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Is Elton Brand right? Are the Sixers the Team of the Future?

Leaving aside the hurt feelings and emotion and (we'll call it) deception of Elton Brand's signing with the Sixers instead of the Clippers, there seem to be at least two main reasons behind his decision: 

  1. Philadelphia is closer to his upstate New York home and that of his wife whose family is from New Jersey;
  2. He seems to think the Sixers have a better chance of winning.

There's no arguing with the first statement.  Philadelphia is closer to Peekskill New York than Los Angeles.  That is a fact.  That is one way (arguably the only one) that the city of Philadelphia is better than Los Angeles if you're Elton Brand. 

As for the second, it will be interesting to follow the Sixers' progress over the five years of Brand's contract.  Because in many ways, when I look at the Sixers' roster, I think they are in terrible shape - destined for mediocrity, with little hope of rising above it.

Given the success of the Celtics this season (and the Spurs before that), everyone wants to talk about a team's 'Big Three.'  Let's look at the Sixers' 'Big Three.'  The Sixers three highest paid players are Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala and Samuel Dalembert.  And this will be true for many years barring a trade, as Dalembert is signed for three more seasons, and the wet ink on Brand and Iguodala's contracts says they run for five and six seasons respectively. 

Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala and Samuel Dalembert is a 'Big Three?' 

Lest anyone accuse me of sour grapes following EB's LA departure, please reference the Season Preview I wrote in Sept. 2006, mere months after LA's conference semi-finals appearance, at the very height of Clipper-mania:

[This team has a] weakness at playoff time: the absence of a first-tier mega-star on offense.  Right, wrong or indifferent, the NBA remains a league that is built around superstars.  Elton Brand is a great player, who shows up every night.  But he is not a guy who can get a crucial bucket with 30 seconds to go in a close game.

By the way, I wrote that when he was 27 and before he missed a season with a ruptured achilles tendon.

If Brand were number 2 in the Philly Big Three, this wouldn't really be a problem.  But unfortunately for Sixer fans, Andre Iguodala would seem to have a very similar problem - he's a phenomenal athlete, he works hard every game, he does many things very well on the basketball court - and he's not particularly good at getting his own shot. 

As for Dalembert... puh-leeze. Sam Dalembert would be the third best big on the Clippers.  Maybe.

All of which leaves the Sixers with over $40M in 2010-2011 salary committed to three guys, none of whom is really  a 'go to' scorer and Elton Brand as their best player.  No offense, but in nine NBA seasons, teams with Elton Brand as their best player have made the playoffs once.

Don't get me wrong - they're certainly good enough to make the playoffs in the East.  It would not surprise me if the Brand Sixers made the playoffs five straight seasons.  Nor would it surprise me if they lost in the first round every time.  Citizens of ClipsNation feel like the Sixers are now the darlings of ESPN - but even so, they're only predicting fifth place in the East for the team.   That's this year.  Next season, they either lose their starting point guard, or lock up more long term salary on a player in his 30's.

So where's the headroom for the Sixers?  The optimistic story line says that they won 40 games last season, gave the Pistons a scare in the first round, have added a major piece, and are young.  Well, the 40 wins still makes for a losing record in the JV league, and even that looked like overachieving.  We'll see how they're pressure affects teams the second time around, when they're a little more prepared for it.  In fact, I would venture to way that that playoff series is a microcosm:  sure Philly surprised the Pistons and won 2 of the first 3; and then they lost the final three games by 9, 17 and 23 points. 

I won't argue that Brand doesn't help them - he's a great addition to that team in the position where they were weakest.  It is worth noting however that much of the Sixers second half success last season came playing pressure defense and running, and it's far from clear that Brand fits that profile. In fact, the one time in recent memory when Brand played on such a team (for Team USA in the 2006 World Championships in Japan), he looked extremely uncomfortable.

But the real question about how you feel about Philly's future comes down to the young guys on the roster.  The team won't have the cap space to add a piece through free agency until after Dalembert's deal expires in 2011 (at which point Thaddeus Young will need to be re-signed if he's as good as they think he is).  And a mid-40's win total dictates draft picks in the late teens, early 20s - unlikely to produce a star.  So, is Andre Iguodala getting a lot better?  I wouldn't bet the farm on that one.  And it would be ill-advised to continue waiting for Dalembert to develop an offensive game. 

For Philly fans, it probably comes down to Lou Williams (who'll turn 22 before the start of the season) and Thaddeus Young (20).  The Sixers just locked up Williams for the next five seasons, and if he continues to improve the way he has in his first few seasons, he could be a very good player at a bargain price.  Certainly they are hoping that he renders the Andre Miller question obsolete by next summer.  But at only 3.2 assists per game last season (fewer than 5 per 36 minutes), he's not really looking like an NBA point guard so far, while at his size (6'2") it's his only option.  As for Young, the guy just turned 20.  He could be great - he had a solid rookie season.  But the league is littered with guys who showed potential as very young rookies, but never really figured out the NBA.  And don't forget that most of his minutes last season came at power forward in a very fast lineup.  With Elton Brand in town, Young has to slide over to the 3.  It may be his more natural position, but it's not the position he played last year, when he enjoyed a quickness advantage on a nightly basis.

The Sixers do have one very important asset in their hands right now: Andre Miller's $10M expiring contract.  If they're going to have significance in the playoffs, I think they need to get something out of Miller before the trade deadline.  Letting that deal expire doesn't get them under the cap any time soon, and re-signing Miller next summer (at 33) just seals their fate as a first round playoff team.  If Ed Stefanski is as good as Sixer fans think he is, Andre Miller will be gone by the trade deadline.  And if that happens, then I may have to change my opinion.

But for now I'll go back to where I started: it's going to be interesting to see what happens with the Sixers in the next five seasons.  If they can approach actual contender status during the period of Brand's contract, it will likely be because of major contributions from Lou Williams and/or Thaddeus Young.  But if those two guys are just the fourth and fifth starters - i.e. if neither of them can join Brand and Iguodala to form an actual big three and become the team's go to guy - then I don't see them making it out of the first round, even in the East. 

That may be further than the Clippers get in that time.  But is it enough?