What Paul George’s Sixers deal could say about the future of NBA free agency

When the Philadelphia 76ers sign Paul George later this month, they will officially have accomplished an impressive feat.

Ever since the James Harden-Daryl Morey drama last summer, the Sixers have been projecting that they would have enough salary cap space to make a splash. One of the ways was to use that cap space to make a market-shaking deal. Instead, George comes from Los Angeles, on a four-year, $212 million contract.

George is the first max-level player to switch teams via free agency since 2019. Free agency had become a meeting ground for two types of undesirable partners: largely uncompetitive teams with cap space, and players who weren’t good enough to get big extensions from their own teams. It was a dating app of last resort. But George and the Sixers are connected in interesting ways, and it’s worth asking whether this is a unique transaction or a turning point.

It’s hard to think of many times in recent years when a team has taken a hard-line negotiating approach 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 had no prospects left by the time Philadelphia made it clear they were willing to deal him. The Clippers drew a hard line with George, just as they got Kawhi Leonard to sign a three-year, sub-max contract.

Could this be a harbinger of future cutbacks in 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 to 37. A 37-year-old making more than $56 million is a risky proposition, with or without salary cap projections.

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Every marginal dollar comes at a price under the new collective bargaining agreement, with its restrictive apron strings. Tax rates will rise 40 percent for teams $20 million above the luxury tax threshold for the 2025-26 season, and 52.6 percent for the repeater tax above that threshold. The CBA is designed to keep teams just around the tax threshold, not way above it, and it will attempt to weed out those teams that dare ignore its warnings.

Certainly, some teams will use the CBA as a bogeyman for fans and player agents to avoid further spending. It’s probably already happening. But there’s also real fear.

The Clippers cited the CBA three times when the franchise released a statement explaining why it did not re-sign George. The Golden State Warriors have slowly disarmed over the past two summers, tired of being light years over the tax threshold. The Denver Nuggets leadership group has repeatedly cited the limitations of the CBA, though the luxury tax was a yearly concern before a second apron was in place. The Boston Celtics appear prepared to sit in the second apron for the next few years after winning the title; Wyc Grousbeck also announced he is ready to cash in and sell the team. The Phoenix Suns have certainly been a cautionary tale for others thus far, though they have also outsourced a significant portion of their draft future, limiting 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 acquire 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 both jumped to Houston). Time will tell if the Sixers owner is willing to dig deep into the tax or the second apron, but Morey wasn’t deterred by signing three max-contract players.

“In situations like that, I like the challenge,” Morey said in April after the New York Knicks eliminated the Sixers in the first round of the playoffs. “For me, finding the guys that get 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 — you’re basically [saying] “We have less good players, but more role players. I think the history of the NBA in general would be favorable — even with the new CBA — (getting) studs that you can then put the work and the responsibility on the front office to find the players that fit (them).”

The Sixers will be incredibly talented. Joel Embiid is one of the best players in the NBA. Tyrese Maxey proved himself as a top scorer last season, 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’ll fit in easily next to 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 has been committed to their three stars in 2024-25.

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

But Philadelphia has positioned itself well, even with caveats about depth and health. Morey is all about taking risks for a shot at glory. This Sixers team is an example of that.

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Get ready in the East

A note on the arms race in the Eastern Conference: It hasn’t happened in a long time.

The last time three teams from the East won 55 or more games was during the 2010-11 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 to see three or more teams win 55 games between the Celtics, Sixers, Bucks and Knicks.

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

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Ownership changes

The NBA has made a change to its team ownership rules, banning new ownership groups from rotating governors, league sources said.

The Bucks rotated Marc Lasry and Wes Edens as franchise governors when they purchased the team. Lasry was governor when he sold his stake in the team last year, and Edens took over and will serve in that role through 2028. Rick Schnall and Gabe Plotkin led the group that purchased the Charlotte Hornets last summer, and will rotate governors, with Schnall currently in control. Those two franchises, however, are grandfathered.

CBA makes itself heard

When the new CBA was ratified, Commissioner Adam Silver said he was fine with superteams as long as they were constructed the right way.

“Smart drafting, smart trades, etc., as opposed to one team having the ability to spend vastly more than the other team,” Silver said. “I think the new provisions in this collective bargaining agreement go a long way toward having a positive impact across the league.”

It’s interesting to see the impact of the NBA’s governing document on a few prominent teams this offseason. The Clippers are perhaps the most prominent offenders of the old spending rules. They ran up big salaries after signing Leonard in free agency and trading George and Harden, while also spending on supporting players. They simply lost George after drawing a line.

The Warriors were the No. 1 example of a team that spends big and drives a wedge between the haves and have-nots. This month, they lost Klay Thompson, shattering the core of a dynastic team that seemed to have built it the right way. They drafted Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Thompson. They signed Kevin Durant in free agency but benefited from a huge pay raise that was beyond their control. Now they must rebuild rapidly after years of sky-high salaries. The Celtics may take notes on their own core, supplemented by outside trades that have gotten more expensive every year.

The 76ers were the big beneficiaries of this first real offseason of change. Embiid and Maxey were drafted and developed, but Philadelphia signed George in free agency in a move reminiscent of player moves a decade ago, carving out enough cap space to lure a star.

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

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