Posted by: mdegeorge | May 20, 2010

An end to the Sixers’ misery? Not so fast

It has the potential to be a banner week for the Philadelphia 76ers (at least by recent standards). On Tuesday, they improbably landed the second overall pick in June’s NBA Draft after finishing with the sixth-worst record in the league. And Wednesday, they were reportedly in heavy negotiations with Doug Collins to be their new coach.

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There might be reason to hope for Sixers’ fans. But for the near future at least, the team is stuck in a quagmire of immovable long-term contracts and a poor draft history that renders serious attempts at contending several years away.

The Sixers $64.2 million payroll was well over the NBA’s salary cap of $57.7 million, but still below its $69.9 million luxury tax threshold (the NBA is unique in that it has a soft cap which doesn’t penalize teams for surpassing the cap under certain circumstances, but does impose a dollar-for-dollar luxury tax over the threshold).

The salary cap for next year will fall to $56.1 million while the luxury tax threshold will be down to around $68 million.

As is stands right now, the Sixers have $65.8 million on the books for 2010-11. Add the cost of the second pick, which will be a minimum of $3.835 million, though the pick will likely sign for the maximum amount, 120 percent of that total or $4.602 million.

That pushes the Sixers over the $70 million mark, and guarantees that even with personnel moves, they will sit on the sidelines of this offseason’s free agent sweepstakes.

Ohio State’s Evan Turner appears to be the logical choice at the second pick (for now at least, we’ll save that debate for another day). But with the considerable gulf between the Sixers and contending basketball, a more plausible option would be to parlay the second pick into one or two players, especially since it’s the only pick the Sixers have in the 2010 Draft.

Was Philadelphia in a better financial position, a team like the Oklahoma Thunder ($17 million under the cap, three picks in the top 32, and just one or two players away from seriously contending) could be an ideal suitor to help them restock a depleted roster.

The other part of the Sixers’ predicament is the inability to effectively use the draft to develop talent, necessitating the overspending on underperforming free agents (hey there, Elton Brand).

Look at the Sixers’ draft picks since 2001:

Samuel Dalembert (no. 26 in 2001) has averaged over 10 points per game in two of his seven seasons and is much more valuable as an expiring contract then as a center.

John Salmons (no. 26 in 2002), who struggled to fit in the City of Brotherly Love, has had a renaissance since leaving. He’s is averaging 15.4 points per game over the last three seasons for three teams, compared to just 5.1 ppg in four season with the Sixers.

Andre Igoudala (no. 9 in 2004) has been successful by averaging 15.9 points per game and has emerged as the closest thing to a star this team has had in the First Post-Allen Iverson Era, but his massive contract is now a fiscal ball and chain on this team’s progress.

Thabo Sefolosha (no. 13 in 2006) was traded on draft day for Rodney Carney. Sefolosha has developed into a serviceable support player for the Bulls and Thunder, while Carney averaged 6.1 points per game over four relatively anonymous NBA campaigns.

Then there’s the disappointing draft of 2007. Thaddeus Young went with the 12th pick and has become a piece the Sixers will likely develop around, averaging 13.5 points per game last season. Daequan Cook was taken with the 21st pick and immediately traded for Jason Smith, who has been a role player at best (4.0 career points per game). And they closed the round by taking Petteri Koponen from Finland, who was traded to Portland for the 42nd pick, which became Vanderbilt’s Derrick Byars. Neither Koponen nor Byars is in the NBA now.

The last two year’s first-rounders have been used on Marreese Speights and Jrue Holiday, both of whom appear to be important cogs in this team’s resurgence.

On the whole, it might not look so bad, but when you compare it to the success of the four previous picks (Keith Van Horn, Allen Iverson, Larry Hughes, and Jerry Stackhouse), it’s easy to see why the team has struggled.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel that can be realized with some bullish moves by Ed Stefanski and company. $22.7 million comes off the books at the end of the 2010-11 season from the contracts of Dalembert, Jason Kapono, and Willie Green, and their expiring deals give them newfound trade value. A move that gets some value back for Iguodala, who would be rendered surplus to requirements behind Turner and Young, would get them out from under $56.5 million owed over the next four years. Brand is probably immovable until his $18 million salary becomes an expiring contract in 2012-13.

It may take at least another year mired near the Eastern Conference’s basement for change to happen. But when that improvement does happen, it’ll come via talent development, the draft, and a route similar to the Thunder. This isn’t a franchise with the financial wherewithal to buy its way into the playoffs a la Boston, and its attempts to those ends in the last few years have proved disastrous.

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