THE SIXERS could have screwed this up.

They could have operated under the misguided idea that they stand on the brink of contention. They could have tried to mortgage what appears to be an extremely promising future, both near and far, for very limited returns.

They did not.

Smart.

They traded with Memphis for Sam Young, a steady, strong swingman, just before yesterday's trade deadline. They gave up the rights to Ricky Sanchez, a 24-year-old, 6-11 project who has collected checks in two American minor leagues and in five different Spanish-speaking countries, most recently Argentina.

Young is a 6-6, 220-pound bulldog who weighs as much as Sanchez and who doesn't care if you know his name. He will be a selfless bench player who can give Evan Turner and Andre Iguodala breaks. Occasionally, he will get all Joe Dumars on annoying hybrid players like, oh, LeBron James.

"Sam's overall skill set can be a valuable asset to our team and he adds to our depth at two positions," team president Rod Thorn said in a statement.

"We needed to add some toughness," said Sixers coach and chemist Doug Collins, who clearly is wary of altering the delicate formula that has his young squad atop the Atlantic Division. "There was nothing out there that you would say you would change your team for."

There you have it.

Acquiring some big stiff to block an occasional shot, grab a few rebounds and be hailed as some sort of title-clinching piece would have been silly.

Let's see: Who got traded that even filled those requirements?

Nene? He's a 4-year, $52 million albatross with knee problems. JaVale McGee? A shot-blocking dingbat, and the Sixers saw enough of that act. Traded by Denver and Washington for each other, both teams will suffer for the move.

Marcus Camby? Excellent name; no offensive game.

Hasheem Thabeet? Huge frame, huge disappointment.

No, what the Sixers have is too good to tamper with. Not now.

Not before their shipload of free-agency coin comes in this offseason, if they part ways with Elton Brand or Andres Nocioni to receive amnesty relief.

This summer, the Sixers can shop at their leisure.

Since Versace-level talent Dwight Howard - always a pipe dream - declined his chance to take his talents to Brighton Beach, or anywhere else that might have traded for him, the Sixers' options will be limited to the L.L. Bean sort of player.

For instance, McGee should be available, if the Sixers determine they prefer size to sense. Brook and Robin Lopez are options as restricted free agents. It is unlikely, but the Lakers could decline an option on perpetual tease Andrew Bynum. Maybe Kevin Garnett, by then 36, can pogo through a final run.

Whatever big piece gets added, if any is added, it will be done with caution, because the Sixers are too good to unbalance.

Anyone with a scintilla of basketball knowledge acknowledges this.

Soon, when the chip falls off Evan Turner's shoulder, he will be a breakout star.

Soon, when Jrue Holiday relocates his uncanny feel for the game and stops thinking about everything else besides this being his team, it will become his team.

Soon, when Collins commits to starting Thaddeus Young the way Collins finally committed to Turner, Young, the team's most potent offensive player, will resume making every opposing coach blanch when his name comes up.

Consider this: The Miami Heat game-planned to specifically stop Young last season during the playoffs. Also: When the news came before the Sixers' game with the Celtics last week that Young was home sick, Celtics coach Doc Rivers practically giggled with relief.

Any trade for any significant big man would have had to include one of that trio, plus draft choices, which, lately, the Sixers have spent brilliantly.

Any such sacrifice would have been folly.

Turner, Holiday and Young all were taken within the first 17 picks of the first round of their draft year.

None is older than 23.

Each is a solid person.

All are progressing nicely, blossoming under Collins' deft manipulations.

These characteristics are rare and precious in an NBA full of unskilled labor with unrefined manners. This trio should be nurtured, like orchids.

Unfortunately, they are far from finding full bloom. And, so, no matter who is added before this year's playoff run, it will not further their chances at a championship - or, more pertinently, multiple runs at multiple championships.

The Sixers can't beat the Heat. Not last year, not this year, maybe not next. Maybe not the Bulls, either, but they're closer to beating that club.

As currently comprised, they can handle the aged, rigid Celtics, the heartless Hawks, even the one-trick Magic. They have a weird matchup problem with the Pacers, which can be overcome.

The Sixers risk the same playoff danger posed by the talented Knicks, who this week purged themselves of a sideshow coach. As soon as the real point guard takes over - Baron Davis - the Knicks could make a run at a No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Which means the Sixers can win a round in the playoffs, maybe two if the matchups work out for them.

Regardless, they will remain several steps from matching the sort of basketball played in the West by Oklahoma City, the Clippers, the Mavericks, the Spurs and even the Lakers.

Fine.

The Sixers cannot be about this season.

Turner, Holiday and Young need to be allowed to mature into the sort of players who draw contact at the rim and finish; who turn other team's mistakes into quick points; and, yes, into players who relish the chance to beat the clock at the end of possessions, and quarters, and games.

This time next year, one or all of them could have developed those skills.

Adding a player who would unrealistically raise expectations in this moment simply would have been unwise.

Sam Young, on the other hand, is perfect.

Send email to hayesm@phillynews.com