Sixers' salary cap is Hinkie's biggest test

Sixers' salary cap is Hinkie's biggest test

May 16, 2013, 8:15 pm
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Sam Hinkie's Sixers are the only NBA team without a head coach. Twelve head coaching vacancies across the league have been filled this offseason. (CSN)

You’ve already read and heard plenty about advanced analytics and next-level metrics and the debate between the merits of traditional scouting and progressive number crunching. It’s interesting stuff, though it’s amusing how some skeptical old guard scribes write about it like new Sixers president and general manager Sam Hinkie is ushering in the rise of the machines.

"We're not talking about going into a backroom with a bunch of computers," Sixers owner Joshua Harris assured the doubters on Tuesday. "We're talking about adding to a traditional front office."

See that? Sixers season-ticket holders will not be enslaved by ENIAC’s offspring (at least not soon).

While the hot topic has been about Hinkie being more stat/numbers obsessed than the Count from "Sesame Street," Hinkie’s deep knowledge of analytics wasn’t the only reason he was hired. It might not even be the most important part of his résumé.

Hinkie is also regarded around the NBA as a salary cap specialist. If you want to know how good he is at his new gig, pay attention to what he and his lieutenants do (or don’t) on that front moving forward. Because while talent evaluation is hyper important, so is finding ways to pay for those you covet.

It’s not an easy task. The Sixers currently have about $46 million in salary cap commitments for next season (if they bid goodbye to Andrew Bynum, Nick Young and Dorell Wright). The cap is expected to be around $60 million next year. Subtract what the Sixers might have to pay their rookie first-round pick and the franchise is looking at somewhere around $11 million in available funds.

That’s a rough estimate. It’s important to note that the NBA has a soft -- and complicated -- cap. (You can learn more about it here if you’re the type who enjoys long, dense documents.) There are all sorts of ways the cap can be manipulated in order to free up more money. Provisions like the rookie exception, the mid-level exception, the stretch provision and other devices allow general managers to get creative if they choose –- though they might then run the risk of pushing against (or over) the luxury-tax threshold.

It’s complex but fascinating stuff. Which is why Hinkie’s comments on the cap were so intriguing.

“There is cap room that’s a possibility this year that you could use and you could use in a variety of ways,” Hinkie said at his introductory press conference. “Often, we think at this time of year, X-million of cap room, this player costs less than that, will you get that player or not? I warn you, I don’t often think exactly that straight forward a fashion. I think we’ll be curious about all the opportunities we can use cap room for. Can you trade into it and take a wonderful player back? Can you take several players into it to help the team? Can you take other assets to help the organization and as part of that you have to relinquish some of your cap room? Or could you hold and think about using that even during the season? I think every team, every year, that has cap room thinks about all those possibilities. We’ll do the same.”

Hinkie is fully aware that cap space –- whether you employ his “X-million” place holder or the aforementioned $11 million rough estimate –- is malleable. Make some moves here or there and the Sixers could find more money to spend. Or the team might go cheap and young in the upcoming season and roll that cap space over to the 2014 offseason, which figures to have a deep free-agent class.

There are so many different things Hinkie can do. He’s faced with the professional version of a choose-your-own-adventure novel -- only each of his decisions will, potentially, be worth millions.

“About the July 1 free agents, how to land one of those, you have to put yourself in position for that,” Hinkie continued. “So, step one is, you have to often create enough cap room to be able to afford them. Step two is you have to be able to maximize the things you can maximize to make it attractive. Players often want to play with other good players. They often want to play in cities where the fan base will support them if they win, where they really come out if they win. They often want to play for coaches that fit a particular style. I think all of those things play into it. And I think you have to think about those before you can even think about putting yourself to say, ‘We’re going to knock on the door with five other GMs or five other owners on July 1st and win this tournament.’”

The astute reader will understand what Hinkie was hinting at: That the Sixers have lots of work to do in order to make the team an attractive landing spot for prospective free agents. They need a coach. They need quality players. And they need cap room.

Pay attention to the maneuvers he and his staff make (or don’t) with regard to the cap. It will tell you a lot about Hinkie and the direction the franchise is plotting.