Why the Sixers are still sitting on cap space

Why the Sixers are still sitting on cap space
July 17, 2014, 2:00 pm
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The Sixers are about $32 million under the cap, and Sam Hinkie said he "doesn't know, exactly" what the team will do with the cash. (USA Today Images/Tom Finer)

On the day after the NBA draft, Sam Hinkie emerged from his undisclosed (and possibly fortified) hideout. He talked a lot about the newest Sixers that day, and how it will be a while until some of them appear on an NBA court. The interview lasted more than 35 minutes. At the very end of the session, before he thanked everyone and walked off, Hinkie was asked about the Sixers’ cap space.  

It was an important question. At the beginning of free agency, only two other teams – the Heat and the Suns – had more cap space than the Sixers. Miami ended up obliterating its flexibility by overpaying Chris Bosh after failing to retain LeBron James. Even after a sign-and-trade deal that will pay Isaiah Thomas $28 million over four years, Phoenix still has a chunk of space left. But the Suns want to keep restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe (because the Suns want all the point guards), which would eat up a portion of their remaining cap. 

Despite the misguided pleas of impatient area radio hosts and desperate fanboys, the Sixers were never going to load their T-shirt cannons with fat stacks of cash and shoot it at the top-tier free agents. But how might they use their cap space?

“I think we’ll be open-minded,” Hinkie said almost a month ago. “I don’t know, exactly, what we’ll do there. I think we’ll look for opportunities. And we’ll go from there. Our cap space last year was used in several ways. One is to pick up some of the seconds that we used [on draft night] and other future seconds. Some is to pick up international players like Furkan Aldemir, who we traded for last year. Those are all sort of possibilities. And then, lastly, are the other players like Elliot [Williams] and James [Anderson] – James we got off the waiver wire, Elliot we signed. Hollis Thompson we signed. I think we’ll continue to look for opportunities for ways to add guys to our group.”

The salary cap is projected to rise to $63.2 million for the upcoming season. Counting active contracts, non-guaranteed deals, cap holds and dead money, the Sixers were about $32 million under the cap when Hinkie was asked what he would do with all that space. And at the moment? The Sixers are still about $32 million under the cap.

So what gives? Why is Hinkie sitting on a big cap cushion? The inactivity further infuriates the already angry faction of fans and media members who don’t understand why he won’t do something/anything and hurry up about it. But that doesn’t make it wrong.

The simple answer here from a macro level is that not spending money will help the Tank 2.0 efforts. Padding their roster with disposable players on easily-jettisoned contracts, and once again punting on the season, will set up the Sixers for another high draft pick in next year’s lottery. (Or at least it will under the current system, which might not be around too much longer. The NBA is considering lottery reform that would discourage tanking by greatly lowering the odds of the worst teams landing a top pick.)

But that’s just one small part of what might be happening. Or, rather, not happening. The most logical way for the Sixers to use that cap space was to offer it to other teams who needed to offload salary in order to sign big name free agents.  In exchange, the Sixers would have, ostensibly, gotten back everyone’s favorite (or least favorite) NBA buzzword: assets. Future picks, the rights to draft-and-stash players, etc.

But when the Cavaliers dumped Jarrett Jack in a three-team deal to clear space for LeBron, it was the Celtics, not the Sixers, who helped facilitate the move and grabbed a first-round pick for their efforts. When James went to Cleveland, so many of us assumed Bosh would go to Houston, which would force the Rockets to unload Jeremy Lin – possibly on the Sixers. That didn’t happen – or it didn’t happen the way some expected.

Instead of doing business with his old buddy Hinkie, Houston GM Daryl Morey shipped Lin and his expiring contract to the Lakers. For taking on Lin’s $14.89 million salary (his cap hit is only $8.37 million for 2014-15), Los Angeles received a future first-round pick and a 2015 second-rounder. Maybe Hinkie didn’t think that was enough. Or maybe the Sixers didn’t want to pay Lin the actual cash. Or maybe there was some other reason that kept them out of the Lin halfway house business. Either way, the Sixers missed out on the reward. Which is a shame. Meanwhile, as a quick aside, Morey is getting crushed by just about everyone with a laptop right now.

Asset collection is currently the Sixers’ primary game. Not getting in on the Cleveland and/or Houston deals represents missed opportunities for the Sixers. If you’re looking to criticize Hinkie’s approach, that’s a fair reason to do so. But while that was a mistake for the Sixers, Hinkie is unlikely to compound it by chasing and overpaying mid-level free agents.

Under the new CBA, more and more teams are entering free agency each offseason with surplus cap space. The smart teams either use it on superstars in an attempt to win a championship or sit on it and plan for the future. The worst thing any NBA team can do is tether itself to a ho-hum player for the sake of spending. That’s the surest way to end up in the mediocre middle class the Sixers occupied for the better part of the last decade.

If you’re part of the aforementioned crew that wants the Sixers to do something/anything, ask yourself who, exactly, you wanted them to acquire in free agency. The Pistons gave Jodie Meeks $19 million over three years. The Celtics threw Avery Bradley a four-year, $32 million deal. Channing Frye got basically the same terms from Orlando. The Magic also gave Ben Gordon two years and $9 million. And Nick Young re-signed with the Lakers for four years and $21.5 million. Those are the types of players the Sixers might have been able to land – but for what purpose?

The Sixers didn’t swap their cap space for future picks or the draft rights to international players. Or at least they haven’t done so yet. That’s a miss as it stands. But there are worse things than not making moves – like making moves for the sake of it.

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