The Sixers are the mayors of Tank Town. If you can’t be really good, it pays to be really bad.
The CBA and the lottery structure incentivize digging as deep into the NBA floor as possible. If you have no real shot to contend, the next best choice is play the part of the greedy little basketball chipmunk, gobble up as many options as possible, and store them away for later. The worst of the worst get the best shot at the best players in the draft. Those same teams, if they’re smartly run, are also well below the cap -- which further increases their flexibility.
Cap space makes it possible for other clubs to dump unwanted players/salaries on rebuilding teams in exchange for quality assets (generally draft picks or the rights to draft-and-stash players). And you know which rebuilding team has oodles of cap space? Did you guess the Sixers? Of course you did.
The salary cap is projected to rise to $63.2 million for 2014-15. When free agency began last week, only two other teams (the Heat and Suns) had more cap space than the Sixers. But Miami is in the process of trying to retain LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, which would eat up almost all of their room. And the Suns are negotiating with their restricted free agent, Eric Bledsoe. That leaves the Sixers as the most attractive group in the salary cap space pageant.
For teams like the Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers or New York Knicks to free up enough room to sign high-level free agents, they need to unload some bloated contracts. To do that, they need to find a team with cap room to help them out. According to various reports, several franchises are batting eyes at the Sixers and trying to sweet talk Sam Hinkie into facilitating those efforts.
We’ll start with the first and most obvious suitor, the Rockets. Houston shipped Omer Asik to the Pelicans in exchange for New Orleans’ 2015 first-rounder (because the Pels hate the draft for some reason). There are differing accounts on the protections for that pick. Grantland’s Zach Lowe tweeted that New Orleans will keep the pick if it lands in the top two-thirds of the lottery or falls at No. 20 or worse. Still, it's a nice asset for the Rockets to possibly flip to another team should they need to clear up cap space as they pursue Chris Bosh or Carmelo Anthony (though that’s looking less likely).
For the Rockets to pay Bosh, they’d need to unload someone like Jeremy Lin. Which is where the Sixers come in. Lin is owed $14.89 million in real money next year, but his cap hit is only $8.37 million for 2014-15. (The Rockets, anticipating the eventual need to trade him, structured his deal in a super smart way.) Then he becomes an unrestricted free agent next offseason. Absorbing Lin’s cap hit would be the not-so-prohibitive cost of doing business for the Sixers to possibly get that New Orleans’ first-rounder. Or, if not, maybe Houston’s first-rounder, though that’s obviously less enticing. They could also move the rights to Clint Capela, whom the Rockets took in the first round of the 2014 draft.
Other teams that are reportedly interested in doing a deal with the Sixers include the Knicks and Cavs. Cleveland is trying to reconcile with its unrequited love, LeBron. At the least, the Cavs need to move Jarrett Jack to even fantasize about pulling it off. The problem there is Jack comes attached to an anchor of a contract. He’s owed $6.3 million in each of the next two seasons. While the Sixers could (and would) let Lin walk next offseason, cutting ties with Jack would be harder -- which would certainly drive up the price of taking Jack from Cleveland. The Cavs have protected 2015 first-rounders from Memphis and Miami in their quiver, but the Bulls also have protected pick swap rights with the Cavs.
Meanwhile, if the Knicks want to re-sign Anthony and chase another free agent to pair with him, New York would have to jettison Amar'e Stoudemire and maybe Iman Shumpert. The possibility of sending both to Philly was floated by Stephen A. Smith. It would clear about $26 million in cap space for the Knicks. That’s good for them, but it’s harder to see something worthwhile for the Sixers. Stoudemire would be an unrestricted free agent next offseason, and Shumpert is still on an affordable rookie deal that wouldn’t require a qualifying offer until 2015-16. But the Knicks aren’t exactly rich in future draft picks. They dumped what would have been a huge haul of picks for 2016.
The Sixers aren’t going to sign a big name player this offseason. But that doesn’t mean they won’t play a vital role in free agency. Cap space. They have lots of it, and lots of teams want it.