Over the past couple days in the comments, the conversation has continually drifted to contention. How can the Sixers get from here to there? Is contention just a pipe dream? Is there anything the new owners can do to move the needle? Well, there's one clear path to relevance. Dwight Howard.
Get Howard and you can pencil yourself in as a contender. Even playing with Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu, you simply couldn't discount the Magic last season, and you won't be able to count them out whenever we have basketball again. They aren't going to win it as currently constructed, but they could beat anyone in a seven game series and they could win 60 games. Howard is that good.
For the Sixers, he also happens to be a perfect fit. Put him in the middle and they're suddenly the best defensive team in the league, capable of putting a defensive squad out there with no holes and the best center in the game to cover up for the few mistakes the other guys make. Put him in the middle and suddenly Thad's rebounding and Lou's questionable effort don't really matter, he'll make up for them. Put him in the middle on the other end and suddenly the lobs Jrue and Iguodala throw up won't be bouncing off their center's head, they'll be thrown down. The easiest points in the world.
The question isn't whether Howard would instantly make the Sixers a contender, he would. It's not a debate. The question is how could the Sixers possibly get him?
I see four possible routes, none of which are even the least bit likely, but let's discuss anyway:
Trade this season: Howard may very well force his way out of Orlando, but there's no way he's going to force his way to Philly. If Howard is available in any way, shape or form, the Sixers absolutely need to be on the phone immediately, but there's a caveat. Howard has and ETO on his contract, he can become a free agent after next season. If there's no franchise tag in the next CBA, the Sixers could very well be giving up a boatload to rent Howard for whatever's left of an abbreviated season. This move, obviously carries a tremendous amount of risk. Here's my only stipulation. I'd include absolutely anyone on the roster and any number of future draft picks to get Howard if Howard agrees to a max extension with the Sixers as a condition of the trade. If Howard won't agree to an extension, I'd give up absolutely anything, except Jrue. The tradeoff is what you're willing to take back. This is a pretty simple answer as well, if Howard is willing to sign a max extension, I'd take back whatever Orlando could shoehorn into the deal. If you're guaranteed to have Howard for five years, I don't care what you have to do, you get him. If there's a decent chance this is going to be a one-year rental (or less), then you can't take back too much garbage and you absolutely must keep Jrue. Jrue is the key selling point in getting Howard to re-up in Philly, and he's also a modest safety net if he does wind up walking.
I think there's a modest chance the Sixers could put together a deal that would entice Orlando into pulling the trigger (they could offer youth, picks and cap relief), but I find it highly unlikely that they'd be able to get Howard to agree to an extension. I also think the odds of Howard opting out of a $19M+ year on his current deal are pretty low. The max won't pay him that much under the next CBA, so trading for him as a rental would be a similar situation to what the Nets did with Deron Williams this past season, and that's a risk I would take if Jrue wasn't included in the deal. Give me 18 months of playing with Jrue and if Howard wants to walk, I'm fine with that. I'll start over from scratch. The caveat here is the CBA. If a franchise tag is included, everyone and everything is on the table. Then again, if there's a franchise tag available, Orlando won't be trading Howard.
Trade next season: On the one hand, the Sixers would have more assets in terms of expiring contacts next season, on the other hand, I think you'd have more legitimate bidders in play for Howard when he was definitely headed for free agency. There's more risk involved, unless there's a tremendous advantage in the new version of Bird Rights because you don't have that second year left on his deal, but the price I'm willing to pay and the garbage I'm willing to take back with him are still the same. The same conditions apply. Again, highly unlikely.
Free agency next summer: Zero chance of this happening. The Sixers don't have the pure cap space and I don't think they'd be able to force Orlando into a sign and trade, Howard would have to be dying to come to Philly. Maybe there's an outside chance the Sixers continue their upward trend and Jrue (and/or Turner) make a tremendous leap this season to the point where Howard decides he's the missing piece to bring a title to Philly. Even if that's the case, he'd pretty much have to force his way to Philly and the Sixers would have to give up a decent salary to be able to make the trade work.
Free agency in summer of 2013: Here it is, probably the last, best chance to get Howard (assuming he hasn't already signed a max contract/extension elsewhere. The Sixers will have Iguodala (player option that season), Turner, Brackins, the Voose and next summer's first round draft pick under contract for $28M. Jrue will be heading into restricted free agency with a cap hold of around $8M which brings the total up to $36M. If they've re-signed Thad or Speights long term, or added any other contracts in the interim, they'll also take away from that number, but unless something monumental happens, they should have at least $20M in cap space with the ability to make a big move with Iguodala's expiring contract if need be. They could afford Howard without question, they'll probably be able to afford Howard and a couple of other good players to fill out their roster. They'd have Jrue at 23, Turner at 25, Iguodala for one year at 30 and Howard at 28.
Again, it's unlikely they'd be able to lure Howard on the open market. But, and there's always a but, if Jrue and/or Turner can elevate their games in the next two seasons to where one or both of them (or someone else on the roster) is a borderline All Star, maybe you've got something here. Maybe Joshua Harris and the new owners have turned things around. Maybe Jrue really is a top five point guard, Doug Collins is still going strong and this team is on the rise. If everything breaks perfectly, maybe Howard could see Philly as his ticket to a ring and maybe he'll also see Philly as his for the taking at that point.
When I look at four complete long shots, the fourth maybe doesn't look as long (or as risky) as the others. When it comes right down to it, though, I'd probably be willing to take whatever risk is necessary to get Howard.