If you are someone who spent any part of last summer questioning the wisdom of the Sixers’ decision to enter free agency without a full-time general manager, you might have found some validation in a moment that occurred during an end-of-season press conference featuring Josh Harris and Elton Brand last week.
Brand, who was hired as the organization’s top basketball ops decision maker after Brett Brown spent the summer as the interim GM, not only acknowledged that the Sixers suffered from a lack of depth down the stretch, but suggested that such a dilemma might have been avoided with a different offseason approach.
“I look forward to being a GM for the first time in free agency to address certain needs -- a backup center, certain depth pieces -- I feel need to be in place,” Brand said. “Last year, I wasn’t afforded that opportunity. I had a voice in it, and I didn’t speak up loud enough, I guess.”
Brand said that last part in a lighthearted manner, and his boss quickly eliminated any thought that shade had been thrown by jumping into the exchange.
“To be fair," said Harris, the Sixers’ managing partner and the man who faced the unenviable task of replacing Bryan Colangelo on the fly after last year’s Twitter burner account fiasco, “he got thrust into this in September ... ”
Bygones are bygones. At this point, the assignment of responsibility is an exercise both academic and moot. Brand’s job now is to make sure that the Sixers do not repeat a couple of critical missteps that they made last offseason. He seems to understand that, judging by the way he addressed the situation last week.
First and foremost, the Sixers need to find a viable alternative to Joel Embiid at center, a legitimate rim-protecting big who is not a complete zero on the offensive end and who can at least help his comrades tread water whenever the man who calls himself The Process is on the bench. That’s easier said than done, which something we’ll delve into a little further down. But the first step toward progress is acceptance, and the Sixers have reached a point in their evolution that they have no choice but to accept two fundamental truths about their current nature:
1) Embiid’s presence on the court is a necessary condition for the Sixers to field a defense that performs at level capable of contending for titles.
2) Embiid cannot be expected to be on the court if he is utilized like a player who is blessed with the durability of a typical professional athlete.
It doesn’t take a Phd in hermeneutics to understand that these two truths are difficult to reconcile with each other. We have seen that throughout the last two regular seasons, when Brett Brown would talk about a desire to keep Embiid fresh and then turn around and play him 42 minutes against the Raptors or 48 minutes in an overtime game against the Thunder. Given the questions that Brown constantly faces regarding his job security, the only way you can blame him for such decision-making is if he is defying direct orders. Which brings us to one way the organization might proceed.
Given the talent in their starting five, and the makeup of the rest of the Eastern Conference, the Sixers should be able to win enough games to land a Top Four playoff seeding even if Embiid only plays 25-30 minutes and sits out 15-20 games over the course of the season. The first step is to make this sort of a setup a hard-and-fast organizational policy. Hard cap at 30 minutes. A target of 25-28.
Such a mandate would certainly expose Brown and the Sixers to a considerable amount of scrutiny. It would almost certainly make for more than a few awkward moments in tense games. And, frankly, it might only take one long losing streak for the whole thing to end in disaster.
But from a purely technocratic standpoint, it makes sense. And it could go a long way to addressing a challenge the Sixers undoubtedly confronted last summer before re-signing Amir Johnson to back up Embiid: finding a center who is both capable and willing to play in a backup role. If Brand can promise an agent that his client will average 20 minutes a night and start 15-20 games a year, that could be an attractive deal for the right sort of player.
“There’s definitely some ways that we can sell Philadelphia,” Brand said. “We’re a destination team right now, we’re a destination city, players want to be here. So if I say, ‘Hey, there’s going to be X amount of minutes for you, we’re going to have a deep playoff run,’ I’m confident we can get some talent at backup center.”
From Kyle O’Quinn to Ed Davis to JaVale McGee, there are several centers who fit the profile of the sort of player the Sixers might be able to attract (one assumes that a guy like the Hawks’ Dewayne Dedmon will have a starting role somewhere).