John Smallwood: When Sixers signed Brand, they made Iguodala irreplaceable

Posted: August 19, 2008

ANDRE IGUODALA isn't crazy - although even he acknowledges that a lot of people might have believed he was last year when he turned down a $57.4 million contract extension from then-Sixers president/general manager Billy King.

But Iguodala's high-stakes gamble certainly had to play on the mind of current Sixers president/general manager Ed Stefanski.

If he did it once, he just might do it again.

He played last season under a 1-year qualifying offer, and this summer became a restricted free agent, meaning the Sixers still had the right to match any contract offer made to him by another team.

But if he played out the 2008-09 season on another 1-year qualifying offer, Iguodala would have become an unrestricted free agent, meaning he could walk away, leaving the Sixers with nothing in return.

That was a risk the Sixers could not take - not after making the playoffs last season, and especially not after just committing almost $80 million to free-agent forward Elton Brand in hopes of taking the team to an even higher level.

The Sixers had to keep Iguodala - almost at any cost.

"[Iguodala] is a major and integral part of our team," Stefanski said at a press conference yesterday when he and Iguodala formally signed a contract believed to be worth $80 million over 6 years. "He is not replaceable. The way the league works and the [collective bargaining agreement] works, this man was not replaceable. [Iguodala's] option was to play for the qualifying offer and then become an unrestricted free agent.

"We didn't want to even get to that. We wanted to make a deal so that we'd have him for the long term."

If the Sixers are overpaying for Iguodala - and considering he averaged 19.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.09 steals and is only 24 years old, I'm not convinced they are - it's because they had no other option.

If Iguodala had become an unrestricted free agent, it would have negated virtually everything gained from the Brand signing.

Inking Brand, a two-time All-Star, shifted the Sixers from rebuilding mode to championship-winning mode.

With Iguodala combining with Brand, the Sixers become one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, one capable of challenging for a spot in the NBA Finals and possibly championships over the next 5 years.

Without Iguodala, you can simply substitute Brand for Allen Iverson and repeat the frustrating cycle of having a lone star on a team that always came up short.

Those were the only two options available to Stefanski - no sign-and-trades, no saving the money until next year.

The salary-cap space that allowed the Sixers to sign Brand won't be there next summer - even if Iguodala came off the books.

Keeping Iguodala was the best way to improve this team for now and down the road. With $4 million in cap space, they couldn't get a player of his ability, or even a midlevel exception.

As much as critics like to point out what Iguodala might not do well, they forget that he was one of just eight players who averaged 19 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals last season.

Some of the others were Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tracy McGrady and Paul Pierce.

I'm not saying Iguodala will reach that status, but he is still a very talented young player with the work ethic to keep improving.

If you had a "do-over" on the 2004 NBA draft, Iguodala likely would jump from ninth to fourth behind Dwight Howard, who was No.1 overall, and high school big men Al Jefferson (15th) and Josh Smith (17th).

Take Iguodala out of the mix and the Sixers would end up wasting the first 3 years of Brand's 5-year contract, searching for the pieces to put around him to make his signing sensible.

"We made a commitment to the city and to our fans that we were going for [an NBA championship] when we signed Elton Brand," Stefanski said. "This to me was a deal that we had to get done along with [reserve guard Lou Williams, who signed a 5-year deal worth about $25 million].

"Now we have a nucleus of players that we feel real good about. We wanted [Iguodala] in a 76er uniform. We were going to make a deal with him and that's what we did."

A year ago, Iguodala turned down a guaranteed winning lottery ticket because he wanted to win the Powerball.

It was a stunning gamble that he may have indeed been willing to make again.

The Sixers had too much at stake to risk finding that out. *

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