The Philadelphia 76ers are well on their way to building something special in the City of Brotherly Love.
No, I'm not talking about the Sixers' surprising 4-2 start to the 2013-14 NBA season. Sure, folks in Philly should be pleased with their stripped-down squad's competitive play thus far. The Sixers have already picked up wins against the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls, both of whom are presumed to finish among the Eastern Conference's elite by season's end.
Realistically, though, Philly will flame out at some point. Maybe they'll be run down by their lack of NBA-caliber depth. Maybe general manager Sam Hinkie will wheel and deal in such a way as to undermine his team's ability to win now but in service of a long-term agenda that might rightly be deemed "tanking."
Whatever the case may be, it's tough to imagine a team that leans so heavily on Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and Rookie of the Year front-runner Michael Carter-Williams so much as sniffing the playoff picture by the time mid-April rolls around.
Still, it's nice that they're giving Philly fans a thrill worth watching for the time being. And, with some smart moves and a few fortunate breaks, the Sixers could be back to the business of winning basketball games and (perhaps) competing for championships in relatively short order.
Before Sam Hinkie and the Sixers' front office can fully train their attention on the Sixers' future, they'll have to determine what to do about the remnants of their recent past.
Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen are the only members of last year's 34-48 Sixers squad who've been given any run so far this season. They should be joined (at some point) by Jason Richardson, Kwame Brown and Arnett Moultrie, all of whom are out for the foreseeable future due to injury.
Truth be told, Philly's most attractive trade assets are already plenty active. Turner's finally scoring at a 20-plus-point-per-game clip now that he's largely eschewed his frustrating flurry of mid-range jumpers in favor of high-percentage shots at the rim.
Young is putting up the usual line of 13-5 to which he's become accustomed over his six-plus years as a Sixer. Hawes, meanwhile, is making the most of his expanded opportunities up front by averaging a double-double and nailing more than half of his career-high, three-and-a-half, three-point attempts per game.
For most teams, these three 20-somethings would constitute a solid foundation on which a young superstar might eventually stand and around which role players could be placed. For the Sixers, they might be little more than attractive trade chips to be parlayed into prospects and picks.
Depending on who Hinkie talks to, anyway. Of Philly's core three, only Young is signed beyond this season, with an early termination option in 2015-16.
Hawes, an unrestricted free agent in 2014, could be a worthwhile addition for a contending club, though the Sixers would be hard-pressed to extract a first-rounder in exchange for his services. Turner will hit restricted free agency in July, so any team that kicks the tires on him had better be serious about spending big to retain him.
That uncertainty could work against the Sixers if/when they decide to dangle those three guys on the trade market. As it happens, it might behoove Philly to hang on to that trio beyond this season, assuming that doing so wouldn't completely muck up the team's long-term cap situation.
As much as it might make sense to "tank-ologists" for a team like the Sixers to start over from scratch, this squad will need more bodies than those it adds through the NBA draft in the coming years to compete for playoff berths over the long haul.
Why not have those bodies be ones who are already familiar with their surroundings and, more importantly, seem to be thriving under the tutelage of head coach Brett Brown?
Speaking of guys who seem to be enjoying the reign of Brett Brown, Michael Carter-Williams is having himself quite a rookie season, isn't he? The 11th pick in the 2013 draft earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors in his first attempt as a pro, after leading the Sixers to a 3-0 start and averaging a line of 21-5-9 with 4.3 steals.
MCW's overall productivity has dipped a bit since then, though the 16-7-6 that he's posted in his last three games ain't too shabby. Remember, this kid's all of 22 years old, with just six games as a pro under his belt. He'll suffer through his fair share of struggles as the 82-game season grind along, but so far, MCW has been way better than advertised, with plenty more room for growth.
Fortunately for him, the Sixers won't (and shouldn't) hesitate to let their rookie point guard work out the kinks in his game with relative impunity. If they win because he plays well, then, by all means, let him play on. And if they don't win and he struggles, then all the better for Philly's "ambitions" of snagging a blue-chipper in the 2014 draft.
As sturdy has MCW has been offensively, where he's really been most intriguing—and could really be a force going forward—is on the defensive end. At 6'6", MCW is the sort of rangy athlete whose length, athleticism and quickness will allow him to pester opposing floor generals as he pleases.
And considering how loaded the NBA is at point guard these days, that unique tool set could make MCW the lynch pin of a top-notch defensive unit going forward.
The Sixers have already shown some intriguing signs of life on that end of the floor. They've allowed the fewest free-throw attempts per shot in the league so far and rank right in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency and opponent-effective field-goal percentage.
Those numbers don't necessarily portend total defensive dominance for the Sixers, though they should be encouraged by the fact that they've competed on defense and, as a result, haven't stunk it up to the high heavens like so many of the NBA's bottom-feeders typically do.
Surely, Brett Brown understands the value of solid defense. Prior to arriving in Philly, Brown spent six seasons as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs under Gregg Popovich.
It'll be some time before the Sixers are ready to contend for championships, but they'll never get there without the ability to consistently stifle opposing offenses.
The Sixers defense should improve considerably once Nerlens Noel is ready for his debut. The 19-year-old flat-top enthusiast was a shot-blocking phenom as a freshman at Kentucky before his knee buckled awkwardly during an SEC clash against Florida last season.
Noel's return from that injury may have to wait until next season, though. The sixth pick in the 2013 draft is still working his way back from a torn ACL, and the organization has made it clear that it doesn't expect him to play until 2014-15.
And rightfully so.
For one, the memories of Andrew Bynum's lost season and the front office's mishandling of his recovery (from a PR perspective, anyway) are still fresh in the minds of Philly fans. They booed Bynum heartily in his return to the Wells Fargo Center, with many chanting "Let's go bowling," in reference to 'Drew's decision to hit the lanes while he was rehabbing last year.
This time around, the Sixers are being smart about their injured big man. In essence, they're lowering expectations so that they won't have their own words thrown back in their faces. And if Noel's healthy enough to play at some point this season, then the team's supporters will be pleasantly surprised.
In the meantime, Noel can take his time working with Philly's staff of physicians, trainers and coaches to strengthen his knee, build his body and revamp his heretofore busted jump shot, per Dei Lynam of CSNPhilly.com. That way, when he comes back, he can be more effective from the get-go than he might've been even if he'd been healthy upon entry into the NBA.
Without Noel filling Philly's thin front line, the Sixers should have an even tougher time sustaining their current blistering pace and, in time, fall firmly into the basement of the Eastern Conference.
That is precisely where the Sixers want to be. They were as plain about their intentions as any team was this summer, considering they traded an All-Star (Jrue Holiday) and a throw-in (Pierre Jackson) to the New Orleans Pelicans for Noel, knowing he probably wouldn't play this year, and a first-round pick in 2014.
That upcoming choice could be of considerable value to the Sixers come June. It'll be top-five protected until 2010, at which point it'll morph into a second-rounder.
Philly won't likely wait that long to claim the Pellies' pick. If New Orleans finishes outside of the playoffs this season, as many expect they will, the Sixers would wind up with two lottery picks in a draft that's expected to be the deepest and most talented in recent memory, assuming, of course, the Sixers slide into the lottery themselves, which they should.
That means Philly could open the 2014-15 season with three young, gifted newcomers: Noel and whichever prospects those two 2014 selections yield.
Those three, along with MCW and the survivors of what figures to be an extensive roster culling in Philly, would likely constitute an enticing core around which Hinkie and Brown could, in time, fashion a perennial powerhouse in the Atlantic Division.
The operative phrase in that last sentence being "in time."
Young squads come with the added challenge of needing time for their prospects to develop and mature into dependable contributors, if not outright All-Stars. The Seattle SuperSonics stunk during Kevin Durant's rookie year and won just 23 games during their inaugural season as the Oklahoma City Thunder, even after adding Russell Westbrook via the fourth pick in the 2008 draft.
By Year 3, KD was a scoring champ on a playoff team, with Westbrook and a rookie by the name of James Harden providing support.
To be sure, OKC GM Sam Presti was exceedingly lucky to nail three straight top-four picks and unearth Serge Ibaka at No. 24 in 2008. The Sixers—or any team, for that matter—would be hard-pressed to find three youngsters who'd subsequently grow into top-10 or top-12 players in the league, regardless of how meticulous their scouting efforts or dedicated their development staff may be.
Still, if there's a "model" to which Philly is sticking in its rebuild, it's that laid out by the Thunder. Lose a lot now, draft well soon, mold those homegrown prospects into franchise players and—voila!—you've got yourself a title contender.
That's much easier said than done, though the Sixers are off to a flying start.
Let's celebrate the Sixers on Twitter while we can!