A look back at the Sixers past off-season moves
June 20, 2011 Leave a Comment
The Sixers have made a number of significant moves since 2008 that have shaped the team we will be watching during the 2011-2012 season, but there are five in particular at which I’d like to take a look. In chronological order, they are:
1) July 9th, 2008: Sign Elton Brand to a 5-year, $80 million contract
Let’s travel back to the summer of 2008 for a moment. The Sixers had just taken the second seed Detroit Pistons to six games after winning the first two out of three of the first-round series. They were a team no one expected to reach the playoffs, let alone put a scare into the pride of the Eastern Conference. In many ways, their surprising success during the 2007-2008 season doomed the franchise for the next three years. The front office thought they were ready to contend, when they probably should have been focused on rebuilding and accumulating high draft picks. They started handing out max contracts, when they should have been cutting salary and saving up to sign a superstar during the free agent summer bonanza of 2010. The Sixers had fallen into a familiar quandary in the NBA, one that is shaping the current collective bargaining discussions and that will most likely lead to a lockout and a shortened 2011-2012 season. They were caught in between building for the future and the present. They were trying to build around young players on rookie contracts like Thaddeus Young, Jrue Holiday, Marreese Speights, and Lou Williams (Williams signed a more modest 5-year $25 million deal also in 2008), while simultaneously handing out max contracts to veterans Andre Iguodala and Brand that would cripple them financially. The Elton Brand contract has made it impossible to sign any additional talent or make a deal with another team to add flexibility to their payroll.
Now listen, I was ecstatic when Brand was signed. He was the marquee free agent name that summer, and was the power forward the Sixers desperately needed who could provide scoring and rebounding in the frontcourt. Heading into 2008, his career numbers of 20.3 points and 10.2 rebounds over nine seasons made him one of only four active players to average a double-double. The others were Shaq, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett: pretty good company. I thought he was the perfect fit, and so did the entire Philly fanbase. But alas, I am not a basketball executive, and cannot see into the future. Ed Stefanski, their General Manager, on the other hand was being paid to see into the future. He should have seen that Brand was coming off an Achilles tendon injury that limited him to eight games the previous season, and that his best days were likely behind him. He should have seen a conflict looming when he hired head coach Eddie Jordan, who publicly questioned Brand’s work ethic and relegated the well respected big man to the bench where he saw less than 30 minutes of game action many nights.
Of course, the Sixers are getting some value for their money. Brand had a bounce back year under new coach Doug Collins, and proved his merit as a hard working veteran his teammates could turn to for guidance. He adds toughness and reliability to a team filled with unproven question marks. I gained enormous respect for the way he conducts himself as a professional over the past three seasons. But make no mistake – Brand is tremendously overpaid for what he provides on the court. His contract is killing this team, and it is unmovable because no team will trade for him without the Sixers eating at least half of his $16 million annual salary. Contracts such as Brand’s are sure to be a sticking point as the owners and players attempt to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement this offseason, but that’s another post for another day.
2) August 12, 2008: Sign Andre Iguodala to 6-year, $80 million contract
The Andre Iguodala issue also deserves an entire post, which is coming up in my third installment for the blog, so I’ll keep it brief here. I personally believe it is a travesty the way Iguodala has been treated by the media and fans during his tenure in Philadelphia. When Iverson’s days here were coming to an end, everyone clamored for a team that plays defense, works hard, and thinks team first by sharing the ball. Now that their best player is the perfect embodiment of those traits, all they want is someone who can score 25 points a game by jacking all his team’s shots. You truly can’t win in this city.
That being said, it is probably time for each side to move on at this point. Iguodala is clearly unhappy, not that I can blame him, and the Sixers have other glaring needs (a shooting guard who can shoot, and a center who defends and rebounds) that can probably only be addressed through a trade. There are two guys on the roster who have consistently drawn interest from other organizations. One is Iguodala. The other is …
3) June 25, 2009: Draft Point Guard Jrue Holiday with the 17th overall pick
Holiday might be the only player on the Sixers’ roster who the front office would not consider trading, which leaves Iguodala as the only commodity who can bring the team anything of value in return. While I don’t necessarily see Holiday developing into a superstar on the same level as Chris Paul or Derrick Rose, I do believe he can be your franchise point guard and all-star. Look at the numbers he put up as a mere 20 year old: 14 points, 6.5 assists, 4 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 37% shooting from 3-point range. The fact that he played two-guard during his lone season at UCLA and is still learning the point guard position leaves open a world of possibility.
They say you learn more about your team during one playoff series than during an entire regular season. What did I learn about Jrue Holiday while watching him play the Miami Heat in the first-round two months ago? That he has huge balls! You’d forgive a 20-year old starting his first playoff series against Lebron James and Dwayne Wade who succumbed to the pressure or shied away from the moment. Yet Holiday showed no mental lapses, and nailed big shot after big shot as his team gave the Heat more than they bargained for. Four out of the five games in the series were competitive, single digit games in the closing moments. Just accepting the responsibility of taking the big shot in such a situation would be a sign that this kid relishes the opportunity to put his team on his back. But he made these shots too, nailing 11 of 21 3-point attempts throughout the course of the series, many of which came at critical points. The most important thing I learned about Holiday during that playoff series was that he has “IT.” The gene. Whatever “IT” is that allows certain players to shine on the biggest stage under the most pressure-packed circumstances, he’s got it. Holiday is the Sixers’ most crucial building block moving forward. If he develops into an all-star point guard, it will allow the team the flexibility to mix and match pieces and potentially contend without the traditional 25 ppg scorer most teams need to pursue a championship.
4) May 21, 2010: Hire Doug Collins as Head Coach
After the misery of the lost Eddie Jordan season, there was nowhere to go but up. However, the Sixers started out 3-13 under Collins. The fact that they were able to hold things together, increase their win total by 14 over the previous season, and earn the seventh seed in the East was remarkable. When you consider the roster Collins did this with, it is a minor miracle. Their starting lineup consisted of a 20-year old point guard, a 23-year old shooting guard who had never started an NBA game, a 32-year old power forward past his prime who started 86 games combined over the previous three seasons due to injury and ineffectiveness, and arguably the worst starting center in the entire league who provided no defense or rebounding (the two main things you need from your starting center).
Collins injected new life into this franchise. He got one of the youngest squads in the entire league to play hard every single night. Everyone bought into their role, a concept so commonly overlooked and underrated in professional sports today. This is what Collins does everywhere he goes. He turned the Bulls around in the mid-80s, the Pistons in the mid-90s, and the Wizards in the early-00s. All franchises experienced marked improvement in their first season with Collins coaching. The rub on Collins is that this is where the improvement usually ends. He was unable to take the next step in each of his previous head coaching stints, and was fired before ever reaching the Finals. According to critics, the passion he brings that sparks a new group can only sustain a team for so long, and his voice eventually falls on deaf ears. If this is destined to also be his legacy in Philly, however, a lack of talent on the court will ultimately account for the failure as much as any of his own shortcomings as a coach.
5) June 24, 2010: Draft Shooting Guard/Small Forward Evan Turner with the 2nd overall pick
Many have suggested the Sixers should have selected a big man in this spot, either Demarcus Cousins or Derrick Favors. But the Sixers’ draft philosophy has traditionally read like this: You choose the best player available, regardless of position. Drafting for positional need over talent will land you in a world of trouble. Turner was widely regarded as the next best player after #1 pick John Wall, so it came as no surprise that the Sixers made him the second pick. It is entirely too early to predict Turner’s future in the NBA, especially after a rookie season in which he averaged only 23 minutes a game. After an entire year of observation, there are a few comments we can make:
i) Turner looked very tentative for a large portion of those minutes, particularly early in the season. We have all heard that Turner struggles in new situations until he feels confident that he belongs. We heard it from his college coach at Ohio State, and we heard it from Doug Collins. However…
ii) This is extremely troubling for a reigning National Men’s College Player of the Year, and #2 overall draft pick.
iii) His label as a bust by the media and exclusion from the Rookie/Sophomore game during All-Star Weekend was premature and unfair. We all know ESPN loves a good “draft bust” story, and they pegged Turner as that guy before the season even began. Their experts said Turner looked terrible during summer workout sessions, so when he started the season coming off the bench, they had their narrative and ran with it. It didn’t matter that Doug Collins is notorious for taking it slow with rookies and distributing playing time to established veterans.
iv) He looked very good at times as the season progressed, particularly when playing in place of an injured Andre Iguodala. He also looked very good in the playoffs despite limited minutes. He was able to hold his own, taking turns guarding both Lebron and Wade. He kept his cool, knocked down big shots and, similar to Holiday, seemed to thrive in big moments.
v) It was in those moments when he flourished that make the Sixers’ front office believe Iguodala is expendable. Turner is not the lockdown defender Iguodala is, but he played above average defense all season. He will most likely become a better scorer than Iguodala. He has an exceptional mid-range game and is adept at creating his own shot off the dribble or finding open shots for other teammates. His 3-point shooting needs work, but it looks like a few tweaks on his shooting form should correct the problem. It is not a fundamental flaw like Iguodala’s high arching shot, which seems to be permanently broken (then again, Jason Kidd transformed himself into one of the most prolific 3-point shooters of all-time, so who knows?). It appears that Turner needs the ball in his hands to be most effective, but if the Sixers trade Iguodala, then I believe he can share ball handling duties with Holiday, either by sliding directly into Iguodala’s role as point forward, or by teaming with Holiday in the backcourt.
However the franchise decides to move forward, the #1 priority must be developing Holiday and Turner together. If they can each become all-stars, then this team can contend for a championship by adding a center who can defend the paint, and surrounding this core with shooters and role players. That is the hope for Sixers fans as we look ahead to the 2011-2012 season.