THE SIXERS need to remember the lesson the Atlanta Hawks taught them 3 summers ago.

At the start of the 2008-09 season, the Sixers were a big player in NBA free agency - one of the few teams with the ability to sign a big-name free agent.

Before the Sixers ended up giving a max contract to Los Angeles Clippers power forward Elton Brand, they wined and dined Hawks restricted free agent forward Josh Smith.

But the Hawks made it perfectly clear to everyone who would listen they had no intention of letting Smith, then 22, leave Atlanta. As was their right, they said they would match any offer to Smith, and the Hawks hinted that they would take the entire 7-day period before doing so.

We'll never know if the Sixers actually preferred Smith over Brand, but we do know that general manager Ed Stefanski could not take a chance that Atlanta was bluffing. Waiting would have guaranteed they would have lost Brand.

The Sixers took the more secure route and signed Brand. Smith signed an offer sheet with the Memphis Grizzlies, and just like they said they would, the Hawks matched it.

I bring this up because in the next couple of days the Sixers are going to be in the same position regarding restricted free agent Thaddeus Young that Atlanta was with Smith.

Young, 23, is a restricted free agent entering a volatile market where he could be on the radar of several teams. Because they made a qualifying offer of $3.9 million for the 2011-12 season, the Sixers will have the right to match any offer made to Young and retain his services.

General manager Rod Thorn already has said that Young is the Sixers' top priority in free agency and he intends to match any reasonable offer.

I'd drop the word "reasonable." In terms of this particular post-lockout free-agency period, "reasonable" implies a position of weakness. It makes other teams think that if they go high enough, the Sixers will simply fold their cards on Young. If I'm the Sixers, I'd let it be known in clear terms that not only am I going to match any offer made to Young, but I'm going to take the entire 3-day period that I will be given to do so. If you want Young, you're going to risk missing out on other potential free agents just to find out whether I'm bluffing.

Call my bluff if you dare, but you better be right. It's the same threat Atlanta pulled on the Sixers with Smith.

Again, I don't know for sure if Brand or Smith was the primary target, but Atlanta effectively took Smith out of consideration. To me, the 20-something core of point guard Jrue Holiday, swingman Evan Turner and Young is the nucleus to any chance the Sixers have of becoming a serious factor in the Eastern Conference. If those three develop into All-Star players, then the Sixers have a shot, not so far down the road, of challenging the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls.

If they don't, the Sixers are going to have to start from scratch again in another 3 years.

Barring some presently unforeseen blockbuster trade or free-agent signing, the trio of Holiday, Turner and Young appears to be the team's best chance moving forward. If they develop as the Sixers hope, that's a young core around which you can legitimately build a championship contender around.

The Sixers can't just let a piece of that walk away without any compensation. Young has to be kept in the fold almost at any cost.

Because of the dynamics of the lockout, there is a possibility that teams with money they are required to spend might make an offer to Young above his normal market value.

The Sixers are likely going to have to overpay to keep Young. It's just going to be a matter of how much. The only way for the Sixers to have some control over that is too convince teams they will match any offer and hold up the process for as long as possible before allowing the other team to move on.

Most teams go into free agency with an either/or shopping list. The only way they fail is if they don't get either of their options. Because of the condensed period from the start of free agency to the opening of training camp, teams are going to want to get their rosters set quickly. Young, because of his age and upside, is a valuable free agent, but he is still an either/or guy. I can't see other teams risking the loss of another potential free agent while waiting on the Sixers to decide if they will match.

Everyone already knows the Sixers will pay fair market value. What they have to do, whether it is actually their intention or not, is to convince other teams that they like Young enough to go past that value.

Three years ago, that was how the Atlanta Hawks removed Josh Smith as a free-agent option for the Sixers.

Today, that's what the Sixers have to do to keep other teams away from Thad Young.