We're always asking that NBA front offices be proactive. Don't just sit on your hands and wait for things to happen to your team, go out and make something happen. Get ahead of the curve.
In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, about 36 hours ahead of the trade deadline, the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Clippers got proactive, in dramatically different ways, to serve the same big-picture ends.
The Clippers - a fringe playoff team hanging around the bottom of the Western Conference race - traded their best player, Tobias Harris, to the 76ers, a budding Eastern Conference powerhouse with realistic Finals aspirations. In exchange, L.A. (who's also sending out Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott in the deal) received a package headlined by rookie sharpshooter Landry Shamet, Philadelphia's lottery-protected 2020 first-round pick, and the Miami Heat's unprotected 2021 first-rounder.
For now, this looks like a much bigger risk for the Sixers than for the Clippers, but there's a chance it turns into a win for both sides. Let's take a look at why these teams felt compelled to make this deal, and what it says about each:
This is a steep price for Philadelphia. The Heat pick alone is a seriously valuable asset to part with for a guy on an expiring contract. Given that Harris turned down a four-year, $80-million extension in the offseason and is in the midst of a career year, it's safe to assume he'll be looking for something close to a max deal when he hits unrestricted free agency this summer. Considering what it cost to acquire him, the Sixers will likely feel compelled to meet his demands. That would be a precarious place to be in even if they weren't already in the same boat with Jimmy Butler. For a team built around the 22-year-old Ben Simmons and the 24-year-old Joel Embiid, the latter being in the first season of a five-year deal, Philadelphia has put a lot of stock in the present.
It's also fair to wonder just how much Harris moves the needle for the Sixers. In one sense, he is a huge upgrade over Wilson Chandler (L.A.-bound in the trade), and he completes what is now, on paper, the best starting five in the East. But he doesn't do much to shore up Philadelphia's vulnerable perimeter defense and he still leaves the team with a troubling lack of above-average guard play.
Meanwhile, the Sixers were already struggling to feed all their mouths in an offense that features three ball-dominant players in Butler, Embiid, and Simmons. Now they add a player who had a 23.6 percent usage rate with the Clippers this season, more than double Chandler's 11.2 percent rate with Philly. Harris will be far more effective (and presumably more comfortable) taking spot-up duty than any of his three co-stars, but there are diminishing returns when you stack up overlapping talent. Harris would be worth more to a team that could better utilize his ball skills.
On the other hand, to hell with all that. The Sixers just added a 26-year-old borderline All-Star with a .496/.434/.877 shooting line to a four-man lineup - including J.J. Redick - that's outscored opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions this season. Harris gives them a needed jolt of shooting, and gives them the option to stagger their starters in unique ways that maximize the skills of each. They'll never have to be without at least two of Embiid, Simmons, Butler, Harris, and Redick on the floor. Their starting lineup will offer zero hiding places for opposing defenses. They're harder to guard than they were yesterday.
This kind of go-for-it move, especially when coupled with the Butler trade earlier in the season, is anathema to the way the Sixers have operated for the last few years. But that's the point. This is what the Process was for. Why collect all those assets if you weren't going to cash them in when you had a window to push for a title? The Sixers have been good this season, but not good enough. They're 34-20, but just 1-6 against the top three teams in the East. They were likely staring at a second-round exit. That fate might still await them (those other three teams are tough), but Harris meaningfully improves their chances of surviving the gauntlet.
You can quibble over the opportunity cost, over whether Philadelphia could've used those assets to acquire someone better (or someone under contract for longer) than Harris, or whether they simply should've saved their bullets and aimed lower. But getting a sure thing in exchange for the faint promise of something better down the road is exactly the kind of thing a team in Philadelphia's position is supposed to be doing.
Not too many teams would have the guts to trade their leading scorer and rebounder while sitting in a playoff spot two-thirds of the way through the season. The Clippers have now done it two years in a row; first with Blake Griffin, and now with Harris - the guy they acquired in the Griffin trade last year. They've made it clear they have far grander ambitions than being a cute playoff team.
Still, trading a beloved franchise figure is far easier said than done. It's not dissimilar from the New York Knicks' Kristaps Porzingis trade. Harris doesn't have Porzingis' upside, nor was he as embedded in Clippers fan culture as Porzingis was with the Knicks, but the Clippers have similarly gone out on a limb and asked their fans to trust that this will be the precursor to multiple significant additions in the near future.
But the Clippers have more options than the Knicks do. Between the picks they got from Philadelphia, promising rookies in Shamet and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and valuable veterans on team-friendly contracts like Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, they could put together a compelling superstar trade package. They could also just keep all that stuff as an intriguing foundation to pitch to marquee free agents. They'll have the cap space to sign two such guys this summer.
Harris would have been a nice consolation prize had the Clippers whiffed on prime targets like Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, but there's no guarantee he would've stood around waiting while they went hunting for a starrier name to replace him. If anything, the decision they were facing regarding that potential financial commitment would've only complicated their free-agency plans. Even if they come up empty on Durant and Leonard, there are a ton of free-agent options who should give them equivalent or better value than Harris would've given them on a max or near-max deal.
Recouping significant assets for Harris now probably beats the alternatives - either shelling out to re-sign him or letting him walk for nothing - after what would've been a fruitless playoff push. As a bonus, L.A. is now more likely to retain its own draft pick this year, which will convey to Boston if it falls outside the lottery.
This is the kind of forward-thinking move that not every team can afford to make. The Clippers play in a huge, glamorous market that makes sacrificing potential playoff revenue more palatable than it would be for, say, the Charlotte Hornets. A team like that is usually forced to operate on a smaller scale. This is what thinking big looks like.