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Marcus Hayes: Daryl Morey dodges the Paul George bullet -- aka James Harden 2.0. Sixers must be conservative.

Marcus Hayes, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Basketball

PHILADELPHIA — Darryl Morey isn't perfect, but he's not desperate, either. Despite Joel Embiid's best effort at tampering to recruit Paul George at Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Philadelphia Sixers fans should rejoice.

Morey has made some missteps since taking the reins in 2020, but his finest actions have been moments of inaction. There have been three of them, and we're on the cusp of his latest demonstration of discipline, in this, his greatest hour of need.

In early 2022, as the Sixers tried to trade Ben Simmons, Morey refused to trade Tyrese Maxey. Morey has been gracious in retelling the story of drafting Maxey in 2020 just months after Morey was hired as president — he deflects the credit to general manager Elton Brand — but Morey was insisting that Maxey could be a low-cost All-Star and a long-range cornerstone. He was right: Maxey was an All-Star and soon will sign a five-year, $205 million extension.

In the summer of 2023, Morey refused to give James Harden a maximum contract extension. Harden was Morey's friend and his muse; Morey's exploitation of Harden's talent in Houston, while always doomed to failure, assured Harden otherwise unattainable riches and a spot in the Hall of Fame.

That ended in 2023. Harden agreed to what seemed to be a discounted contract extension in the summer of 2022 to afford the Sixers room to make other moves, but Harden expected Morey to reward him with a four-year, $210 million extension. However, Harden underperformed to the discounted contract's pay grade, and Morey made it clear that Harden — a declining 34-year-old whose game relied on rules from a past generation — would not receive that sort of years or cash. Harden threw a fit, called Morey a liar, forced a trade, and, predictably, stank with the Clippers last season.

Now, this. Morey has two good players under contract: Embiid, a 30-year-old former MVP with a three-year window, and Maxey, an emerging combo star who remains a defensive liability and a poor man's point guard. Morey also has about $60 million in salary-cap space.

No non-expansion team in NBA history has ever been in quite this situation. Should Morey try to sign a third star? Should he trade for an established veteran? Should he sign role players, hope Embiid stays healthy, and hope Maxey takes yet another step?

NBA free agency begins June 30 at 6 p.m. ET. Teams could begin negotiating with their own pending free agents Tuesday, the day after the Boston Celtics won the NBA title. That's when the Los Angeles Clippers could have started talking to Paul George, who can opt out of his contract — but also can opt in, force a trade, then sign an extension with his new team and make considerably more money.

George has made it clear he wants to stay in Los Angeles, his hometown, preferably with Kawhi Leonard, another Los Angeles native (or maybe with LeBron James, who runs the Lakers). The Clippers have made it clear that they aren't willing to give George, 34, a four-year, $221 million maximum extension.

George was the Sixers' No. 1 target in free agency, and they were eager to give him the four-year, $210 million max deal (he gets less if he changes teams).

However, by Thursday afternoon, the Sixers made it clear that they have no interest in playing this game. They don't want to give up part of their draft-pick war chest to acquire George, then hope he doesn't get hurt through January, when they can then extend him for four years and $220 million. Shams Charania of The Athletic, who is one of the owners' most reliable mouthpieces, posted on social media Thursday that the Sixers' interest in George has, like George's once-dominant skill set, "significantly waned."

Assuming Charania is correct (he isn't always), and assuming the Sixers and George never unite, this is Morey being fiscally responsible again, and it is his decision alone. This is not an ownership decision: Morey operates independent of Josh Harris, who has his hands full in D.C. as the Washington Commanders' new owner.

 

I don't blame Morey for coveting George. He'll never be as good as he once was, but he's still good enough to act as a third scoring option; good enough to lean on when Embiid suffers his next injury; and good enough to keep the Sixers in games when Embiid's on the bench. George is better than Harden was in the second half of 2021-22 and all of the 2022-23 season.

This should be true for the next three seasons, after which Embiid will be 33 and will be beginning the sort of decline all poorly-conditioned big men inevitably experience.

But George was not going to make the Sixers as good as the Celtics, whose roster will return intact and who should win at least the next two NBA titles.

George wasn't going to make the Sixers better than the Milwaukee Bucks, either, considering they should return largely intact and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard should be healthy. They won't win a title — Doc Rivers is their coach, after all — but they'll be very, very good.

So, too, will the Indiana Pacers, who beat the Bucks in the first round, beat the flash-in-the-pan New York Knicks in the second round, and are expected to retain pending free agent Pascal Siakam.

Adding George might have made the Sixers competitive with the Knicks, who beat them in six, but that's about it. And yes, George would have been the best option.

So what now?

Trade for Jimmy Butler or Brandon Ingram? Gamble on Klay Thompson or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?

Make amends with Harden?

More on that next week.


(c)2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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