Philadelphia 76ers Smart to Play It Slow with Nerlens Noel

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Philadelphia 76ers Smart to Play It Slow with Nerlens Noel
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers have gone to great lengths to ensure that the 2013-14 NBA season will be one marked by new beginnings—good, bad and ugly alike.

Doug Collins, their head coach for the last three years, is gone, replaced by former San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown.

Tony DiLeo, the general manager charged with cleaning up Rod Thorn's mess in the wake of the disastrous Andrew Bynum trade, gave way to Houston Rockets wunderkind Sam Hinkie. It was Hinkie who, with the support of the Sixers' new(ish) ownership, set about on a roster reset this past summer, with Jrue Holiday's move to the New Orleans Pelicans the opening salvo.

That blockbuster draft-day trade netted Philly a pair of first-round picks, including Nerlens Noel, the sixth player taken in the 2013 class. Brown has already gone out of his way to temper the expectations placed upon the young pivot, who's still recovering from a knee injury suffered last year while at the University of Kentucky.

As Brown recently told Christopher A. Vito of the Delaware County Daily Times, “I doubt, everybody doubts (Noel) is going to play this year."

That already marks a notable departure from the approach of the previous regime.

This time last year, the Sixers' brass slow-played Bynum's return to the team's fans and local media. They tossed out potential timetables and spoke highly of the All-Star's progress, only to see him regress, bowling balls and all, to the point where he'd never suit up as a Sixer.

 

Leaving the Past Behind

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Philly seems determined not to make that same mistake twice. Then again, there's really no need for anyone to justify outsized expectations for the team this time around.

Remember, hopes were high for the Sixers coming into 2012-13. They were fresh off a surprising showing in the previous spring's playoffs, during which they came within a game of sneaking into the Eastern Conference Finals as a No. 8 seed.

You didn't have to be Rocky, though, to figure that run for a fluke.

The Sixers ousted the Chicago Bulls from the first round in six games after Derrick Rose went down with the very same knee injury from which he's just now recovering. In the next round, Philly's youth came in handy against an old, beat-up Boston Celtics squad that, to its credit, nearly upended the eventual champion Miami Heat in the conference finals.

Philly might've been able to build on that success if not for Bynum's poor health. Without 'Drew, the Sixers had nothing to show for Andre Iguodala, who'd been sent to the Denver Nuggets as part of the deal that landed Dwight Howard with the Los Angeles Lakers and Bynum in the City of Brotherly Love.

The attempt to replace Lou Williams' scoring with that of Nick Young and Dorell Wright didn't exactly pan out, either. Nor did the hope that, without Iggy blocking his path, Turner would develop into a budding star on the wing next to Holiday.

Jrue's long gone now, and Turner could be soon enough. The former No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft will be a restricted free agent next summer, assuming the Sixers don't extend him before the end of the month.

Turner's still relatively young (he turns 25 on October 27) and is pleasantly versatile for a player at his position. His rebounding, in particular, is worth a raised eyebrow or two, with 6.3 caroms per game off the wing last season, though his subpar shooting leaves plenty to be desired.

If Turner proves productive as the team's top option out of the gate, he could wind up as Philly's most attractive trade chip, alongside Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes.

Take those three out of the equation, and the Sixers are left with little more than a hobbled Jason Richardson; a pair of young, poor-shooting, turnover-prone point guards in Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten; a slew of one-dimensional bigs; a potato sack full of cast-offs and non-guaranteed contracts; and a hefty (albeit intriguing) helping of Royce White.

 

Purposefully Putrid

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All of which is to say, the Sixers won't have any notions of competing for a playoff spot this year—or next, for that matter. They're a team in transition, with the mish-mosh-of-a-roster to match. The goals for Philly are simple, if not exactly "sexy" to prospective season ticket-holders.

For management: see who fits and who doesn't. Stockpile assets wherever and whenever possible. Prepare to build through the draft. Maintain enough roster flexibility to allow for a quick strike on the trade market if an opportunity should present itself—just as Daryl Morey, Sam Hinkie's mentor in Houston, has done over the last year-and-a-half.

For the players: compete. Gain some experience, both individually and collectively. Learn whatever system Brett Brown is bringing over from the Spurs.

Oh, and don't worry about all those losses. They'll pile up quickly, and not by accident.

The Sixers haven't said as much, but it's obvious that they have their sights set on snagging at least one stud prospect in what figures to be a loaded 2014 draft. Philly will have its own pick, which should be in the mix for the top spot in the order, along with the New Orleans Pelicans' first-rounder from the Holiday-Noel swap.

That pick from the Pellies could wind up in the lottery if New Orleans falls short of the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference but doesn't garner the proper ping-pong ball to fall in the top five of the order.

As such, Philly could pluck a pair of blue-chippers from a group that's expected to include Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Dante Exum, Aaron Gordon and Dario Saric, among others.

Which means if Noel is ready to go next fall, the Sixers could start the 2014-15 season with a brand-new nucleus of exciting young prospects around which to build for the foreseeable future.

 

Time Well Spent

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

So, really, why would the Sixers rush Nerlens back now? To play with a group of guys which probably won't be around beyond this season? To try to win games, when the underlying organizational objectives dictate otherwise?

If anything, a year away from the court could do Noel some good.

His knee aside, Noel entered the draft with serious concerns about his weight and strength—or lack thereof. Those questions likely contributed to his draft-day slip from the long-presumed top spot.

Rather than having to flail through the choppy seas of pro ball against bigger, bulkier pivots, Noel can spend a pressure-free year filling out his rail-thin frame, building up his body and refining his raw game, particularly on the offensive end.

He can spend game days observing his teammates and opponents, both on and off the court, to familiarize himself with the speed and physicality of the NBA game from afar while getting a taste of the perks and pitfalls of the lifestyle that comes with it.

There's certainly precedent for such a "redshirt" season in the Association.

Consider the case of Blake Griffin. The high-flying forward out of Oklahoma missed what was supposed to be his rookie season after suffering a stress fracture during the Los Angeles Clippers' final preseason game.

Griffin wasted little time bouncing back from the injury and reminding everyone why the Clippers made his the first name off the board in 2009. He averaged 22.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 2010-11, taking home honors as an All-Star, a Slam Dunk champion and the league's Rookie of the Year along the way.

More importantly, Griffin established himself as the sort of superstar around which a forgotten franchise could construct a legitimate contender. Griffin's mere presence lent the Clippers the sort of credence they'd rarely (if ever) had, to the extent that Chris Paul, arguably the best point guard on the planet, chose to join the NBA's longtime doormat.

 

Fun Times Ahead in Philly? 

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This isn't to suggest that Noel is or will be the caliber of player that Griffin has become, or that their skill sets are in any way comparable. The former is a skinny shot-blocker whose offensive game might best be described as "embryonic." The latter was (and still is) a gravity-defying man-child known for his thunderous dunks.

Those differences needn't hamstring Noel's potential impact on Philly's future, though.

His dynamism as a rim protector (he averaged an NCAA-best 4.4 blocks last season before he went down) and glass cleaner (9.5 rebounds per game) could make him the linchpin of a defensive unit that, with time and teaching, could rank among the league's elite.

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We won't know if any of this is true for a while. In the meantime, the Sixers are going to stink, and Noel's going to have the best seat in the house, from which to see how he can best fit in before he's thrown head-first into the fire.

Once he is, Noel won't be Philly's lone neophyte. Instead, he'll be accompanied by a more promising cast of characters, one with the chops to contend for the title year in and year out.

That's the kind of new beginning that Sixers fans—starved for a consistent winner since the heyday of Allen Iverson, if not the championship chases of Dr. J and Moses Malone—can not only rally behind, but embrace with brotherly love.

 

Let's talk about Philly and flat-top fades, shall we?

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