Jerry Colangelo and his Impact on Free Agency
One of the primary reasons for optimism surrounding the Sixers’ decision to hire Jerry Colangelo as the chairman of basketball operations is that the signing seems to indicate the Sixers will be more active in free agency.
It’s something Sixers head coach Brett Brown has said rather directly.
That’s all well and good. After going 46-191 over the last three seasons, most would welcome an influx of NBA-level talent.
It’s also important to keep expectations in check, especially when discussing the impact Jerry Colangelo can have in attracting top talent.
Sure, Colangelo’s league-wide reputation, the draw of his association with USA Basketball, and the contacts one would accumulate after spending parts of five decades in the game of basketball, all should be valuable tools in the Sixers’ ability to get free agents to sit down at the negotiating table.
But those expectations need to be tempered. Free agents, after all, still chase primarily two things: money, and the chance to compete for a championship.
The Sixers have money. Tons of it, with just over $24.5 million guaranteed for next season, per BasketballInsiders.
The problem is, the NBA caps what a team can offer a free agent, limiting it to just 25 percent of the salary cap for players with 0-6 years of experience in the league. And, with the salary cap jump from $70 million this year to an estimated $90 million this summer, the Sixers are not uniquely positioned as a team with an abundance of salary cap space.
That brings that second consideration to the forefront.
With so many teams holding money to play with this summer, combined with the existing rules allowing teams to go over the salary cap to bring back their own free agents, providing an environment in which free agents can realistically see themselves competing for a championship will become the primary selling point teams will have to convince top-tier free agents to sign on the dotted line.
The Sixers simply cannot make a compelling offer for the brightest names in free agency, whether it’s Jerry Colangelo, Jerry Rice, or Jerry Seinfeld making the sales pitch.
So cross Kevin Durant and LeBron James off your shopping list. Cross DeMar DeRozan and Mike Conley off that list, too.
(It’s also worth noting that pursuing guys like Durant, James, Derozan or Conley wouldn’t be a deviation from what the team has done in the past. Pursuing star-level players was always something the team was interested, as shown by the team requesting a meeting with Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard last summer).
Where Colangelo’s impact would, conceivably, come in is on that lower tier of free agents, the guys who would not typically command a maximum level contract.
ESPN NBA Analyst Chris Broussard joined 97.3 ESPN last week to talk about the impact Colangelo could make in free agency. In there, Broussard talked about drawing free agents to Philly:
“Before Colangelo gets there they would’ve had to overpay tremendously to get any free agents of note. Okay now thats not the case, Colangelo has restored their reputation and they may be able to get a good free agent or two to come there to Philly.”
Let’s make one thing clear: the Sixers will still have to overpay to get a free agent to come to Philadelphia. In fact, most teams do. The only, incredibly rare, instances where free agents take less money is when joining a team with ready-made stars and an infrastructure in place to compete right away. That doesn’t define the Sixers, even with the addition of Colangelo.
Paying, and paying more, is still the Sixers’ primary selling point.
But there’s one key point of distinction. The goal is to overpay, but to overpay market value, not overpay future contributions.
It’s one of the goals of analytics, in all sports. To find players who the league may be undervaluing their future growth and potential impact. It’s the point of scouting, to unearth hidden gems who can grow and contribute more in the future than most expect. It’s a goal in the hiring of a guy like Colangelo, who can use his decades of experience to predict who might, with a change of scenery or role, be able to take on a bigger role than most predict he will.
The NBA has a weird set-up. Their employees have a very limited amount of time to maximize their earning potential, one of the few fields where your value decreases as you gain experience. They limit what players can make early in their career with rate-controlled rookie contracts, then limit the options players have with their second contracts by instituting restricted free agency.
When players realistically have the chance to move in free agency for the first time in their career, many of whom will have to wait 9 years to do so, don’t expect players to take less money to go to a team that doesn’t have a realistic chance at competing in the short term. Don’t expect free agents to give up earning potential and winning potential just because of Jerry Colangelo’s reputation and good will.
Instead, hope Colangelo’s relationship with agents will get them at the table. Hope the combination of Sam Hinkie and Jerry Colangelo can determine which player can improve more than most expect, and that they can identify pieces that bring out the most in each other.
Overpaying is still the reality of the Sixers’ situation. Just hope they overpay wisely.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.