Most pundits agree that the Philadelphia 76ers stand on the precipice of an awful season. Philly’s front office would not argue that too strenuously, especially after coach Brett Brown expressed their inclination to let Nerlens Noel sit out the entire year (per Sam Amico of FoxSportsOhio.com).
The 76ers are practically guaranteed a lottery pick in 2014, and they have some young talent already. They could realistically be a contender by the 2015-16 season, but general manager Sam Hinkie has a lot of work to do to construct a credible roster. While the basic building blocks are present, the Sixers face a significant uphill battle in attracting top-flight free agents.
The Pieces in Place
The 76ers shipped all-star Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for Noel’s lanky frame and balky left knee. Noel tore that ACL in February while with Kentucky and had surgery in March. If Noel returns to full health, he has the talent to be an impact player immediately. And considering Philly’s current outlook, giving the shot-blocking maven (4.4 blocks per game in 24 contests as a Wildcat) the year off seems prudent. It would also mark the second consecutive year the team has kept an extremely talented center on the sidelines.
Despite projecting to be historically inept, the Sixers came away from their home opener against the Miami Heat with a shocking victory. Rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams flirted with a quadruple-double in his debut (22 points, 12 dimes, nine steals and seven rebounds), and the future in Philly just may be looking brighter than initially thought.
Regardless of whether their "tanking" is getting off to a slow start, Noel and MCW figure to be centerpieces of the starting lineup in the future. But the rest of the rebuilding project is clouded by uncertainty. It will also be incumbent on the 2013 draftees to mature into game-changing NBA-ers as fast as possible.
The State of the Team
The one saving grace for the 76ers is that an NBA franchise can be turned around relatively quickly thanks to the small roster size. As long as a team is not buried under the weight of bloated contracts, it will have sufficient flexibility to make moves in free agency and supplement its draft picks.
As observed by Eric Pincus of HOOPSWORLD, the Sixers project to have a ton of cap room to the tune of $34 million next summer. But who wants to play for the 76ers?
Brett Brown is the new coach at the helm, and, for the record, George Karl is not coaching anywhere this season. Brown openly disparaged his team to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, saying "You have six NBA players and then you have a bunch of guys who are fighting for spots and want to be seen and need opportunity."
I assume those NBA players are Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes, Tony Wroten, James Anderson and Carter-Williams. Sorry, Darius Morris, your coach doesn’t think you’re an NBA player.
Turner is vastly underrated and fills the stat sheet on a nightly basis. Last season, he averaged 13.3 points, 6.3 boards, 4.3 assists and 0.9 steals per game in his third year as a pro. Think of him as a poor man’s Josh Smith.
He could be a trade chip after the Sixers passed on the deadline to extend his contract. Turner said of his own general manager, "Hinkie is not my GM," so his days as a Sixer are likely numbered despite the franchise selecting him second overall in 2010 (per Keith Pompey).
Thad Young averaged 14.8 points and 7.5 boards a night as a starter last season and could also be traded. If so, it would not catch him off guard, as he told Christopher A. Vito of the Delaware County Daily Times, "at the end of the day it’s a business."
Basically, everyone on the team over the age of 23 is expendable, and this year's potential trades will provide a much clearer picture of the Sixers' rebuilding plan.
Tanking for Andrew Wiggins?
Is Andrew Wiggins worth tanking for? Regardless of the answer, the 76ers don’t need to tank; they really are that bad. But for the record, Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge told Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated that he did not see any player in the 2014 draft who was worth tanking for, tacitly giving his lukewarm opinion of Wiggins’ worth.
The 18-year-old is a 6'8" forward from Thornhill, Ontario who displays tremendous athleticism and can create his own shot. He has the tools to be a top-notch defender, especially with his 7'0" wingspan, but he would need to add some weight to his 200-pound frame.
The Sixers seem assured of having numerous ping-pong balls in the drum when the lottery selection takes place, but winning the lottery is another matter altogether. Unfortunately for Philly, the league’s worst team only has a 25 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick.
In the 20 years since the league re-weighted the lottery chances, the worst team has won the lottery just twice. In 2003, the Cleveland Cavaliers got LeBron James; in 2004, the Orlando Magic landed Dwight Howard. It remains to be seen if Wiggins can be a player close to that caliber, but winning the lottery and drafting deftly can obviously change a franchise’s fortunes in a matter of two years.
If they fall just short of No. 1, the Sixers could still select a forward like Julius Randle or Aaron Gordon, or even a guard like Marcus Smart or Australian Dante Exum. And if they do land the first overall selection but do not believe Wiggins is a franchise-changing player, they could still trade the pick for a king’s ransom.
Regardless, the lottery is a game of chance and the Sixers cannot count on getting Wiggins if they do, in fact, covet him. After all, the strategy of building through the draft is a crapshoot in itself.
Building Through the Draft and Luring Free Agents
Can Arnett Moultrie make the next step to a useful professional? The Sixers sent 2012 second-rounder Justin Hamilton and a lottery protected first-round pick next year to the Miami Heat for Moultrie, so he had better pay dividends. He played very well as a junior for Mississippi State University, posting 16.4 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, but he averaged just 11.5 minutes as a rookie in Philly. Good thing they protected that pick!
The Sixers will get the New Orleans Pelicans’ 2014 first-round pick if the Bayou Birds finish out of the bottom five, so Philly fans will be cheering for NOLA too. They coughed up a second-rounder in 2014 to acquire—and subsequently release—anxiety-ridden youngster Royce White. They also sent their 2016 first-rounder to the Orlando Magic in the Andrew Bynum trade, but that is lottery-protected too (per HOOPSWORLD).
It might actually be a good thing if the Magic get that pick in 2016, as that would mean the rebuilding has gone to plan and the 76ers have clawed their way out of the lottery in only two seasons. But the Sixers’ draft resources are nothing compared to the Phoenix Suns, who are collecting picks like Pokemon. They could potentially have four selections in the first round of a strong 2014 draft after the recent trade of Marcin Gortat.
While they do have those draft picks, the 76ers will have to address some of their copious needs in free agency, but are there any marquee free agents willing to go to Philadelphia? The 2015 class could include Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green, Kenneth Faried, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert. In the current context, it's hard to imagine any of those players feeling the brotherly love, but a lot can change in two years.
The Sixers will likely be a playoff team by the 2015-16 campaign, but they will need more than just a collection of talented youngsters to make noise in the postseason. Unfortunately, the rebuilding project in Philly may never be completed unless they find quality veteran free agents that want to don the red-white-and-blues. Noel and MCW are nice building blocks, but they are an insufficient foundation for the future due to the team's overwhelming needs.