A preface: I don’t think the Sixers are going to get Dwight Howard. I don’t anticipate buying a Dwight Howard Sixer’s jersey three weeks from now and wearing it to a championship parade in June. I’m pulling hard for that scenario, but alas, I ‘m not counting on it. That said…
There are two pieces of criteria Dwight Howard — or the people who make decisions for Dwight Howard — should use when determining where he should petition to play professional basketball next: the place that gives him the best chance of success on the court, and the place that gives him the best chance of success off the court.
There is, obviously, a strong, but imperfect, correlation between these two successes. And Philadelphia, despite being excluded from Howard’s infamous list, meets both better than anyone.
The Sixers are very good right now. If you’re reading a blog devoted entirely to happenings related to thePhiladelphia76ers, I probably don’t need to tell you that they have the largest scoring differential in the NBA and lead their division by the largest margin of any team in the Association. I’m not going to let this stop me though: the Sixers have the largest scoring differential in the NBA and lead their division by the largest margin of any team in the Association.
Now this is unlikely to continue. By “this” I mean the extent of the Sixers’ dominance. If they ended the season with their present differential, they would be the 4th best team in NBA history. I don’t think the Sixers are the 4th best team in NBA history. They are bound to regress, some might say significantly. Let’s grant the pessimistic severe regression foreseers their premise: the Sixers get a lot worse. You know how they end up then? Still really f****ing good. A team with the Sixers’ present respective offensive and defensive efficiencies would win, over the course of a 66 game season (via The NBA Geek), 61 of their games. 61-5. Given that the Sixers have already lost 6 games, even we in the Philadunkia offices view this projection as Pollyannaish (let’s take a moment though to let this sink in though: the Sixers have been UNLUCKY this season and sit at 15-6). So let’s assume they play 20 percent worse, i.e. they start playing at the level of a team that would expect to win 20 percent fewer games — roughly the difference between last year’s Heat and last year’s Hornets. You’re still looking at a 49 win team (61 wins over a full season). Not enough? A whopping 30 percent dip still puts them at 43-23.
It’s also worth mentioning here that the pessimists are wrong. The Sixers aren’t some flimsily built jalopy that’ll fall apart any day now. They’re a rock. Spencer Hawes’ surprising productivity aside, their success isn’t just built on some aberrant and unsustainable leap in production from a player who before Christmas of 2011 had been a scrub: they are getting production from, literally, everywhere. By measure of wins produced, through 21 games, every single player outside of Jrue Holiday who’s logged more than 43 minutes for the 76 has offered above average production. And Holiday has a 0.096 wp48—meaning he’s only been 4 percent worse than the average PG. The last time this kind of balance has happened was, to my knowledge, never. So to be clear: a person who predicts the Sixers fall off a cliff isn’t just calling for one or two players to start performing considerably worse: they are calling for 11 to.
So the Sixers are very good right now, their success appears to be sustainable and adding Dwight Howard would, for reasons too numerous and obvious to go into here, improve their prospects even more.
So how about off the court?
Philadelphiais, as is said often and truthfully, a ravenous sports town. It’s the fifth biggest city in America and its residents support their teams more than accordingly. While the Sixers’ attendance is still in the bottom third of the league, this is largely a function of the past futility of the teams they have fielded. There is also evidence that this is starting to turn around as the wins pile up. The Phillies were, not long ago, at the bottom of their sport in attendance too. A few playoff runs and a World Series later, and they are the hottest ticket in this or any town. And when the Sixers have won, they’ve had similar results: starting in 2001, when they made their most recent Finals appearance, and ending in 2005, the team finished 5th, 3rd, 4th, and 4th in the League in home attendance.
Philadelphia also turns its athletes into bankable stars. Despite a disappointing season, the Eagles had two of the top ten selling jerseys in the NFL for 2011 (Vick and Jackson), the Phillies had three of the top five in baseball (Halladay, Lee, and Utley) and the Flyers had two of the top ten in hockey (Richards and Giroux). Though this is an imperfect proxy for national celebrity, no other city in the country had that kind of representation.
There is also the matter, beyond the market size, of legacy. How will Dwight Howard be remembered? Is he Patrick Ewing or Hakeem Olajuwon? The most salient aspect of a superstar’s legacy is, of course, rings (and, as we covered above, the 76ers give him as good a chance as anyone to collect jewelry), but I think how the rings are collected — and think LeBron James here — says something too: other things equal, it’s obviously better for a players’ legacy (not to mention his marketability) to be seen as the primary player on a champion than the secondary, or even tertiary, option. If the odds of winning are roughly similar in Philadelphia as they are in Chicago, and I don’t think this is as much a stretch as some would argue, in which city/team/context would a title mean the most? For a squad whose legacy is already dominated now and forever by a historical figure Howard could never surpass (Jordan) and whose present day successes are and will be attributed to a superstar who he will always be viewed as the side-kick of (Rose)?
Or a historically proud but title starved team in a historically proud but title starved city whose record books he could rewrite?
I think the most interesting question here isn’t whether Dwight Howard will add the Sixers to the list of teams he would sign an extension with: the question is, why in god’s name wouldn’t he?