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Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie is using a completely rational but extremely controversial strategy to build his team.
Some call it tanking. Others call it smart future planning.
Either way, Hinkie is taking his plan of sacrificing short-term success in order to build a long-term foundation to some extreme territory.
After drafting Joel Embiid (who will likely not play until 2015 because of a foot injury) and Dario Saric (who will likely remain in Europe until 2015), the Sixers have done nothing in free agency. They haven't signed a single free agent. They haven't made any trades. They haven't added any new players — other than the two draft picks who won't step on the court this year — to a roster than went 19-63 last year.
Right now they're sitting on a mountain of salary cap space. They have as much as $32 million in cap room — double what any other team in the NBA has right now. But it doesn't appear that they have any intention of using it to make themselves better.
Under NBA rules teams must spend 90% of the salary cap on players, which works out to $56.7 million in 2014-15. The Sixers are at somewhere between 50% and 63% of the cap right now, depending on what they do with their unguaranteed contracts, meaning they'll have to add $15-25 million in salary just get to the salary floor.
Sitting on cap space isn't a cost-cutting measure. If the team doesn't get to that 90% salary cap floor by signing/trading for additional players, they will have to divide the difference between the players already on the team.
They're going to pay out that $56.7 million, no matter what. In essence, Philly would rather risk giving the money to its own players than use it to acquire additional players who could help them become a better team.
So what's the plan here?
In all likelihood, the plan is to hang on to the cap space until the trade deadline and hopefully use it to take on some other team's undesirable contract in exchange for a first-round draft pick. The Sixers can be used as a third team to facilitate a tricky high-profile trade, and get a pick out of it. In that sense, the mountain of cap space is an asset. But, like much of the team's assets right now, it's not one that can be used to win actual basketball games, and by holding onto it the team is sacrificing its ability to get better.
Hinkie is well within his rights to tank, the the way NBA rules are set up makes it a smart strategy. But even that might be changing.
According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, the NBA Board of Governors will vote on a proposal designed to re-weight the NBA Draft lottery in a way that will disincentivize tanking. Under the proposal, the teams with the five or six worst records in the league would have the same odds of getting the No. 1 pick.
Right now, the worst team has a 25% chance, the 2nd-worst team has a 20% chance, the 3rd-worst team has a 16% chance, the 4th-worst team has a 12% chance, and the 5th-worst team has an 8.8% chance.
There's one team fighting hard against the plan, unsurprisingly — the Sixers.
"The rough draft of this plan was met with opposition by 76ers management, which is in the midst of a multiseason rebuilding project that is dependent on a high pick next year. The 76ers, sources said, are hoping to get the NBA to delay the plan's implementation for at least a year because it would act as a de facto punishment while just playing by the rules that have been in place.
"The 76ers, however, may struggle to gain support from Silver or fellow teams for holding off on the changes. Philadelphia's planned sink to the bottom has caused a drag on revenues in one of the league's largest markets and has upset some other teams, sources said."
We've seen tanking before in the NBA, but not with this degree of commitment and strategy.
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