Why 76ers' next big move should be overpaying a role player you may never have heard of

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The Philadelphia 76ers set up a number of big moves when they sent James Harden to the Los Angeles Clippers in October. The most obvious consequence of the deal was creating the cap space that they would later use to not only sign superstar Paul George, but key role players like Kelly Oubre Jr., Caleb Martin and Andre Drummond. They picked up extra draft capital in the process, giving them significantly more flexibility to work with down the line. But they quietly accomplished something else in that deal that could prove enormously important when they acquired a player that many NBA fans may not have heard of.

Meet Kenyon Martin Jr. He is the son of former No. 1 overall pick Kenyon Martin. He participated in the 2023 Slam Dunk Contest. He started his career with the Houston Rockets, joined the Clippers ahead of the 2023-24 season, and was dealt to Philadelphia only two games into his time in Los Angeles. He barely played for the 76ers, averaging only 3.7 points per game across 715 largely unmemorable minutes. He is a fringe NBA player at this point, athletic enough to have upside, but still largely unproven when it comes to genuinely contributing to winning.

But KJ Martin had a uniquely valuable contract. The Rockets drafted him No. 52 overall in the second round of the 2020 NBA Draft, and like most second-round picks, he had very little negotiating power. That meant that his initial salary was always going to be low, and sure enough, he made less than $2 million last season. That meant that his cap hold as a 2024 free agent was extremely low –meaning it only cost the 76ers around $2.1 million in cap space to keep him on the books this offseason while they did their other business. Obviously, that tiny cap hold didn’t impede their ability to sign George, Oubre, Martin or Drummond.

However, the Rockets viewed Martin as a desirable long-term prospect when they drafted him. They wanted to keep him on a long-term deal, so instead of signing him for the rookie minimum, they dipped into their non-taxpayer mid-level exception to pay him a bit more in exchange for four years of team control. That meant that when his first contract expired, as it did this offseason, he would become an unrestricted free agent with full Bird Rights as opposed to the Early Bird Rights many second-round picks as restricted free agents following two-year rookie minimum deals. That difference gives the 76ers a chance to do something very creative to seek another major piece.

Players with Early Bird Rights are limited in what they can re-sign for. The maximum for a player in Martin’s shoes is 105% of the league’s average salary in the previous season. But players with full Bird Rights can be re-signed for any amount up to his maximum salary so long as the team never renounced their rights. Philadelphia has not yet renounced Martin.

So… why are we putting “KJ Martin” and “maximum salary” in the same sentence? One simple reason, as Liberty Ballers’ Bryan Toporek was the first to cover in detail: the 76ers need tradable salary. Look at their cap sheet right now. George, Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey are all earning max salaries that they deserve. They are not moving. The 76ers have done very well in free agency to land Oubre, Martin and Drummond, but none of them will earn even eight figures next season, and frankly, they are all expected to serve vital roles on the roster. The 76ers don’t want to trade them, and even if they did, their low salaries severely limit who they could be traded for. But say Philadelphia wants to add another major player through trade. The 76ers could, in theory, pay Martin at a high enough figure now so that when the trade deadline rolls around in February, they can simply use him as their matching salary to get a deal done.

Ok, I assume you have a lot of questions for me at this point. Let’s try to roll through the obvious ones bullet-point style.

  • How much would the 76ers pay Martin next season? Technically speaking, they could go up his max as a four-year veteran of around $35 million. Before members of the Martin family get too excited, they’re not going that far. The number to watch here is roughly $15 million. Right now, the 76ers are around $24 million below the second apron line with nine players under contract, according to Yossi Gozlan’s cap sheets. Add four veteran’s minimums to get to 13 players and you get to $15.7 million or so in leftover room. Martin, the 14th and for now final player, would gobble up the rest of that space with a bit of spare room left for things like 10-days and marginal moves as they become needed. The 76ers could go above the second apron. They are not currently hard-capped. However, operating above the second apron, for a variety of reasons, is impractical. The 76ers don’t want to own-goal their way into frozen draft picks, and they don’t want to self-impose the trade restrictions that come with the second apron. It makes sense for Philadelphia to treat that as the line here. As Toporek noted, it might also make sense to identify a trade target in advance and then sign Martin to a contract worth the exact same amount as that player, as a dollar-for-dollar match on a one-for-one trade is the only combination now that absolutely guarantees that neither team runs into apron or hard cap issues. The number may ultimately be lower, because hey, there are real luxury taxes associated with signing this contract, so the 76ers might not want to squeeze every ounce of trade value possible out of it at the expense of literal cash.
  • Why would anyone want Martin at that salary? Because this wouldn’t be a long-term deal. The 76ers would, in all likelihood, structure it as a two-year deal with the second season fully non-guaranteed. In theory it could be a simple one-year deal now that the rules allow for players to waive the implicit no-trade clauses that come with these kinds of one-year deals, but it doesn’t hurt anybody to have the extra flexibility that comes with the non-guaranteed year in case there is value in flipping Martin’s salary down the line. Given how much he’d be overpaid here, Martin would likely agree to any structure the 76ers offer.
  • Why would anyone trade a good player to Philadelphia for Martin? The 76ers have up to four tradable first-round picks at the moment. Martin would just be matching money. The picks would provide the trade value.
  • Are there any apron-related rules the 76ers need to keep in mind? Yes! Remember, any team that takes back more money than it brings in through a trade is hard-capped at the first apron. Therefore, Philadelphia would need to trade Martin for someone cheaper than him in a one-for-one swap to avoid that hard cap. However, teams that aggregate salaries through trade are only hard-capped at the second apron. This means that if Philadelphia combined Martin with another salary to avoid taking in more money than they send out, they could still avoid a first-apron hard cap. Put more simply: the 76ers would either be trading Martin for someone making less money than whatever they pay him, or they would be combining him and someone else to get a slightly pricier player so long as the total amount they bring in is less than what they send out. Keep in mind that these rules apply to other teams in trades as well, so the 76ers will need to be mindful of who they work with.
  • When could a trade like this happen? The earliest possibility would be Jan. 15. Most free agents can be traded on Dec. 15. However, free agents that re-sign for more than the minimum, get a raise larger than 20% and are playing for a team that is above the salary cap cannot be moved until a month after that. Martin checks those boxes.
  • Could Martin just be signed-and-traded this offseason? Well, technically, yes. But there are a few reasons why it doesn’t really make sense for the 76ers to do that. First, signing-and-trading a player and receiving money back hard caps you at the second apron. Even if Philadelphia plans to use the second apron as a de-facto hard cap, there’s no reason to trigger it unnecessarily. Second, any team that acquires a player through sign-and-trade is hard-capped at the first apron. The teams Philadelphia may be interested in trading with might not be willing or able to operate with that restriction. Third, and most importantly, those same restrictions that make Martin a Jan. 15 trade free agent instead of a Dec. 15 limit his utility as matching salary in a sign-and-trade. Essentially, if a free agent checks those boxes covered above, he only counts for 50% of the money he is owed as outgoing salary in a trade. His new team, however, would have to count him for the full 100%. Put more simply, if Philadelphia signed-and-traded him starting at $15 million, he’d only count as $7.5 million in outgoing salary for them. If they wait and do it in-season, they can trade him for his full amount.
  • Why don’t teams abuse this cap hack more often? Well… they sort of do, just not with minimum players, so it doesn’t draw much attention outside of cap nerd circles. When these sorts of “human trade exception” contracts do come, they are often from teams above the salary cap paying veterans they don’t plan to keep long-term because those veterans are likelier to be able to contribute in the short term. The stars have just aligned for the 76ers to use a little-known player here because they were operating below the cap and therefore had to be mindful of cap holds. If they had tried to do this with an older player like Nic Batum, it would have cost them space because Batum’s higher previous salary made his cap hold so much bigger than Martin’s. Before the 2023 CBA introduced the second-round pick exception, it was also a bit rarer for second-round picks to get these kinds of long, cheap deals. It certainly happened, but many were non-guaranteed after the first year and just didn’t last long enough to be used this way. Many other teams just signed second-round picks to two-year minimum deals because they wanted their mid-level exceptions for other things. Some teams just don’t like spending money on players just to serve as future trade pieces. All of these factors had to line up for Martin to potentially get this sort of payday.

So now, hopefully, you understand the cap mechanics at play in what could be a hefty balloon payment for Martin. This creates another pressing question: who exactly would the 76ers target with Martin as the matching salary?

There are three player-types to watch here: 3-and-D wings, traditional power forwards and connective passers. The first is obvious. You can never have enough 3-and-D wings, and Daryl Morey teams are typically fully stocked with them. The second is just a response to where the roster is. Martin has played some power forward, but he’s best-suited as wing. Besides, two of the four most dangerous teams in the conference play two traditional big men. The 76ers would probably like to have someone to throw at Julius Randle and Giannis Antetokounpo so Joel Embiid doesn’t have to guard them. Passing is simply a skill the 76ers are light on. Batum was enormous on that front last season, but he signed with the Clippers. A wing who can serve as a secondary playmaker would be helpful here. Of course, if Jan. 15 is the timeline we’re working with here, that would give the 76ers six months to evaluate their roster and determine what their most important weaknesses are. They might want something we can’t even identify yet.

So, who are some worthwhile targets here? I’ll throw out a few names:

  • Dorian Finney-Smith. He’s been a rumored Philadelphia target, and at a salary of around $14.9 million, the 76ers could fit him into that expected Martin salary slot below the second apron. He is probably the best wing defender in this group, which would help protect George from taking on the most taxing matchups.
  • Isaiah Stewart. He has traditional power forward size, but he’s nearly a league-average 3-point shooter on reasonable volume, which makes him an easy fit on this roster. At exactly $15 million, he’d be easy to fit in financially as well.
  • Tyus Jones. Yes, I’m aware he is currently a free agent. Let’s say Washington re-signs him for a low eight-figure salary. If Philadelphia wants to trade for a higher-end backup point guard for an extra dash of playmaking, Jones would make sense.
  • Matisse Thybulle. The 76ers would probably prefer not to bring in a non-shooting wing, but they are obviously very familiar with the ex-76er and he is the best defender that could theoretically be available in this price range. At $11 million or so he is very affordable.
  • Cody Martin. Let’s reunite the Martin twins! Here’s a fun fact: Spotrac has a database of every NBA player sorted by 2024-25 cap hit. The Martin twins, as of this writing, are right next to each other despite signing contracts with different teams. Caleb is 188th. Cody is 189.
  • De’Andre Hunter. Philadelphia would have to aggregate KJ Martin and either Caleb Martin or Kelly Oubre to do this, but if they view Hunter at $21.6 million as enough of an upgrade (which is obviously debatable) it might be worthwhile.
  • Rui Hachimura. This would probably have to be a three-team deal, as the Lakers would be looking for win-now help as well. But say a team they are working with doesn’t want Hachimura. His $17 million salary isn’t far off of the Martin range we’re talking about, and he’s a power forward that can shoot 3s and has playoff experience (2023 went well, 2024 did not).

These are some of the names that make sense today. In January, the list might be completely different. And at this time, Martin hasn’t even been signed yet. There’s no guarantee the 76ers even take this path, especially if spending all of that extra money proves difficult for ownership to swallow. 

Fortunately, the 76ers ducked the luxury tax in each of the last two years, so their repeater tax clock has been reset. Embiid is 30. George is 34. This team is emphatically in win-now mode, and financially speaking, the burden of a higher payroll is manageable for this market without the immediate threat of repeater penalties. And most importantly, they have a general manager who understands just how rare chances like this are and how aggressive you need to be when they present themselves.

“If you’ve got even a 5% chance to win the title — and that group includes a very small number of teams every year — you’ve gotta be focused all on winning the title,” Daryl Morey told Zach Lowe in 2012. The 76ers have met and exceeded that 5% threshold. Now they have an opportunity to push those odds even higher by overpaying for a player they might not use much on the court, but who could prove critical to their plans off of it.

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