No Lebron?  No Wade? Not Even Amare or Bosh?  Unlike Eastern Conference foes Miami, Chicago and the New York Knicks, our Philadelphia 76ers do not have the luxury of cap space [$64.3 million owed; which is currently over the projected $56.1 million luxury tax cap].

So instead of acquiring a big name free agent, the Sixers must utilize the mid-level exception to help bolster a frontcourt that is in desperate need of a rebounding and shot-blocking presence.

Just a couple of days before the 2010 NBA Draft, general manager Ed Stefanski pulled the trigger on a deal that sent starting center Samuel Dalmbert to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for small forward Andres Nocioni and 7-foot-1 center Spencer Hawes.  Most fans were giddy about trading the whining, under performing center because of deficiencies on the offensive end and his general demeanor about being a 76er.  However the trade punched a big whole in the Sixers frontcourt.

While Hawes is a former top Lottery pick of the Kings [10th overall in 2007] and has a ton of upside, he is not enough of a physical presence in the low blocks to compete against dominant post players such as a Dwight Howard or to a lesser extent Kevin Garnett [in his current state].  During his three-year career [220 games], Hawes has averaged only 5.52 rebounds and 0.98 blocks per game.  Not particularly great numbers for a legit 7-footer.

Additionally, he is more of finesse player who is at his best when he can draw opposing centers and power forwards away from the basket since he can shoot the rock from the three-point line [31.4 percent for his career] and has a nice mid-range game.  Attacking the hoop, blocking shots and being ferocious on the boards are not his forte.

Of course, Hawes has never been asked to play a significant amount of minutes like he may see with Philadelphia.  Over his first three seasons, he averaged just over 23 minutes per game.  Hawes could suddenly blossom with an increase in minutes and make substantial progress in his overall game in 2010-11, but it seems unlikely since big men usually take a tad bit longer to develop. 

Outside of Hawes, the Sixers have few real options down low.  Elton Brand does not have the height at 6-foot-9 or athleticism to be a rebounding and shot-blocking force at either the power forward or the center position.  Also his body will likely not hold up under the constant pounding that type of role demands.  Many believe that Marreese Speights could be an adequate center due to his long wingspan, athleticism and excellent hands, but his lack of conditioning and regression from his rookie to sophomore season is worrisome.  All this makes it extremely difficult for Collins to count on Brand or Speights on a nightly basis.

With only the mid-level exception at the 76ers disposal, the team must look for a veteran that wants to come into a rebuilding franchise, but can compete for a lot of playing time.  One player that pops out of the NBA free agent list  is Miami Heat center Jermaine O’Neal.

Of course, no one should expect O’Neal to be the player he was back in his heyday for the Indiana Pacers.  And yes it is also true that he has been injury prone since getting his hefty payday. Although it is because of those negatives that he might be willing to accept a mid-level exception. In addition, teams are not going to give him a big contract that he seeks due to those flaws. This is a chance for him to resurrect his career and get himself one last payday.

A potential sleeper acquisition for the Sixers is Cleveland Cavaliers’ center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. At 7-foot-3, Ilgauskus would finally give the Sixers a true center with phenomenal size that could play along Brand. Certainly, he is not all-star player he once was, but with Lebron James potentially leaving the Cavaliers, Ilgauskus might look elsewhere for an opportunity. In Philadelphia, he would be the starting center on a team projected to compete for a playoff spot. With Big Z in the lineup, the 76ers get a seasoned veteran to mentor a young and talented Hawes and a player that has averaged 7.7 boards over his 12-year career. More importantly, he can adequately replace Dalembert’s defensive presence in the middle with his 1.7 blocks per game over his career.  As an added bonus he will draw defenders away from the hoop with his mid-range game and be a contributor offensively.  Big Z is cap friendly as well – he made only $925,000 last year and can probably be had for less then the MLE.  Still, Sixers fans should not get their hopes up for Big Z as he is most likely to resign with the Cavs or go to a club that is a legitimate title contender heading into the season.

Besides the aforementioned players, there are a group of big men that should come much cheaper than the MLE who would be able to help the Sixers.  These low salary players would allow the Sixers to save all or part of the MLE for another need such as a three-point specialist.  One intriguing prospect that comes to mind is Toronto Raptors power forward Amir Johnson.  The former second-round pick is only 23 year old and has progressed nicely in each of his first three years in the League.  This past season for the Raptors, he played in all 82 games and set a new career high in points and rebounds with 6.2 and 4.8 respectively, while only averaging 17 minutes a night. There is no telling what can of player he could develop into if his minutes increased.  The biggest reason the team should look into signing Johnson is due to his hustle and defensive prowess.  He is not afraid do the dirty work the team needs in order to win and can make it tough on opposing offenses to score as he averages one block per game.

In addition to Johnson, a couple of other big men that would be a bargain for Ed Stefanski are former 76ers Joe Smith and Louis Amundson as well as veteran Jamaal Magliore and the wiry Hakim Warrick.  Out of those four, only Amundson and Magloire are true centers, which the 76ers lack. However Magloire is a career backup and it appears his best years behind him at 32.  As for Amundson, he played the pivotal role off the bench for the Phoenix Suns last year.  He came into the game, played bruising interior defense and was a spark plug for the club.  While the Sixers could use a defensive minded center that plays with high energy at all times such as Warrick, the Sixers have multiple backup centers in Jason Smith and Speights.  Both have more raw talent than Amundson and need the minutes to develop their skills.  Still for the right price Amundson would be an excellent addition.

Finally, there are three NBA scrap heap players from this free agent group who if they can miraculously catch lightening in a bottle during 2010-11, could be of use to the Sixers.  Those aging veterans are Theo Ratliff, Adonal Foyle and Kurt Thomas.  Without a doubt, these are not names that 76ers fans are expecting or excited to hear.  However when you think about it, the Sixers do not need a massive amount of offense from the center position.  Turner, Andre Iguodala, Nocioni, Lou Williams and Brand will b carrying the scoring load. With a free agent pickup, they need to add the rebounding, toughness, playoff experience and character that this young team desperately lacked last year under Eddie Jordan.  The veterans listed above would provide those elements for the 76ers in 2010-11.

If the Sixers expect to compete with the Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics and the potential dream team that Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will form then they must be able to improve significantly in the paint — on both ends of the floor.  So it should come as no surprise if the club searches high and low for a “big” with the mid-level exception.

On the other hand, the 76ers are probably going to have trouble finding a power forward or center that can make a difference at the clearance price of the mid-level exception. An alternative to using the MLE is to deal Iguodala for a power forward or center.  Last year at the NBA trade deadline, multiple teams inquired about Iguodala, but the Sixers refused to trade him.  If the right deal came along that included a big man who could shore up the frontcourt, the Sixers could sign off on the deal.  Especially since Turner is now on the roster. Although any team yearning for Iguodala has to be willing to take on the last four years of his contract, which still owes him $54 million.

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