Wednesday July 9th, 2008

There was one difference-maker on the free-agent market this summer. He was Elton Brand, and the news emerging Tuesday of his agreement to sign with the 76ers may turn out to be the biggest player move of the offseason. (Unless the Cavaliers pull off a blockbuster trade involving their $30 million in expiring contracts.)

In the bigger picture, however, Brand isn't likely to win a championship for the young 76ers next season -- or the year thereafter. As surprising as the last week has been, none of the agreements reached thus far is likely to affect the makeup of the NBA's final four next May.

With that in mind, let's look at the early returns from the free-agent period -- taking into account that many more moves are still to be made.

1. Philadelphia 76ers -- One big move -- and only one -- made exquisite sense for the 76ers: Use their cap space to land Brand, the perfect fit to fill their hole at power forward, give them veteran leadership and enhance their up-tempo style. A lineup built around Brand, Andre Iguodala and point guard Andre Miller could challenge for home-court advantage in the first round next season -- while enabling young talents like Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams and rookie Marreese Speights to improve in a hospitable environment.

One alternative to signing Brand was for the Sixers to make an offer big and front-loaded enough to pry restricted free agent Josh Smith away from Atlanta. But imagine starting a new era with Smith and Iguodala as your max players. Smith, 22, hasn't established the self-discipline to manage the responsibility of being the highest-paid player in a market like Philadelphia. And whatever salary Smith might have received from the 76ers would have served as a new threshold for Iguodala, who would have demanded even more as a restricted free agent.

The other option was to trade for a young but experienced power forward like Chris Wilcox, Channing Frye, Charlie Villanueva or (don't laugh) Zach Randolph, any of whom would have improved the Sixers next season. By making the trade with Minnesota earlier this week to clear more cap space for Brand, the Sixers boldly acquired a true No. 1 player who enables Iguodala to be a secondary star. Had Brand remained in Los Angeles and succeeded in doubling last season's 23 wins, the Clippers still wouldn't be a playoff team in the West. By moving to the East instead, he needs to only incite a six-win improvement to give 40-win Philadelphia a shot at home-court advantage in the first round next season. The 76ers still could use more shooting, however.

2. Washington Wizards -- They made quick work of re-signing Antawn Jamison, and the negotiations with fellow free agent Gilbert Arenas were surprisingly low-maintenance (or so they appeared), as he resisted the wanderlust that drew Baron Davis to the Clippers.

This is a team of three All-Stars and quite a bit of young talent -- plus they have a few million dollars extra to sign a role player or two before training camp. If they could benefit from the good fortune of a healthy season, the Wizards could make a deep playoff run -- in which case they'll look back on the quiet success of their negotiations this summer.

3. Atlanta Hawks -- With Philadelphia out of the running for Smith, the Hawks must wait to see if he receives a big offer from the Clippers; if not, then they can offer Smith -- without competition -- a reasonable, less-than-max contract with an opt-out, so that if he feels slighted by this contract, then at least he'll be able to re-enter the market in a few years.

By signing Smith at a reasonable number and retaining fellow restricted free agent Josh Childress (who has commanded a lot of interest from teams in the range of the mid-level exception), the Hawks might have enough leftover money to add another role player via free agency. Which would position them to make the playoffs for a second straight year.

1. Los Angeles Clippers -- The loss of Brand is a shocker, but let's congratulate the Clippers for making the effort. Owner Donald T. Sterling stunned the market by signing Davis as a surprise free agent, in hopes of pairing him with Brand at no small price.

But now they're without Brand and Corey Maggette, who was expected to sign with the Warriors.

The Clippers could try to fill Brand's position by making a run at Smith, though the Hawks have promised to match any offer. They could go after another restricted free agent like Nenad Krstic (or Iguodala of the Sixers, if they wish for revenge) or they could trade for frontcourt help.

A team led by Davis and center Chris Kaman is going to have a hard time challenging for the playoffs in the West. A week ago, the Clippers looked to be on the move; now they're back in trouble. Again.

2. Golden State Warriors -- By reportedly agreeing to terms with Maggette, at least they didn't come away empty after losing Davis to the Clippers. But Davis was their engine, a physically dominant point guard who bullied the opposition. Will restricted free agent Monta Ellis provide as much leadership on the floor? The Warriors have a lot of perimeter talent, but who will drive them? Much as the Clippers suffered a reduction in talent by losing Brand, so have the Warriors been diminished by the departure of Davis.

3. Boston Celtics -- If the Celtics don't re-sign James Posey, will they be able to repeat as champions? They couldn't have won the title without him last season. It's very difficult to believe they will let him walk, given his importance as a finishing piece to their three expensive stars. But if he were to go, they wouldn't be nearly as strong next season.

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