The first bombshell of the summer was thrilling news for the Los Angeles Clippers. The second bombshell largely negated the first, at least in La-La Land. Just as we started getting used to the idea of Baron Davis and Elton Brand leading the Clippers, that vision is dead: Brand will spurn re-signing with the Clippers in favor of a slightly more lucrative deal with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Signing Brand is the culmination of a masterful first half-year on the job for Sixers GM Ed Stefanski. Shortly after taking over in December, Stefanski dealt swingman Kyle Korver to Utah in a deal that cleared additional cap space for Philadelphia this summer. While Andre Miller was also reportedly on the block, Stefanski decided to hold on to the team's starting point guard, then saw the 76ers come together down the stretch, going 22-12 over the last 34 games of the season. The country took notice in the postseason, as Philadelphia took a 2-1 lead over Detroit in the first round. While that surely had something to do with the Pistons sleepwalking early in the series, it also demonstrated Philadelphia's potential.
The 76ers entered free agency as one of a handful of teams with enough cap space to make a serious run at one of the top players on the market. However, Stefanski and company adeptly realized within the past week that they needed a little more money to land an elite player. That led to the deal first reported Tuesday, one that will send third-year swingman Rodney Carney, veteran center Calvin Booth and a future first-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves, clearing nearly $3 million more off Philadelphia's cap.
That money quickly paid dividends when Brand agreed yesterday evening to join the 76ers, giving them a legitimate All-Star I rated as the best free agent on the market.
Last week, when it appeared Brand and Davis would play together for the Clippers, I used Wins Above Replacement Player from my rating system to show that the Clippers projected to have three strong contributors, but limited depth. Using the same method with Philadelphia's tentative rotation reveals a more balanced lineup--and one that could be very dangerous.
Ps Player WARP
PG Andre Miller 8.7
SG Andre Iguodala 11.0
SF Thaddeus Young 3.1^
PF Elton Brand 17.3*
C Samuel Dalembert 8.0
PG Louis Williams 3.6^
SG Willie Green -1.5
PF Reggie Evans 1.9
C Jason Smith -0.4
* 2006-07 statistics
^ restricted free agent
Any analysis of the 76ers is tentative, with conclusions dependent on their ability to re-sign restricted free agents Andre Iguodala and Louis Williams, both crucial parts of the rotation. Fortunately, there should be limited competition for their services because Golden State and the Clippers are the only teams with major cap space expected to be active players. ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported Tuesday night that the Warriors are prepared to use most of their cap space on former Clippers swingman Corey Maggette, while L.A. is likely to target post players who can replace Brand.
If Philadelphia puts that lineup on the floor and everyone performs as expected, the Sixers will have one of the league's deepest starting lineups. Already last season, they were one of eight teams in the league with three players worth at least eight wins above replacement. No NBA team had four players top that mark, as Philadelphia reasonably could in 2008-09.
As I explained last week, a very rough estimate of a team's record can be made by adding up the total wins above replacement offered by its rotation, adding the 10 wins a replacement-level team would get and subtracting two or three wins to account for the end of the bench. By that logic, the Sixers should be around a 59-win team next season. If that seems ludicrous, consider this: There's reason to believe the numbers understate Philadelphia's potential.
By WARP, the weak link of the 76ers starting lineup is sophomore small forward Thaddeus Young. However, Young had a major impact as a rookie. The team's emergence in the second half of the season came as Young went from playing 17.5 minutes per game before the All-Star break to 26.5 a night thereafter. BasketballValue.com's adjusted plus-minus rating showed Young as making Philadelphia 12.33 points better per 100 possessions than an average player, which ranked him third in the NBA.
Unless Young is a superstar in the making, that rating surely is something of a fluke. Still, it's clear Young was very valuable for a rookie, and the Sixers figured to improve next year by giving him starters' minutes all season long even if they had not added Brand or another free agent to the lineup. Williams, too, is young and improving his game, and figures to serve as a sixth starter for Philadelphia.
So, should we count on the Sixers to advance at least one round in the Eastern Conference playoffs next year, if not knock off Boston or Detroit? That's a little premature. Brand's Achilles is one concern; the injury could keep him from offering the superstar-level performance he gave the Clippers in 2006-07 before the injury.
Philadelphia's poor outside shooting might be more problematic. The 76ers were last in the NBA in three-pointers in 2007-08, and that was with a couple months of Korver's sharpshooting. Iguodala, Williams and Willie Green were the only Sixers to make even 50 three-pointers, and Iguodala (32.9 percent) and Green (28.5 percent) were both inaccurate from downtown. Shifting Young (6-of-19 from three-point range as a rookie) to more minutes at small forward won't help the team's shooting. Until Philadelphia proves it can make outside shots, the team can expect to see regular doses of zone defense as well as a ton of double-teams on Brand.
The 76ers might do well to consider dealing first-round pick Marreese Speights, the odd man out of the rotation with Brand's addition, for a talented young shooter. A short-term solution should be easier to find in the form of a veteran free agent, whether this summer or midway through next season.
The lack of shooting is enough to cast some doubt on the wildly optimistic WARP projection, which can't take into account the interaction between the players the Sixers are putting on the floor. Still, with Brand in the lineup and the restricted free agents re-signed, Philadelphia figures to vault ahead of Orlando, Cleveland and Toronto as the main threat to the East's elite veteran teams. The Sixers have enough talent to make things very interesting in the East next spring.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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