As we begin to get a better idea of the details of what the next CBA agreement will look like, speculation is running rampant about the direction the Philadelphia 76ers will take. The combination of a change in ownership, change in rules, 5 months of lawyer speak and an abbreviated free agency period combines to create a perfect storm of roster speculation, and also of fantasy GM playing.
Take a look after the jump to see how I would go about building a champion, and I'll also contrast that with an educated guess on how I think the 76ers will go about it. In the end, this post isn't about the perfect plan I've concocted that will propel the 76ers to champions, but that WE'RE TALKING ABOUT BASKETBALL AGAIN, BABY.
As a disclaimer, this could all change if the exact details of the CBA, and specifically the amnesty clause change. For example, I'm running under the current assumption that the amnesty clause can't be used in a player acquired in a trade. If it can, that changes things substantially, and has a rolling effect on all the decisions made here.
What I would do
As most LB'ers know, I'm a staunch proponent of building champions through the draft, so it's probably not a great surprise what direction I'm going to go with this post. However, in the past I've held back from doing straight salary dumps because Elton Brand's contract has always been looming over the Sixers plans. Getting under the salary cap in a meaningful way was always going to be difficult when the Sixers were paying Elton $17 and $18 million the next two years.
The amnesty clause changes that. This get-out-of-jail-free card presents teams like the Sixers with an opportunity to change their franchise. Without Brand's contract, the Sixers could get under the cap even with keeping Andre Iguodala and re-signing Thaddeus Young.
As a silver lining for the new owners, Brand will garner some attention in a silent auction, so they won't be stuck paying his entire salary for the next 2 years.
Now, should we find out that teams can use the amnesty clause on players received in a trade, then I do not use the amnesty clause on Brand. If that happens, I save the amnesty for an Iguodala trade, which then increases my willingness to take a bad contract off the receiving teams hands, allowing me to get a better asset (draft pick or young player) in return for Iguodala, and then use the amnesty clause on the bad contract I just received in the trade.
What the Sixers will do
They'll use the amnesty clause to erase the final year of the disgruntled Andres Nocioni's contract, thereby giving them enough room under the luxury tax to use their mid-level exception on a middling center like Kwame Brown.
If the Sixers re-sign Thaddeus Young to a contract starting at $7 million/year and Hawes to one starting at $4 million/year, they wouldn't be able to use the full mid-level exception on somebody who will probably be overpaid.
My general philosophy is that the mid-level exception should be used if you're a championship contender looking to add the final piece, but otherwise using it is a mistake, and often times used to overpay average talent on long term deals. This has improved somewhat with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, as the max value of the mid-level has dropped to $5 million per year and the max years lowered to 4 years for non-tax paying teams. Still, non-contending teams should tread carefully when using it.
The Sixers owners won't want to pay Brand upwards of $35 million (although not necessarily that much) while getting no production from him, and neither Rod Thorn or Doug Collins appear interested in taking one step backwards to take two steps forwards and Brand still provides value on the basketball court, so Elton will stay.
Trade Andre Iguodala
What I would do
The amnesty exception has made me more inclined to trade Andre Iguodala. In the past, I was only open to trading Andre Iguodala if you got a similar level star, a top draft pick, or were able to get rid of Elton Brand's contract as well. Now that Elton Brand's contract can easily be removed from the equation, the Sixers have the opportunity to get significantly under the salary cap, gaining flexibility for future signings and opening doors in trades that don't exist to capped out teams (think Kyrie Irving).
There's a market for Andre Iguodala, and getting an expiring contract and a later-than-previously-required first round pick shouldn't be all that difficult of a sell to a legitimate contending team. His talents are wasted away on the Sixers, out of place, under-appreciated and running out of time. About to turn 28 years old and having logged 21,000 NBA minutes Iguodala isn't yet in decline, but whether he'll still be in his prime once Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner are off their rookie contracts is up for debate. On a team that's unlikely to contend for a championship while he's still in his prime, it doesn't make sense to keep Iguodala around if 1) You can still get value for him, and 2) He has the chance of limiting your chances of bringing in a legitimate superstar, especially now with the amnesty clause and the increased flexibility that allows.
With Iguodala gone, it allows a better chance to evaluate the young guards still under their rookie contracts, and allows you to better assess what you have in them going forward, and what you still need to acquire going forward. That's not to say Iguodala is a selfish player or that he's preventing Jrue Holiday from shining, or the reason for Evan Turner's struggles. But Iguodala will always get some of the end of game situations and he'll always be utilized as a half-court initiator, and if he's not around we can get a better idea of how capable Jrue Holiday is in these situations, and force him into assuming more of a role than he may naturally take as he defers, to some level, the veteran team leader.
Similarly, with Iguodala around Evan Turner's role will always be diminished, perhaps more profoundly than Holiday's. Evan more-so than the problems of having three ball handlers on the perimeter and the logjam that creates, not having a great catch and shoot threat on the perimeter presents problems in having Iguodala and Turner play major minutes together. Having a wing that opens things up for Turner would give him an environment to better maximize his potential. That's not to say Turner is going to replace Iguodala, but you once again get a better chance to see exactly what Turner can bring before his rookie contract runs out and you have to make a long term, big money commitment to him. And you then have the ability to assess what you have, and what still have left to acquire.
None of this is to say Iguodala's overpaid, overrated, the reason the Sixers are mediocre or that he eats baby kittens, something that must be true with some of the venom he receives from the Philadelphia fan base. But unless you think the Sixers can realistically contend for a title in the next 3 years, it's time -- both from Iguodala's perspective so he can contribute on a contender and from the Sixers perspective -- to move on.
What the Sixers will do
Paralyzed by a fear of losing and with Doug Collins backing, the Sixers will keep Andre Iguodala, despite flirting with trading him at the trade deadline once again. Floor spacing will continue to be an issue, Evan Turner will continue to be an occasional starter because he's the second most talented wing, but never grabbing the position by the horns because there are skill-sets that fit with Iguodala better. Some Sixers fans will continue to boo Iguodala and say he thinks he's kobe Bryant, despite a usage rating south of 20%. Jrue Holiday will continue to improve, but still leave us wondering whether we have a legitimate all-star or simply an above average point guard.
Re-signing Thaddeus Young
What I would do
Let the market dictate Young's price, don't set it yourself. If the teams with cap space go after bigger fish, the lowered mid-level exception (around 4 years, $21 million) will help the Sixers. If the deal is for around the mid-level, re-sign him. Otherwise, if the deal approaches or exceeds $7 million annually, let him walk, and don't lose any sleep over it.
Young falls into the category of great to have either if you're a contender or if you get him at a below market deal. He's the type of player you add once you have your superstar in place and you're looking for long term role players to augment that. However, if you're still trying to acquire said superstar, overpaying for role players with the hope of them drastically changing who they are is a gamble that often times fails, and hinders you down the line.
Young's youth makes me a little more willing to give him a long term, fair market deal. If he were 29, there'd be virtually no reason to bring him back. At 23, I have no problem locking him up long term if you're able to pay him mid-level money. But at his previous contract demands, or anything even remotely approaching that, I don't want to make a mistake.
What the Sixers will do
With this one I'm reasonably hopeful they'll do this right. With Ed Stefanski, I would have had little doubt they would have set the market price, offered him $8 million/year with max length and raises, and have been happy to keep a core contributor. With Rod Thorn, I think he has a general idea not to tie too many assets to role players, which despite Young's talents and youth he still is. I feel better about this being resolved in a manner that benefits the Sixers with the new CBA in play and Rod Thorn at the helm.
What I would do
The elephant in the room, the unspoken underlying plan in all of this, is to lose. I'm a firm believe that NBA champions are built through the draft, and an equally firm believe that .500 basketball with a plateaued is the worst place to be. If the Sixers go the route I think they'll go -- retain Elton Brand, keep Andre Iguodala, amnesty Andres Nocioni, re-sign Thaddeus Young -- they'll be a 45 win team that loses in the first round, is right up against the luxury tax, and drafts 18th, and with no real cap space until Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner are off their rookie contracts and ready to consume that cap space. It'll keep Doug Collins happy because he'll see incremental improvement. It'll keep the new owners happy because they'll have an exciting team with increasing attendance. But Sixers fans looking for a championship will be in a precarious position with little hope.
I know, I know. I can already hear the responses. "The Clippers always lose and it never worked for them." There's no strategy in building a champion that doesn't require the right decisions to be made, no strategy that provides a guarantee, and building through the draft is no exception. I could find many failed examples of building through trades or free agency, or trying to emulate the Pistons, that have failed to produce a championship contender as well. Without the right people making the right decisions, any plan is failed from the beginning.
The NBA is a superstar driven league, and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement has done nothing to change that. The NBA will be a superstar driven league so long as only 5 men are allowed on the court at one time. The focus of the Sixers has to be to maximize their ability to acquire a superstar, and doing so through the draft presents the best opportunity. Drafting near the top of the draft doesn't guarantee a superstar, as the Sixers found out in 2010, but it does increase the chances. Certainly more chances than a 45 win team drafting 18th up against the luxury tax provides.
What the Sixers will do
Win 45 games, be up against the luxury tax, get bounced in the first round, draft 18th.
If the Sixers go into the 2012 offseason with a top pick, potential superstar, complemented by a potential #2 option (Jrue Holiday) and potential #3 option (Evan Turner) with $20 million in cap space to acquire complementary pieces, they have a chance to be relevant in future June's. It takes a little bit of luck, a lot of hard work, correct decisions, and a willingness to take a step backwards, but there's the light at the end of the tunnel. I'm not sure I see that on the current path the Sixers are on. I see fun basketball, but little chance of a championship, which is what I crave.