The third year of Jeremy Lin's contract was written with the intention of being a problem for whichever team happened to hold his rights when it came due.
The Houston Rockets' front office, which included assistant general manager Sam Hinkie at the time, made the three-year, $25 million offer to Lin after his breakout "Linsanity" season with the New York Knicks. The contract, in round numbers, called for $5 million in each of the first two years and $15 million in the third.
New York really wanted to keep Lin but declined to match the offer because it would have put the franchise into a deep luxury-tax situation when the third year rolled around. The fans weren't happy about the decision, but at least unhappiness wasn't something new. For once, though, the Knicks called it right. Not only did Lin's greatness turn out to be a short-lived phenomenon, but the Rockets now find themselves stuck with that balloon payment at the very time they need salary-cap relief to sign a big-ticket free agent.
Maybe it's fitting that Hinkie, who helped create Houston's current problem, will be the one to help solve it - at a price, of course. And, as usual, that price will be another little slice of the future in exchange for some minor inconvenience in the present.
That's the way it looks at the moment, although heaven and earth cannot shift even an inch until LeBron James announces to the waiting world where he will be playing basketball next season. Whether Miami or Cleveland, the announcement will be made before James leaves Saturday to attend the World Cup final in Brazil. The basketball universe will then begin to move once again. No word on what effect it will have on the soccer universe.
The Sixers, for their part in the drama, are still in Phase 1 of their mission; still on the launching pad, still building up steam but not nearly ready for liftoff. As such, they remain a handy repository for teams that wish to buy their way out of a mistake or two.
Hinkie puttered around that way last season, taking on some bottom-of-the-roster players in exchange for second-round picks, but he's reportedly charging the Rockets a future first-round draft pick for the trouble of taking on Lin.
If $15 million seems like a steep price to pay for a first-round pick and one season of a backup point guard, perhaps it is. It could be that Houston will pick up some of the monetary freight, or it could be that, since the Sixers are $30 million under the salary cap, Hinkie is intent on using that flexibility. They have to meet the NBA salary-cap floor of $57 million somehow, and what better way than with a player who won't make them appreciably better yet?
A playoff appearance next season would cause the Sixers to lose a first-round pick the previous administration traded away for Arnett Moultrie, so that's not in the plans. The pick (now owed to Boston) becomes two second-rounders if the Sixers are a lottery team once again. That, like it or not, is the plan. As is sitting center Joel Embiid all season. As is happily letting Dario Saric, their other first-round pick this year, hone his game in Istanbul for at least a year, maybe two.
Meanwhile, the Sixers can be Switzerland for the rest of the league; willing to enter into friendly, nonaggression pacts, available for use as a safe-deposit vault for valuables. There is a service charge for all that accommodation, however. It is those little slices of the future that will be cashed in when the Sixers are ready to forgo their neutrality and begin a few invasions of their own.
The plan is fine. It's the waiting that stinks. Sixers fans can only be envious as other teams contort themselves to get James or Chris Bosh or Carmelo Anthony. They get Lin instead and the thin excitement of watching Nerlens Noel play a few summer games against a collection of D-leaguers.
Someday, all those little slices of the future will add up to something wonderful. Someday, all the players who have sat out or are sitting out with injuries, and all the players who have been stashed overseas, will join hands on the court. Someday, it will be the Sixers making moves at free-agent time, not to help others, but to help themselves.
That's the vision if you close your eyes and believe. If you open them today, though, all you see is Jeremy Lin. That's the tough part of the plan.