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The Sixers should not “amnesty” Al Horford, even if it were an option

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Philadelphia 76ers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

One NBA rumor that’s been bandied about recently is the idea of reinstating The Amnesty Clause. This clause offers teams “amnesty” or the option of a single get-out-of-jail-free card on one of their crummy player contracts. The player still receives the entirety of the guaranteed portion of his contract. But the contract is wiped clean from the team books. In other words some overpaid dude is told to take a hike and he no longer clogs up the salary cap but he still gets all of the money he’s owned.

Now we don’t know if or when games will be played and we don’t know what the 2021 salary cap will be or where the luxury tax line would fall. But some people think franchise owners are already dreading luxury tax penalties because they’re anticipating significant losses in revenue due to the ongoing pandemic and the way it has impacted sports. So if the NBA considered offering teams the chance to amnesty one player, would the Sixers consider using it? And if so, on who?

A recent piece by Yossi Gozlan for HoopsHype suggested Al Horford as a potential amnesty candidate for Philadelphia. Horford has had an incredible career, although he has declined more quickly than many expected and has not complimented the Sixers core. He’ll be 34 in a week. If he (and the twin towers experiment) were gone perhaps Tobias Harris could go back to playing the stretch-four where he really creates mismatches and the Sixers could trot out another ball-handler and shooter for better floor-spacing and creation in crunch time.

Horford was signed for four years at $109M and now “Big Al” kind of feels more like “Big Albatross.” Per Gozlan:

“Perhaps the most controversial selection, but if an amnesty clause happens the Sixers should use it on Horford. They don’t need to do it immediately as they should try to trade him first. But if they cannot, they should use it on him either next summer or the one after. The Sixers are already heading into next season $8 million over the luxury tax for a $13 million luxury tax payment. Wiping his $27.5 million cap hit won’t give them cap space this summer, but it would give them more flexibility and $19 million below the tax.”

Now if I were one of the the Sixers’ multibillionaire owners, and I was feeling a bit of buyer’s remorse on my decision to pay Horford $97M guaranteed last summer and $109M total, I might be pretty tempted to follow Gozlan’s advice here. I could save some serious money in luxury tax fees, and also try to wash my hands of my big mistake. (I might prefer to amnesty whichever front office executives suggested I pay this sum for Horford in the first place).

If I were Al Horford, I’d love it too because I’d get almost $100M and could then be free to find a team where I’m truly appreciated and not relegated to the bench (like I was in February when last Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were both healthy). I’m sure teams like the Lakers, Clippers, Celtics, Rockets or Warriors would all be interested, for the right price.

But here’s the problem. That might be even worse for the fans. Like Gozlan says, the team won’t have cap space even if they took the mulligan on Horford. Even if you completely expunged Horford’s cap-hit from the books, the team couldn’t go spend the $27.5M he’s due to make on other free agents upon completion of the season. They’d likely just look to replace him with a minimum-salaried vet.

Remember last summer when fans would play “would you rather have Jimmy Butler for five years at $190 million or Malcolm Brogdon for four years at $85 million?” Now we’d be playing “Al Horford for $27.5 million or Kyle O’Quinn for $1.6m?” Even if you fancy yourself a wizard at finding veteran minimum salaried studs (oxymoron?) it’s uphill sledding.

Marginal flexibility

So what does Gozlan mean when he says it would give the Sixers more “flexibility?” It essentially refers to what many Process fans know as optionality. You have a couple of choices at least, even if they’re not great ones. For example, if the Sixers were to amnesty Horford, they could avoid the luxury tax and that would open up the biggest salary “exception” the NBA offers, the Non-Tax Payer’s Mid-Level Exception, projected to be around $9.7M for the 2021 season. If the team exceeded the luxury tax threshold, the smaller Tax Payer’s Exception they’d be eligible for is now projected for around $6m, per HoopsRumors.

So heading into next season you could be looking at something like Horford and $6M to work with or a minimum-salaried player and $9.7M to work with.

Now Horford may have been a terrible signing by the Sixers “a lot of voices” front office but he isn’t a terrible player by any means. He was 52nd overall in PIPM this year. He was 31st in the league in Defensive Win Shares, that’s up from his DWS rank of 48th in 2018-2019 with Boston. He’s 61st in Defensive PIPM. So Al is well above a replacement level player here. And I find it very hard to believe that the same front office who decided to ink the 33 year-old to such an exorbitant salary in the first place would suddenly be savvy enough to find a better player than Horford in the $1-2M range annually. You’re talking about the bottom of the barrel there.

They could try to get creative. They could distribute those exceptions we discussed across multiple roster spots. Like offering two players $4.8m each instead of one $9.7M. Then they could look to pair up one of those new guys along with say Mike Scott or someone else for a trade down the road. There’s at least a couple of not so exciting team-tweaking options available this way.

Last summer some players like Seth Curry, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Delon Wright earned contracts in the $9M range annually, and players like Tres Lyles, Ish Smith, and Enes Kanter earned in the $4-6M range in free agency for some context. It’s not impossible to find help with those salary exceptions and the difference between $6M and $9.7M isn’t negligible in the hands of the right front office. But still....

We asked our resident salary cap wizard Jeff Siegel, Founder of Early Bird Rights to weigh in:

“Amnestying Horford would be a rash move so early in that contract - but they could come back to that if they really can’t find a trade for him in the next year or so. There’s no rush on the amnesty, really, unless ownership is absolutely unwilling to pay the tax this year.

“Amnestying Horford would push them out of the tax and into the [Non Tax Payer’s Mid-Level Exception] which would offer larger team-building tools... [but] I don’t think the Sixers should amnesty Horford and neither should the fans. It makes more sense to leave him on the payroll, see if you can work a trade or if he can fulfill the promise he had when he first showed up.”

Go follow Jeff on Twitter, he really knows his stuff and you’ll learn a ton from his comments. His point about there not being a rush is the key. Even if the Sixers wanted to amnesty Horford, they could wait for a year or two and think about things.

Twenty six months ago Horford really put it to Joel Embiid in a series against the Sixers. The series before that he had been awesome in a game 7 win over Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. One year ago, he led the C’s to a road victory in game 1 over the Bucks with some stellar defense and shooting. But they lost the next four games that series as Horford literally limped to the finish line dealing with a sore left knee and, it appeared a sore left hamstring. He received lots of in game treatment games 2,3,4 and 5. He’s dealt with the same knee and hamstring at times this season. Maybe an extended break and eventually some serious load management could allow him to get right and slow the battle with father time he recently appeared to be losing. I’m not confident that simply amnestying a guy who was recently so good and grabbing basement-replacements is the best answer even though it would save team owners tons of cash.