Third of a five-part series
In the NBA, anchoring your team is much like anchoring a driveway hoop: There are options.
You can fill a portable base with sand. You can fill it with water. You can go permanent and install an inground hoop using quick-drying cement.
All are viable options.
Likewise, there are alternatives to filling the NBA center position. You can be like the Houston Rockets and go with one star center such as Hakeem Olajuwon during the '80s and '90s and Yao Ming a decade later. You can be like the current Dallas Mavericks and split time between two solid centers in Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood. Or you can be like the Miami Heat and run a frontcourt-by-committee including Joel Anthony, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Udonis Haslem, Chris Bosh, Juwan Howard, and Jamaal Magloire.
When executed correctly, each of these strategies anchors the frontcourt and provides enough rebounding, scoring, and defensive intimidation to keep your team in any game.
Last season, the 76ers employed a poor man's version of the Heat's strategy. The Sixers routinely went with smaller lineups and patched together a frontcourt anchored by starting center Spencer Hawes. The only problem was that the rest of the lineup didn't include superstars like Bosh, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade.
This summer, the Sixers must upgrade their big-man strategy. And they must do so with an almost nonexistent free-agent budget and while battling the unknown variables of the next collective bargaining agreement.
Last season, the Sixers center position included three players, two of whom are not yet under contract for the 2011-12 season: Hawes (a restricted free agent), veteran backup Tony Battie (an unrestricted free agent), and Marreese Speights (under contract).
Expect the Sixers to re-sign Hawes. Battie, who signed a one-year contract for the 2010-11 season, will likely consider returning to the Sixers but will also have the option of a few other teams for the 2011-12 season. And Speights, who just doesn't possess the necessary off-the-bench skills, will very likely be on the trading block.
Starting from a hypothetical core of Hawes and Battie, what moves can the Sixers make in the next three months to enter training camp with a competitive frontcourt - something they didn't have last season?
Here are three strategies, each including two specific options.
Center by star (costly)
While the Sixers have little maneuverability within free agency, they can land a legitimate starting center via trade or via sign-and-trade, while using Hawes as a capable backup.
Al Jefferson, Jazz (18.6 points, 9.7 rebounds a game last season): He has two more seasons remaining on his contract and could be traded, straight up, for swingman Andre Iguodala.
Nene, Nuggets (14.5 points, 7.6 rebounds): Nene maintains a player option of about $12 million for the 2011-12 season, but he has hinted to the Denver Post that he is considering opting out of that final season. The Sixers don't have the funds to sign Nene in the free-agent market, but they could orchestrate a trade for him that would also include Iguodala as the primary piece.
Center by risk (moderate)
Locking into a highly paid center (approximately $12 million a season) would strain the Sixers' salary cap as well as likely cost them their best all-around player in Iguodala. Another possible route is taking a risk on an oft-injured big man, of which there will be a handful this offseason.
Greg Oden, Blazers: Oden, who has been injured for much of his first four seasons in the NBA, was the No. 1 pick of the 2007 NBA draft. Oden is in the same free-agent position as the Sixers' Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes. He will be due a qualifying offer of approximately $8.8 million and will then become a restricted free agent in July. Portland's acting general manager, Chad Buchanon, has said that the team "envisions" Oden returning to the Trail Blazers, but that no final decision has yet been reached. The Sixers - again, with little-to-no free-agent money - would rely on a sign-and-trade to acquire Oden. It's a risky move for two reasons: Oden has never maintained his health for a full NBA season, and the corresponding cost (upward of $8.8 million) is quite high for absorbing that kind of risk.
Yao Ming, Rockets: As of July 1, Yao will be an unrestricted free agent. He has missed almost the entirety of the previous two NBA seasons and there's no concrete evidence that these injuries are 100 percent behind him. Yao made approximately $17.7 million during the 2010-11 season, so even if he takes half of his previous contract, he's still way out of the Sixers' free-agent ballpark. Landing Yao would, once again, come via a sign-and-trade that would center on Iguodala.
Center by committee (sensible)
If you operate under the assumption that the Sixers franchise has its sights set on landing a scoring shooting guard via trade (as reported in Part I of this series), then anchoring the center position by committee makes the most sense. Starting power forward Elton Brand can score, so padding the center position with a few guys who bang, play defense, rebound, and convert alley-oop dunks could be the perfect complementary package.
Option No. 1: Draft a promising big man; sign center Kwame Brown (unrestricted free agent, $1.3 million salary for the 2010-11 season). These moves would give the Sixers a big-man committee of Brown, Hawes, Battie, and a promising draft pick. Couple that anchored center spot with point guard Jrue Holiday, Player X at shooting guard, Evan Turner/Thaddeus Young at small forward, and Brand at power forward and the Sixers have a competitive lineup that could take this team from 41 wins to 50 wins.
Option No. 2: Draft a promising big man; sign center Erick Dampier (unrestricted free agent, $1.1 million salary for the 2010-11 season). This move is a little less desirable because Dampier is 35 years old, but he provides the things the Sixers need if they are going to spend wisely in other areas.
If the Sixers didn't already possess a scoring power forward in Brand, finding a star center would be a more pressing matter. But because Brand can loosen things up with his scoring touch in the halfcourt, look for the Sixers to add a promising young big man in the draft and one via free agency, creating a "center by committee" situation that will take much of the grunt work off Brand's shoulders.
About This Series
As the 76ers watch a crop of young teams that seem ready to ascend the NBA heights, The Inquirer's Kate Fagan explores in a five-part series what the Sixers need to do next
to reach that level.
If the Grizzlies and Hawks can make playoff runs, why not the 76ers?
Part 1, Centerpiece:
Quest for a go-to player.
Part 2, Euro Tour: Tapping
the talent pool overseas.
Part 3, Tall Order:
The right big man.
Next Sunday: Part 4, Growing Gains: Maturing together.
Part 5, Puzzle Piece:
Options in the NBA draft.EndText