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May 21, 2015

Why the Covington, Grant and Sampson contracts matter

With the rising cap, locking talented players into smaller deals is more valuable than ever

Sixers NBA

Sam Hinkie has a reputation for many things as a decision maker, but one of them is the ability to find unheralded players via either the draft’s second round or undrafted free agents. Some of the common terms that are used to designate this specific type of player are keepers, steals, diamonds in the rough, etc. They are tossed around fairly frequently around these parts.

He mostly gained this reputation for two reasons, although you can easily make an argument that both of these are at least a little overblown. The first one is that he learned the ropes in Houston, which is the team generally acknowledged as the shrewdest (or at least close to that) in the second round. In a video interview with Daryl Morey from two years ago, Zach Lowe compliments the Rockets GM for “robbing Chandler Parsons blind.” Morey responded by mentioning all of the second-rounders that didn’t pan out in Houston (Joey Dorsey, Jermaine Taylor, etc.). Stumbling on Parsons was the product of a concerted effort to develop second-round picks, a process chock-full of trial and error.

We know full well Hinkie has brought that level of commitment to Philly, collecting as many lottery tickets as possible and hoping to hit on even just a couple. His second-round pick hoarding has practically become the stuff of legend, and count the Sixers head coach as one of the believers.

“I feel like it’s Sam’s strength,” Brett Brown said. “I feel like he’s shown that with what he saw in K.J. [McDaniels], what he saw in Jerami [Grant]… I think you can make money in the second round. I think that you can find players, and I’m backing Sam and his group to drape his analytics and thoughts on all of that to try and uncover some more players that we can say, ‘Yup, you know we found [a steal].”

Some have pointed to Sixers’ 2014 second-round haul as evidence of their general manager’s skill. In the words of the immortal Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend.” While the players in question (most notably Grant) definitely showed some promise during their maiden NBA voyage, we shouldn’t mistake opportunity for success. The rookies did contribute to the worst offense in the league after all, and neither McDaniels nor his mother could sniff the floor after touching down in Texas. Don’t get it twisted: Both Grant and McDaniels have a chance to be valuable contributors and viewed as solid value picks down the line, but they’re not all the way there yet.

The good news for players like Grant is that the Sixers will give him every chance to reach whatever potential they have. For someone in his early twenties who needs to iron out elements of his game, Philly is the ideal place to be. From the crop of players he coached this year, Brown singled out Grant and undrafted free agent JaKarr Sampson as guys that he’d like to move forward with.

“Most important is his spirit,” Brown said of Grant. “He lives well, he represents the program well. There’s a physical side of it that you fall in love with. His body you can see blossoming, and his versatility gets you excited.”

“To look at the multiple positions that he’s played and he too comes with a tremendous spirit,” Brown said of Sampson. “You know, he’s got a bounce.”

For this post, let’s group those two in together with Robert Covington, the undrafted free agent acquired shortly after the season began who ended up becoming the team’s best offensive threat. In my estimation, all three of those players are likely to be here next season for two reasons: 1. They were all thrown to the wolves this year to different degrees and acquitted themselves well considering the circumstances. 2. They’ll make about $2.7 million combined in 2015-16, and all three are signed through 2017-18 to extremely team-friendly deals.

(I suspect McDaniels would still be here if he originally signed a four-year deal instead of betting on himself, but that’s just my best guess.)

If these guys continue to improve, the financial implications are massive. Second-round picks already have extremely subsidized contracts, but as we tackled a month ago, the salary cap is going up big-time in the next couple of years. Let’s use Covington as an example, because his ability to shoot the ball already makes him a legit NBA rotation player. He’ll make $1 million in 2015-16, which is approximately 1/67th of the projected $67.1 million cap (look out, Einstein, I’m coming for you). In 2016-17, Covington is scheduled to make about $1.02 million, which is approximately 1/87th of the projected $89 million cap*. Hot damn, indeed.

*There very well could be a lockout after 2016-17, but also keep in mind Covington is slated to make 1/98th of the projected cap when it jumps again in 2017-18.

How could this be useful to the Sixers besides the obvious benefit of paying good players what amounts to peanuts? You’re allowed to go over the salary cap to sign your own guys, which makes these second-round and undrafted free-agent contracts a weapon in free agency. One of the most popular ways to vault into title contention is by offering max contracts to superstar unrestricted free agents, and as long as Covington and Grant are contributing and making ~$1 million, it’s much easier to fit those max contracts under the cap. You can then go over to sign the second-round picks when they’re due a deserved raise with their second contract.

Morey tried to do exactly this last summer when Dallas signed Parsons to a three-year, $46 million offer sheet. If unrestricted free agent Chris Bosh agreed to sign a max deal in Houston (which he was reportedly close to doing), the Rockets would’ve went over the cap and matched Parsons’ deal to form a Harden-Howard-Bosh-Parsons superteam. Bosh went back to Miami at the last minute, leaving Morey at the altar like Bradley Cooper in “Wedding Crashers.” The Rockets GM had to make the tough decision of letting Parsons walk because the contract became much less appealing when it took up so much of the Rockets’ cap space. Translation: Bosh-Parsons good, Parsons-No Bosh bad.

As it turned out, Morey rebounded as well as one could and now finds his team in the conference finals because he already has two superstars and nailed pretty much every decision after getting spurned by Bosh. Imagining the Sixers in a similar scenario takes some projecting into the future (projecting a lot of things turning out well, too), but the possibility is there.

Laugh all you want about all of the second-round picks, and to be honest, it’s legitimately funny how many of them the Sixers have. You should laugh, because sports are supposed to be entertainment. Just don’t think there isn’t an opportunity if even one of them really hits. 

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann