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The Sixers Frontcourt Problem

As he has been known to do from time to time, 76ers Co-Owner and CEO Adam Aron took to his Twitter Feed on Sunday to answer questions about the 76ers. As I checked out his page in-depth that night, I found out a few interesting things: Philadelphia finally cares about basketball, and the current executives were responsible for the great success last season (well, even though being a mediocre team is hardly something to brag about, and last year's team was built before he came, but besides that he's spot on). Most importantly, I learned the Eagles are currently in Training Camp. Who knew? I NEED to get up to Lehigh at some point this week.

OK, enough with the Adam Aron fun. In truth, I love the guy's passion. He and the other owners seem to truly care, a trait that alone makes Josh Harris and Co. a step-up from the last ownership. Heck, they were willing to eat most of Elton Brand's salary! Even though the prudence of amnestying EB is questionable, it's comforting to know the ownership is willing to spend the money necessary to try and improve.

For some reason, the real nugget of information that struck me from Aron's Twitter is that those in the Sixers' organization feel they improved as a team from last season. The sentiment hardly qualified as a surprise after their offseason moves, confusing as many were, spelled out they definitely weren't trying to take a step back. Still, it was good to see Aron publicly admit everyone making decisions felt the team improved. Now they are on the hook.

When Aron also tweeted about the strategy of short-term deals as a positive for the team's future, he inadvertently gave some credence to "the two year plan" which has been discussed ad nauseam here and on various other 76ers forums. At the same time, talking about next year's free agent class as a priority when the team will have no cap space of note provided some ammo for the "No plan, no clue at all" category.

To tell you the truth, I've gone back and forth on this issue. As of now, I'm starting to become a lot more pessimistic about the team's direction, and it's because of the offseason handling of two biggest (Physically, not necessarily in importance) positions on the basketball court: Power Forward and Center.

Looking at all of the moves the Sixers made in the frontcourt, it's hard to see any direction at all. They have, in order:

1. Re-signed Lavoy Allen for two years.
2. Drafted Moe Harkless and Arnett Moultrie.
3. Re-signed Spencer Hawes for two years.
4. Amnestied Elton Brand
5. Signed Kwame Brown for two years.

Heading into the offseason, there seemed to be two paths the Sixers could take. They could attempt getting younger (and probably worse) as the primary goal, or getting better as the primary goal. Either path could have worked and either path could have failed. Sadly, we may never know. If the Sixers chose to get younger, as it looked was the case after the draft, player development and roster evaluation become the primary goals. If the Sixers signed free agents, the more traditional goals of more wins and a better playoff seed are what the team tries for. Looking at those moves as a whole though, it's hard to say they've committed to either vision in the frontcourt. That's trouble.

While some may feel the mixture of moves is indicative of the Two-Year "Hold Steady and the Make Your Move" plan, that's not necessarily true. One of the main objectives of said plan would be evaluating the roster's young players to see what the team truly had and therefore needed to improve on through free agency, the draft, or trades. The signings of Hawes and especially Brown doesn't guarantee the team will properly evaluate all of their young pieces.

 The frontcourt moves leave a lot of questions, which are difficult to answer. Here are a few that came to mind:

1. How does signing Spencer Hawes for Two Years/$13 Million either improve the team or make them younger/more athletic?  It doesn't. Regardless of what the team apparently thinks about Hawes, his re-signing has to be considered a lateral move. It's not rocket science. Hawes will be a year older next year and he will be the same player, with little room for growth. Aron and the Sixers keep saying the team got more athletic as a whole, but when the team re-signs a finesse player with limited mobility to start in the frontcourt, a major hole appears in that line of thinking.

Looking at the top-flight true centers in the league, you are looking at guys who either rebound and block shots, score at a decent efficiency, or do a little of both. Even though Hawes has done a better job rebounding with the Sixers (which I would argue has to do with Doug Collins' schemes just as much as Hawes), he really does neither.

Even on a more general point, I think of Tyson Chandler, Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, Marc Gasol, and Roy Hibbert when I think of the league's best "true five men," yet none of their teams made it past the second round of the playoffs last season. There are plenty of great teams in the league without a good true center. San Antonio played Tim Duncan at the 5 a ton this year and he was really effective there. Oklahoma City is great with rotational defense whiz Nick Collison on the floor at center. Miami plays Bosh and Haslem at center. Bringing those examples up isn't meant to suggest the Sixers are anywhere near those teams' class. They are just meant to serve as a reminder teams don't need "true centers" to reach their potential, especially below average ones.

And yes, Hawes is below average. The team plays better when he's off the floor, much better. He's an inefficient offensive player who never gets to the free throw line, a bad one on one and team defender, and a nonexistent shot blocker. Even worse, he isn't getting better at any of these skills. Spencer Hawes is who we thought he was, and the Sixers let him off the hook.

Even worse, I believe the team's limited ceiling is in fact, tied to Hawes. Running an offense through a center that shoots (long two point) jumpers and never gets to the foul line can only take a team so far, no matter how good its defense is. Contrary to popular belief, Hawes' penchant for floating on the perimeter can hurt the team's spacing, by not occupying the lane. He definitely hurts Jrue Holiday as a point guard by setting screens that don't make contact because he is already flaring to 17 feet for a long jumper. I think he could hurt newfound three point shooters Nick Young and Dorell Wrights by providing an extra defender out on the perimeter who can rotate easier. These are all on-court developments to keep an eye on.

It's not about Hawes himself (Like he's definitely an NBA player, maybe an 8th man on a good team) but how little the team is rewarded by re-signing him. If there was a position the Sixers needed a change to get better or even just younger at, it was center. And they didn't do either with the Hawes signing. It's baffling really.

2. What purpose could a Kwame Brown/Spencer Hawes frontcourt possibly serve? Brown is another example of a wasted signing. Aron cited height and "coach familiarity" as reasons for signing Kwame. By that logic, Oklahoma City should sign Willie Green because Mo Cheeks knows him well. I don't profess to know a ton about Brown, but looking at his career stats it's hard to imagine he is a significant upgrade (if an upgrade at all) because he doesn't block shots and is only a decent rebounder, nor does he score efficiently (From what I remember, he has trouble catching because of small hands). Worst of all, there is no room for improvement because Brown is thirty years old, with no long-term future with the team. What purpose does he serve if he's not that good and can't get much better?

Many have speculated Brown will be the team's starting center, which opens up a whole new can of worms, Hawes sliding to (gulp) power forward. 00 has never played the four in his time with the Sixers. Repeat: Never played the four in his time with the Sixers. That's over 100 games worth.

There's a reason for that too. He's a bad defensive center for the reasons I outlined before, and the power forward position is a whole new animal. Looking at the Eastern Conference's top-teams, Spencer Hawes is now supposed to guard: Chris Bosh, David West, Carlos Boozer/Taj Gibson, Amare Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett.

All of those guys can shoot the ball out to fifteen feet and easily have the requisite foot speed to be able to blow by Hawes if he gets anywhere near them. It's stunning Doug Collins would greenlight this strategy, considering how much he went to Lavoy Allen out of necessity in the 2nd Round series against Boston to try and slow down Garnett, who time and again had his way with Hawes. This doesn't even address the problems an adequate stretch four (Ryan Anderson, Ersan Ilyasova, Mirza Teletovic possibly) presents for Hawes, making him guard all the way to the three-point line. Needless to say, by starting Hawes and Brown at Power Forward and Center, the Sixers could pull off the rare double whammy of not developing players as well as becoming a far worse team. Good times.

3. How does not adequately replacing Elton Brand make the team "better?" Tom Haberstroh of ESPN's Heat Index had an awesome article touting Brand as a possible DPOY Candidate last year. EB's post defense was truly incredible, and he served as the only semblance of a rim protector, managing a sneaky good 4.2 block percentage with his long wingspan and great timing.

Because of myriad injuries and wear and tear from all of the miles on his body, Brand struggled on the offensive end last year, but he was easily one of the team's most valuable four or five players and a reason for whatever success they had. His salary did take up a ton of cap space, but amnestying EB only to replace him with a player was almost as bad for the team's defense as EB was good, now also playing out of position to boot, seems like a move a team actively trying to tank would make, not a team trying to get better.

4. How are they splitting up the minutes? Even before the Brown signing, there seemed to be a logjam in the Sixers' frontcourt. Now with him in the fold, the situation gets quite a bit more complicated. Let's assume Kwame starts and plays 15 minutes a game, a generously low estimate when compared to his career average of 22 minutes a game.

There are 96 minutes to split up at the 4 and 5 positions. Assuming Hawes plays his career average of 25 minutes a game (and for argument's sake, let's say he plays 10 at power forward even though it's preposterous to even think about that) and Thad plays last year's 28 minutes a game all at the 4, we have only 10 minutes a game left at PF and 23 left at C. Assuming Lavoy, fresh off his playoff heroics and new deal, plays an estimated 20 minutes a game (10 at each spot), there are only 13 minutes left over at center, split amongst three other guys, who all in this scenario would be splitting a Big Mac while everyone else eats their full steak.

5.  What about Nikola Vucevic? The Voose, as you remember, had his bright moments early in the season before getting hurt, and eventually was shut out of Collins' rotation in the playoffs. The Kwame Brown signing shows Collins might be having second thoughts about Vucevic, who the Sixers probably hoped would be able to play 15-20 minutes a game at center by his second year. It's possible Collins has already lost favor with him, which would be bad enough, considering Voose showed flashes to have the ability to do what Hawes gives the team at a much cheaper price. But remember it was Collins who reportedly was the driving force on picking Vucevic, even with a proven rebounder in Kenny Faried still on the board.

6. Where do the rookies fit in? Two picks, one a projected small forward the Sixers think is a power forward, where there's hardly any minutes. Another, a guy who can play both spots and who Rod Thorn declared "A Top 10" talent in the draft despite him falling all the way to the 27th pick. At the time, I though these moves signaled a youth movement in the Sixers' frontcourt, but now with the Hawes/Brown signings, it's easy to wonder where the minutes will come for Moe Harkless and Arnett Moultrie. They will certainly have to work their way into the lineup at someone else's expense.

And I guess that's the point. It's pretty difficult to hear about the "upside/athleticism" the two first round picks provide, and have them head into training camp behind Kwame Freaking Brown on the depth chart. The Sixers have set themselves up for failure because if Brown plays up to his capabilities and earns Collins' "trust," then the young guys sit while we wonder what they can do. The thing about athleticism is everybody jumps the same height and runs the same speed when they are on the bench.

Hopefully some of the younger guys supplant Brown and Hawes with their play. But then you'd be paying a combined $9 million to two guys who are sitting on the bench, for two years. Lose-lose if you ask me.

The two-year plan could very well be in effect. It just could be really, really messy.

by Rich on Jul 16 2012
Tags: Adam Aron | Basketball | Rich | Sixers |