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September 16, 2020

Ben Simmons' All-NBA selection has financial implications for Sixers moving forward

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Ben-Simmons_012120_usat Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons celebrates during the fourth quarter of his team's 117-111 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.

Ben Simmons was named to the All-NBA Third Team, the NBA announced earlier, the only Sixers player to earn the season-long honor during a tumultuous year for Philadelphia.

Simmons, who was recently named to the All-Defense first team, was joined by Jayson Tatum, Rudy Gobert, Russell Westbrook, and former teammate Jimmy Butler on the third team. Receiving nine second-team votes and 34 third-team votes, Simmons received the second-fewest voting points of any player to make one of the teams, with his 61 points ahead of only Russell Westbrook (56).

That number, in fact, represents a lower score than Joel Embiid received on the ballot, with Simmons sneaking in thanks to his designation as a guard. Embiid was on three first-team ballots, 14 second-team ballots, and 22 third-team ballots, but with Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, and Rudy Gobert all outscoring him at the center spot, Embiid was left on the outside looking in.

But sneaking in or not, making one of those teams was a huge deal for Simmons and the Sixers because of financial impact alone. With a selection to an All-NBA team, the rookie supermax extension Simmons signed last summer rises to 28% of the salary cap, as opposed to the 25% figure he would have been locked in at if not for making the third team. That may not sound significant, but every dollar matters for a team that will be deep into the luxury tax next season barring major trades.

As Derek Bodner of The Athletic illustrates here, it represents a jump of about $19 million over the life of the contract in a world where the salary cap remains the same next season. It's bold to assume anything with the cap at this stage, but it's good for a starting point in any case.

As a reminder, teams over the NBA's tax line are taxed based on just how far over the cap they go, based on the below scale:

Screen Shot 2020-09-16 at 3.25.19 PM.png

An additional note — the tax rate for teams more than $20 million over the tax line increases by $0.50 for every $5 million they are over. The projected cap for 2020-21 was previously $115 million with a tax line of $139 million, but reports from the spring suggest some teams were preparing for a drop as large as $25 to $30 million, thanks to drops in revenue brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let's be a little more conservative than that doomsday estimation and say the cap drops to $100 million with a $120 million tax line. Simmons' 28% max then shakes out to $28 million in year one. If you combine that number with nothing more than the guaranteed money they have on the books next season, Philly gets expensive in a hurry, and with only nine players:

2020-21 Salary ($100 million cap estimate)

 Player Salary
 Tobias Harris $34,358,850 
  Joel Embiid $29,542,010 
Ben Simmons (hypothetical)  $28,000,000
Al Horford $27,500,000 
 Josh Richardson$10,865,952 
 Mike Scott$5,005,350 
 Zhaire Smith$3,204,600 
 Matisse Thybulle$2,711,280 
 Shake Milton$1,701,593 
 TOTAL$142,889,635 


With our estimated numbers, that puts the Sixers almost $23 million over the luxury tax line ($22,889,635 to be exact). 
What does that mean in practice? In this hypothetical, the Sixers would owe for the first four bracket maximums, plus $3.75 for the $2,889,635 they are into the $20 million-plus bracket. 

Using only this nine-player roster, that means they would owe almost $56 million in luxury tax payments. Simmons' extra three percent pushing them into the highest tax category represents a $10+ million difference in that hypothetical tax payment for a team that would need six more players just to fill out the roster. Add more salaries onto the books, and the number grows even more.

Let's use an even more conservative estimate of the current $109 million salary cap. John Hollinger floated the idea in June that the league could potentially leave the cap mostly alone and smooth it over in future years, leaving teams with that $109 million number and a $132 million tax line. Here's what the nine-man group looks like in that scenario:

2020-21 salary ($109 million cap estimate)

 PlayerSalary 
 Tobias Harris  $34,358,850
 Ben Simmons $30,559,200
 Joel Embiid $29,542,010
 Al Horford $27,500,000
 Josh Richardson $10,865,952
 Mike Scott $5,005,350
 Zhaire Smith $3,204,600
 Matisse Thybulle $2,711,280
 Shake Milton $1,701,593
 TOTAL$145,448,835 

It's a less dire scenario, but still troublesome. 

This nine-man Sixers group would owe payments for the first two bracket maxes, plus $2.50 for every dollar from $10 million to their number over the tax line ($12,821,835). The Sixers would owe about $23.3 million in tax payments for a nine-man team (and one that severely underperformed last season) in the optimistic scenario where the cap doesn't move at all. 

The percentage jump for Simmons here is the difference between the Sixers being in the third tax bracket vs. the second. In a world where Simmons didn't make the All-NBA third team, their nine-man tax bill is about $15.5 million, or almost $8 million less. I won't get into the long-term prognosis after learning the hard way that the whole world could change rather quickly.

If your attitude about this is, "Who cares, it's not my money?" I think you are 100 percent right to feel that way as a fan. It's a great honor for Simmons, and playing at a level where he is in consideration for an All-NBA spot is a great thing for Philadelphia, who will only contend for a title if Simmons and Embiid reach their potential as both players and teammates.

But looking at the Sixers' history, it absolutely matters. This is a team that has systemically sold off second-round picks for cash under three separate general managers. They were one of the first major North American franchises to float the idea of pay cuts for their employees in the spring, an idea they only abandoned after significant public pressure and even some shaming from their franchise center. And then there's the recent arena-building attempt, which came bundled with what we'll call some tax gymnastics.

When Sixers ownership was asked about their willingness to pay the luxury tax in the past, it came bundled with a belief that tax payments would coincide with the team's ascent. Now they're faced with a thornier question  — are they willing to pay what it takes after a season where they slid far down the conference hierarchy?


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