In summer 2008, the Philadelphia 76ers had reached a crossroad. Still playing in the shadow of Allen Iverson, the franchise’s most beloved former player, the 76ers had just finished a grueling 40-42 season that ended with the Sixers young guns surprisingly taking the number two seeded Detroit Pistons to a Game 6 in their playoff match-up. The city was craving for a basketball superstar and the team was searching for a go to guy. Ed Stefanski, then the Sixers newly anointed GM was hoping to make an immediate impact by solving both problems through free agency. Bringing in one big-name free agent Stefanski determined would give this city the star player it deserved and also add that guy to the roster who could carry the Sixers deep into the NBA playoffs. Unfortunately for Sixers fans, the organization found none of the above in Summer 2008 and the rest as they say is history.
Flashback to July 2008 and you should recall that before deciding to sign Brand to an $80 million contract, the 76ers brought in Josh Smith for a meet and greet. At the time Smith was a 23-year old “tweener” by all accounts, with a questionable attitude and a shaky jumper, but unlimited upside. Smith seemed like a solid fit for the Sixers style of play. However, the Sixers decided to pass on Smith and ultimately brought Elton Brand, an oft-injured, undersized power forward looking to revive his once All-Star career, to the “City of Brotherly Love”.
Now, seventeen months after that fateful decision, Brand is playing decently, but laboring through this season after an injury plagued 2008-09 and the Sixers are stumbling aimlessly without any sense of hope. In the mean time, Smith who was eventually resigned by the Atlanta Hawks, is putting up career best offensive numbers, has become a dominant defensive player and last year helped the Hawks escape the first round of the NBA playoffs for the first time since 1999. In short, Smith is rising star in the League on a team with a very bright future. They say hind sight is 20/20, but I would argue that the results of the Brand signing that we are witnessing in 2009-10 were plain to see back in Summer 2008. Below, are the top 3 reasons why the Sixers made the wrong decision.
1. Damaged Goods
Even before Brand ruptured his left Achilles tendon and was limited to only eight games in his final year as a Clipper, EB was known as a 30-year old, physical, low post work horse whose body already had taken a significant beating during his eight plus years in the League. In a game where a considerable amount of time is spent above the rim, an Achilles blowout was not going to help the already vertically challenged Brand stay competitive. Of course we all know that after signing the 5 year, $80 million contract with the Sixers, Brand played in only 29 games during 2008-09 thanks to a dislocated right shoulder.
The then 20 year old Smith was coming off a 2007-08 season in which he played and started 81 games for the Hawks. Leading up to his free agency in the summer of 2008, Smith had never missed significant time because of the nicks and bangs typical of life in the NBA, nor had he ever suffered a truly serious injury. Admittedly, Smith did miss 13 games in 2008-09 and twelve of those games were due to a sprained ankle. Still for that to be the longest stretch of games missed by a 5th year NBA player is a testament to Smith’s durability. Additionally, he has played and started every game so far this season, so 2008-09 was most likely a fluke. Lastly, because of his athletic, high flying style of play, Smith has not and will not take the nightly beatings that Brand does in the low post. Thus thanks to the combination of his age and his style of game, it seems safe to say that Smith will most likely play many more years after his 2008 signing, then Brand will.
2. Identity Theft
The acquisition of Brand changed the tempo at which the Sixers play basketball. Their scrappy, up-tempo playing style that forced the Pistons into a dog fight during the 2009 NBA Playoffs, was changed by adding Brand’s powerful, grind it out post game. Very generously listed at 6’9, 254 lbs., and playing on bad wheels, Brand is more than occasionally seen lumbering down the court, trailing even the Sixers secondary break. EB is a stellar rebounder, a beast on the low blocks and although he has a better then decent average of 2 bpg’s in his career, he has never been known to be a great defensive player, so he was not a match at all for the mold in which the Sixers were assembled.
Josh Smith on the other hand would have meshed very well in the Sixers fast break style. He and another tweener, Thaddeus Young, would have worked perfectly together. They would effectively be able to work the high low game, with both being able to take their turn on the block. Smith’s presence would also open up the lane for teammates Louis Williams and Andre Iguodala. On the defensive side, the addition of Smith would have given Philadelphia two of the young premier defensive players in the league. Last season, Smith was the Hawks team leader in blocks per game (1.6) and total blocks (111) and became the youngest player in NBA history (23 yrs, 1 day) to reach 800 career blocked shots. He once had a ridiculous 227 swats for a season. With Iggy patrolling the perimeter and J-Smooth dominating the paint, inevitably there would have been more fast-break opportunities for the Sixers over the last 1 ¼ seasons. As a bonus, Smith has the speed and agility to fill the lanes on those fats breaks.
3. Cap Strapped
Back in Summer 2008, Atlanta was said to not be interested in paying J Smooth over $11 million a year. The Hawks organization then were able to hold firm to that line when they matched the Grizzlies five year, $58 million offer sheet ($11.6 million per) for Smith. The Sixers signed Brand to a $16 million a year deal. Do the math and you’ll realize that it’s not inconceivable that the Sixers could have stolen Smith away from the Hawks by submitting an offer to him that was greater then Hawks’ $11 million per year ceiling, but less then Brand’s eventual annual payout. That scenario would leave close to $30 million freed up for the next 5 years. Maybe Andre Miller stays, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe the 76ers try to join the 2010 free agent frenzy, maybe they wouldn’t. But the Sixers would have options and in today’s NBA, especially under the current US economic conditions, cap flexibility is priceless.
Flexible would not be a word used to describe the Sixers current cap situation, and Brand’s contract would be the stiffest (no pun intended) to move. Aging, fragile, undersized power forwards just don’t go for what they used to. If the Smith experiment hadn’t worked out, his comparatively modest contract, and extremely high upside would have suitors knocking down Ed Stefanski’s door. Instead, in addition to the almost immovable contract of Samuel Dalembert, the Sixers are also doomed with the fact that Brand is set to be paid over $18 million when he is 33, leaving the Sixers cash strapped for years to come. Trade rumors are already circulating in 2009 about Brand, but because he’s 30-years old, is making $15 million this season and has missed 137 of 182 games over the last two seasons, those rumors are not likely to transition into a deal. So it looks Brand is ours for what will seem like an eternity.
The choice is clear now, just it was in the summer of ’08, but the Sixers had tunnel vision. They wanted their big-man, and they got him. Now we’re stuck with him.