominent flouters of the old spending rules. They ran up large payrolls after signing Leonard in free agency and trading for George and Harden, while also spending on ancillary players. They just lost George after drawing a line.

The Warriors were example No. 1 about the big-spending teams driving a wedge between haves and have-nots. This month, they will lose Klay Thompson, breaking apart the core of a dynastic team that had seemed to build it the right way. They drafted Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Thompson. They signed Kevin Durant in free agency but were the beneficiaries of a huge cap spike that was out of their control. Now they’ll need to rebuild on the fly after years of sky-high payrolls. The Celtics may take notes with their own homegrown nucleus, supplemented with outside trades, growing more expensive every year.

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The 76ers were the big beneficiaries of this first true offseason of change. Embiid and Maxey were drafted and developed, but Philadelphia signed George in free agency in a way that seemed reminiscent of player movement a decade ago, by squirreling together enough cap space to lure a star.

(Top photo of Paul George: Ric Tapia / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What Paul George’s Sixers deal could say about the future of free agency (4)What Paul George’s Sixers deal could say about the future of free agency (5)

Mike Vorkunov is the national basketball business reporter for The Athletic. He covers the intersection of money and basketball and covers the sport at every level. He previously spent three-plus seasons as the New York Knicks beat writer. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeVorkunov

What Paul George’s Sixers deal could say about the future of free agency (2024)
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