The Philadelphia 76ers are one of the genuine surprises of the 2011-12 NBA season. Despite the fact that the team made the NBA playoffs last year, most pundits* treated the squad as somewhat of an afterthought at the beginning of the lockout-shortened campaign.
This lack of regard was not surprising considering the 76ers lack a true and marketable superstar, a prerequisite for garnering significant attention from the NBA hype machine. Small forward Andre Iguodala is a solid player and could very well earn one of the 12 coveted spots on the 2012 USA Olympic team, but he is not on the same level as players such as LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki or Chris Paul. As a result, it was far too easy for analysts to dismiss the 76ers as nothing more than a bunch of glorified role players.
In spite of their superstar-less roster, the 76ers are playing an effective and aesthetically pleasing brand of team basketball, and currently own the third best record in the eastern conference. Some former nay-sayers are starting to pay attention.
One person who should pay significant attention to the 76ers is Dwight Howard, because if impending free agent is truly intent on leaving Orlando, then Philadelphia is a perfect fit for his oversized talents.
Howard is one of the five best players in the NBA. His sheer physical presence is great enough to turn almost any team into an immediate championship contender. With the right supporting cast, it's easy to imagine Howard leading a franchise to several NBA championships, especially since:
1) Throughout the history of the NBA, dominant centers have been the backbones of most championship dynasties**
2) There is not a single player in the NBA who can effectively guard Howard in one-on-one situations.
The amount of defensive attention Howard commands allows his teammates to roam freely along the perimeter and set-up for open, outside jump shots. One can surmise that it is a joy to play with a center that creates so much space without having to touch the ball on every single possession. Think of it this way: Every season it seems like there are a few Lakers that want Kobe Bryant to pass the ball more often, but I’ve never heard any of Howard's teammates complain about his play.
Unfortunately for Howard, the individuals that run the Orlando Magic have done an inadequate job of amassing the right type of role players, and this is why the team has failed to win a championship during his seven pro seasons. Orlando's current starting roster, with the exception of Howard, is evenly split between overvalued role players and over-the-hill has-beens. It's a clean mix of those who are falling just shy of their projected ceilings and those whose best years are already far behind them.
It is presumably for this reason that Howard has been publicly expressing a desire to play for another team for quite some time now. He knows that his talent puts him in the elite class of player where the merit of a career is judged solely on the number of championship rings collected. Putting up amazing statistics and clearly dominating the competition on a nightly basis will never be enough to satisfy the critics. Unless Howard reaches the pinnacle of his profession by winning a championship, “experts” will always term his career a partial failure and label him as a player who never made good on his enormous potential.***
Up to this point Howard has expressed interest in playing for several teams, including the New Jersey Nets and the Dallas Mavericks. If Howard is truly interested in winning multiple titles, though, then finding a way to sign with Philly would be his best bet.
As currently constructed, the 76ers are perfectly prepared to bring Howard into their lineup. They have four perimeter players—Jrue Holiday, Jodie Meeks, Lou Williams and Evan Turner—who are solid outside shooters, and who also have the ability to create their own shots. They have a lock-down perimeter defender in Iguodala, someone who can keep the opposing team’s best offensive threats in check. They have Thaddeus Young, a rich man's Elton Brand****, and Spencer Hawes, two inside players who can help Howard rebound and score from the high post. They also have an experienced coach who understands that, cliché as it may be, defense does in fact win championships.
Granted, the 76ers will have to part with some of these assets in order to acquire Howard, but the team's depth is such that Philly’s management can trade several players and still retain a suitable amount of talent. Howard could easily integrate into Philly's offense, which focuses on getting the ball inside and letting the low-post players instigate the offense. Any way you slice it, the 76ers roster is more talent-rich than the Nets and younger than the Mavericks. If Howard signed a long term deal, he could team up with Iguodala, Young, Holiday, Williams and others, and form a long-term contender.
But this probably won’t happen. It won’t happen because as bright as most NBA player are—and if you doubt the intelligence of NBA players, I suggest leafing through an offensive playbook in your spare time, or trying to discern the subtleties of the illegal defense rule—history has shown that free agents rarely choose the team best suited for their talents.
In the summer of 2010, LeBron James had the opportunity to sign with the Bulls. Put James on a roster with an explosive point guard like Derrick Rose, whose ball handling abilities would allow him to concentrate on being a finisher, and a bevy of solid inside players, and you have team that conceivably could win not one, not two, but three or four or five championships.
Instead, James decided to sign with the Miami Heat, to team up with Dwayne Wade, a player who occupies the same court space as James, and Chris Bosh, one of the softer (though offensively-talented) power forwards in the NBA. The Heat did manage to make the NBA finals, but they lost to the Mavericks in six games, and so far this year they have looked less impressive than the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls.
If I had to guess, I’d imagine that Howard will either sign with Nets, so he can play with Olympic teammate Deron Williams, or find a way to sign with the Lakers. He’s also expressed an interest in signing with the Bulls, and if he could pull that off, that would be his best bet. However, going to the Bulls would mean that Howard would play in the shadow of Rose, who has already established himself as Chicago’s preeminent superstar
Don’t get me wrong: Howard’s talent will allow any team he signs with to become a championship contender, and he may very well win a championship regardless of his future zip code. But if he signed with Philly, he could stand out as the sole superstar in the city of brotherly love, while restoring glory to a franchise with a rich history. That would be an accomplishment worth remembering.
*ESPN.com's Michael Wilbon was an exception. On Pardon the Interruption, he claimed the 76ers would win the Atlantic division, a prediction that is looking more astute by the day.
**Michael Jordan's Bulls are the most glaring exception, a fact that underscores just how great a player Jordan was. Anyone who wants to foolishly compare Kobe Bryant to Jordan needs to remember that Jordan never had the advantage of playing with a dominant center like Shaquille O'Neal or a dominant power forward like Pau Gasol.
***Discussions about the careers of Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and Karl Malone always begin with a reminder that the player in question never won a championship. It's somewhat unfair to hold that against these players since they all fell victim to Jordan's Bulls at one point or another during their careers.
****They also have actual Elton Brand though it is a mystery to me why Brand continues to start over Young.