Whether it's Ed Stefanski, Larry Brown, Jeff Van Gundy or a complete unknown calling the shots for the Sixers going forward is almost immaterial. The only thing that matters to me is the vision and the plan to achieve it.
Before I get into the direction I believe the team should take, I want to state something very, very clearly. I do not believe this team needs to get worse to get better. I believe they took their step back in 2009-2010, it was really a giant leap back, but it could and probably should allow them to come out ahead of where they were a year ago, believe it or not.
This team is too talented to win only 27 games. They underperformed, that's not up for debate, the degree to which they underperformed is the question. Some say they should've been 10 games better, some say the ceiling would be about 45 wins. The point is, a team with this level of talent should not be picking in the top ten, let alone in the top three. The 2010 draft is a gift and an opportunity, if the Sixers land a top-three pick it will go down as a golden opportunity. A situation we Sixers fans have very little familiarity with, but it is absolutely a possibility.
When I look at this team, I see a younger version of the 2006-2007 Celtics. Both teams suffered through a miserable season, both had one veteran piece on the verge of begging his way out of town, a young defensive-minded PG, a slew of contracts that expire the following season an a lottery pick. The Celts wound up with the #5 pick and leveraged it along with expiring contracts to make big moves to bring in two veteran stars and make a run. I am not endorsing that type of plan for the Sixers, but I'm using the parallels to illustrate the options available to the Sixers. They have talent, they have a potentially great draft pick, and they have trade assets. There are moves to be made, just like there were for Boston back in 2007, but while Boston went for the jugular, the Sixers need to take a more measured approach.
The first step to this process of setting the vision for the future is to look at the pieces you have and then choose the path to get the most out of those pieces. So let's look at the roster:
- Andre Iguodala - Premiere defender. Excellent distributor. Excellent rebounder for the position. Top two win in transition. Half-court scoring is an issue. Jump shot is a big issue.
- Jrue Holiday - Potential to be a premiere on-the-ball defender. Plus rebounder for the position. Very, very good leading the break. Excellent passer (sees openings others don't). Advanced understanding of the pick-and-roll, ability to use dribble to stress the defense to create easy looks for bigs. Solid jump shot. Turnover prone. Out of control on drives to score at times.
- Lou Williams - Instant offense. Can get to the line. Improved scoring efficiency. Improved assist/turnover ratio. Terrible defensive fundamentals, effort and execution. Tweener. Lightning fast.
- Thad Young - Very good in transition. Athletic, long. Developed interior scoring game based on finesse rather than power. Poor defensive fundamentals and execution. Tweener. Unknown if he can play the three, doesn't rebound enough to play the four. Jump shot regressed (thanks Randy Ayers)
- Marreese Speights - No holes in his scoring game. Can score every time he touches the ball within 20 feet. Excellent touch around the rim. Best mid-range jumper on the team. Can't spell the word pass. Horrible defensive fundamentals, effort (though the effort seemed to pick up later in the season in the form of drawing charges) and execution. Decent rebounder. Horrible conditioning. Questionable dedication and work ethic
- Jodie Meeks - Streaky shooter who can get extremely hot and carry the team for stretches. Defensive effort seems to be there, but limited by size, wingspan and athleticism. Tweener who cannot handle the ball well enough to play the point. Black hole of offense, he gets it, he shoots it.
- Sam Dalembert - His defense and rebounding are both probably second-best in the league at the center position behind Dwight Howard. Extremely durable, excellent conditioning, excellent size, excellent athleticism. Good finisher on lobs and when he gets the ball close enough to dunk it. Horrible in every other offensive category. Terrible BB IQ. You could live with the warts if he made less money. I could live with him as the starting five in a more offensively talented lineup. He's a question mark here simply because his contract expires after this upcoming season and I really don't know (a) if he wants to come back, (b) if the Sixers would want him back and (c) if the Sixers could sign him for a reasonable contract (something in the $6M-$8.5M/year range). If he isn't going to be a part of the team's future, his $12.9M expiring contract (plus trade kicker) could be a key trade asset.
- Elton Brand - Ability to score in the half court (even if he has to use "old man moves" to do it). Limited physical ability. Maddeningly low rebound rate. Too slow/not enough effort on pick-and-roll defense. Poor rotations. Lacks explosion. I listed Brand as a question mark because he showed flashes of being able to do everything I just said he can no longer do. If he can contribute something on the defensive end, especially the defensive glass, he can be a contributor going forward. If he's put into a defensive system that doesn't require asinine rotations from its bigs, he can be hidden, somewhat. If he bounces back, I can see him as a 25-30 min/game contributor. If he doesn't bounce back, he's going to have to take a smaller role on the team and his healthy contract will be pretty much a complete waste. Either way, we're most likely stuck with him for at least two more seasons.
- Willie Green - His only value lies in his expiring $3.9M contract.
- Jason Kapono - When he's hitting threes he's only a slight negative on the floor. When he isn't, he's a team killer. His only value is in his $6.6M expiring contract
- Jason Smith - His only value is in his $2.2M expiring contract. Smith will be a restricted free agent following the 2010-2011 season only if the Sixers make a qualifying offer. Under no circumstances should they make that QO if they can't trade him before then.
- Rodney Carney - He could be useful off the end of the bench for league minimum, though I doubt he'd be interested in coming back. No need to consider him as part of the team going forward
- Francisco Elson - Ditto Carney, minus the useful part.
The identity I'd choose for this team really hasn't changed. Defend to run. The pieces they've assembled fit that identity, at least the key ones, and they shouldn't make a major move for a player who doesn't fit it. They only have so many bullets, they can't afford to use one on a player who doesn't fit the identity. (For the record, Cousins is really the only guy in my top 7 who doesn't fit this mold.)
That's the first criteria for any move, the guy has to be able to defend, he has to be able to get out and run, and his position can't be redundant. Meaning unless his name is John Wall, we don't need another point guard. And if he can't shoot, we don't need another wing. The second criteria is age. Iguodala is 26, Jrue is 19. No trades for players older than Iguodala, I don't care who they are. Same goes for free agents. The goal here is to keep the team moving forward along this path toward the goal of a championship down the road. No short cuts. This needs to be a young core that will play together, grow together, learn together and gradually improve to the point where some time down the road you can make a huge splash if you need to, to put them over the top. The last thing they need is to overpay a guy who will be over the hill by the time the rest of the team reaches its potential.
Now that we have the ground rules, what do we have, what do we need and what can we use to get them?
The draft is obviously the first order of business. If they get a top-three pick, they're going to add another cornerstone. No doubt about it. Whether he fits with the two they already have or not remains to be seen, but he will undoubtedly be an asset, possibly a superstar down the road. If they wind up in the 6-8 range, it's crucial the guy they pick fits the criteria above. I like Wes Johnson, Udoh, possibly Aminu. Ultimately, they simply have to come out of this draft with another cornerstone.
If we're talking trades, no one is untouchable, but there are restrictions. If Jrue or Iguodala are moved, you absolutely, positively must get a young cornerstone plus another asset (either a high pick, a player with the potential to be a contributor or you have to get out from under Brand's contract). Trading either of those guys without adding an equivalent player to replace them is a huge step in the wrong direction.
Of the possible contributors, I honestly think two of them could be in the long term plans as bench players, with Speights the only one who has the potential to be a starter if someone lights a fire under him and he becomes an average defender. I would move any of these guys, I would package them together, if you can somehow turn any number of these guys into one guy who fits the ideal, that's a huge win. Ultimately, I believe two of them will be developed and will fit some kind of a role on the team, in the top 8. If I had to bet right now, I'd say it will probably be Thad and Speights, but that can change. Of the group, I think Lou's value around the league coupled with his inflated contract would be the best to move, though I'm not sure what the return would be.
Good news and bad news with the rest of the roster. You simply cannot trade Elton Brand. Not without bending over and giving up way more than you should. He's here. They're stuck with him at least through the next two seasons, so he's either going to bounce back to a serviceable version of his former self or he's going to sit on the bench. It's as simple as that. I don't care how much money he's making, if he doesn't fit and he doesn't help, he doesn't play. His contract is a sunk cost if he can't contribute, don't let some foolish sense of pride get in the way of that.
Sam is a special case. He fits the identity, he's important to the team, and with each day that passes his value on the trade market increases (as his trade kicker decreases). The pure bulk of his salary means you can put together a package of expiring contracts large enough to trade for anyone in the league. If there's a team out there looking to escape from a long-term contract, you can drive the getaway car. Trading Sam opens a hole, though, and you need to fill a hole with that trade (even if it's not the hole he's currently filling) and you also need to have a plan to replace his shotblocking and rebounding. If you get a guy like Favors or Udoh in the draft, Sam becomes much more expendable. There's also a ticking clock on Sam. The team needs to start dialogue with him about his future as soon as possible. If it's clear he won't be re-signing with Philly after this season at a reasonable price, then he must be moved by the deadline. Get picks for him, get back a lesser piece at a reasonable rate. Get some value. If you haven't gotten out from under Brand's contract, letting Sammy walk won't give you the financial flexibility to sign anyone. Wring that value out of his contract while you can.
Kapono, Green and Smith are nothing but trade fodder. If you find a team desperately looking to shave payroll heading into the lockout, you make a deal to add a contributor. If a home run deal presents itself, you don't hesitate. These guys can be moved for future picks if you need to trim some payroll. They can be bundled with any of the young guys in the potential contributors category to make salaries match up and get a cornerstone in return. Two caveats to any trade involving these players, (1) the trade has to improve the team in some way, (2) you don't take any long term contracts back unless the players you're getting are young and fit the team identity. No exceptions, and this really goes for all trades not involving Elton Brand.
You'll notice I haven't said anything about the luxury tax, or a coach for that matter. The reason for the former is that I don't believe you can build for a long-term winner if the luxury tax is a primary concern in the short-term. There will probably be ways to avoid paying the tax, and some of them may make sense at the trade deadline, but making a move now to avoid the tax is going to limit the team's options down the road. A fear of the luxury tax would also close doors on potential cost-saving, desperation moves other teams are willing to make. If this team is going to build to a championship, they absolutely have to be willing to pay the luxury tax, and the man making the decisions absolutely must be smart enough to know which deals are worth the risk associated, and which are not.
When picking a coach, three things must be 100% clear. His first responsibility is to install the right system to maximize the talent and develop this identity (or re-develop it, as the case may be). Second, he must hold every player on the roster accountable to the team identity, and he has to weed out the guys who simply cannot play this way. Third, he has to have the job security and backing of the franchise in knowing that a championship is not expected in the first season, but improvement is expected every year. Not only improvement in the team's record, but improvement in terms of player development. Whoever the first round draft pick is, he's going to be playing a significant role on the team. There will be no sacrificing the long term for short term gains. The franchise's goals will flow from top to bottom, from owner to GM, to coach, to the players. Expectations must be reasonable, but results must be tangible.
2,500 words later I'll get right down to it.
Another 27-win season, or worse, is not what this team needs. From this point moving forward they need to improve with every game they play, with every move they make, with every draft pick they make. They need to choose their direction, always keep that direction in mind and continually build upon the talent base to realize their goal. I 100% agree there is no quick fix to bring a championship to Philadelphia, but that doesn't mean a slow fix will not get the job done. Bring in a smart coach, manage the fans' expectations, give him a firm direction, goals to meet and enough time/leeway to succeed.
My hope is that this time next year, when I sit down to write my "State of the Sixers" post after the season we'll have at least one more player in the "Cornerstones" section, a few "Possible Contributors" will be solid contributors and there will be no "Garbage" left.
Sometimes in the NBA you do need to get worse to get better, I don't disagree with that. I simply believe we got worse in 2009-2010 and now it's time to start digging our way out. We don't need to go further down into the abyss.