Before the season started, the Philadelphia 76ers were everyone's early favorite to land the NBA's worst record and the best chance at Andrew Wiggins in the 2014 NBA draft. For general manager Sam Hinkie, that was the plan: Construct a losing squad, free up cap space and stock up on draft picks for next year's loaded draft.
It's also why Philadelphia dealt its best player from last season, All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Sixers weren't going to win anything significant with their formerly assembled squad, so they threw the entire thing into the junk pile and started from scratch.
That's what NBA teams do these days, anyway. They avoid that middle ground—somewhere between the back end of the lottery and the last few playoff spots in each conference—in favor of adapting a championship-or-bust mentality.
It makes perfect sense. Good is not good enough, and the middle of the draft affords teams lesser opportunity to improve via young college talent. The 76ers have simply taken that approach to the extreme with this current season.
Well, not so fast. Philadelphia hasn't lost every game. In fact, they've won a bunch, beating Miami and Chicago along the way. Evan Turner is finally beginning to resemble the No. 2 overall pick he once was. Spencer Hawes has been a monster on the glass, and Thaddeus Young has provided a nice scoring punch.
And then there's first-round draft pick Michael Carter-Williams, whom most expected to struggle in his first season. He's been spectacular for a rookie thrown right into the fire. In his first game, he threw up a near quadruple-double, with 22 points, 12 assists, nine steals and seven rebounds.
What's particularly remarkable about Carter-Williams is that he's kept up this pace of play. While his stat lines have come back down to earth, he has displayed a keen understanding of his position both offensively and defensively.
A big help has been his 6'6", lanky frame. He's able to make passes with both hands over and around defenders; he's able to finish at the rim and challenge bigger defenders; on defense, his length bothers his offensive counterpart to no end.
This, in part, is why he's near the top of the league in steals per game. He's able to pinch in from farther distances and disrupt passing lanes without compromising his on-ball defense or losing his man to backdoor cuts.
Check out when he and Hawes "blue" this side pick-and-roll, siphoning off Norris Cole from the rest of his teammates. Against most teams, Cole isn't facing a player five inches taller. Therefore, as he throws this pass back to Chris Bosh at the elbow, he's not expecting it to be deflected.
But it's more than his height. Carter-Williams gets into positioning early and into the body of Cole, guiding him away from the pick and into the dropping Hawes. This is perfect technique on the "blue," leaving Cole with only one passing option.
So Carter-Williams anticipates, flying into the air the second Cole begins to pass the ball. Leaving his feet is a low-risk gamble here, because he and Hawes have cornered Cole into a single offensive option.
Because he's tall, he's able to get a hand on the pass and get the Sixers rolling the other way.
Here's the length advantage again, this time on offense. Miami, as it's known to do, hits Carter-Williams with a trap 40 feet from the basket.
In these situations, Miami is trying to blitz the ball-handler off a pick-and-roll before he is ready, forcing him into a rushed and inaccurate pass or a steal off the trap. With a big using his length to cut off passing lanes and a guard to poke at the ball, this can be an extremely effective tactic.
Against Carter-Williams, not so much. He takes a step back, hops into the air and simply dumps the ball into the roller, Young.
The trap has been beaten rather easily, and Philadelphia now has a numbers advantage near the rim. Young finishes with a floater.
Maybe the best benefit is Carter Williams' finishing ability as a point guard. Often times bigs will overplay the pull-up jumper off the pick-and-roll because they trust their ability to defend the rim. Even if the guard is able to penetrate, the big can use his superior length to simply swat the shot from behind.
Carter-Williams, however, changes the equation due to his height and his point guard vision. Bigs can't block him from behind because he finishes closer to the rim, and they have to be mindful of the pass to the roller as well. This puts extra pressure on the defense to handle him as both passer and scorer, making him an even more dangerous threat in these situations.
Look at what happens when Anderson Varejao tries to play up on Carter-Williams. He only needs one dribble to get even with Varejao and explodes toward the hoop. This is how far away he is from the rim when he takes his last dribble:
With a smaller guard, it would appear that Varejao would be able to close the gap before the rim and block the shot. Varejao does just that, but a bit too late: The ball has already hit the backboard, making it a goaltend.
The drawback to being a dangerous playmaker and scorer is overestimating one's abilities. The J.R. Smiths and Nick Youngs of the NBA are most notorious for poor shot selection, as they trust their shot-making skills a bit too much.
Carter-Williams, thus far into his NBA career, has shown a tendency to pull the trigger a bit early in transition. For a rookie point guard with the ball in his hands often, this is a common problem. Understanding situation, time and location are crucial to improving one's game.
Here, Carter-Williams pulls up in transition. Is he open? Yes. Is this a good shot for him? It's not terrible. But look at the shot clock:
Nineteen seconds. A 17-foot pull-up is a shot Philadelphia can get at any time. If the shot clock is winding down and someone is going iso, then fine. It's not the worst outcome for a possession. But in a transition opportunity, it's best to look for an open three or take the ball directly to the rim.
Otherwise, pull the ball out and reset. The defense is possibly cross-matched and there might be a mismatch. You can call a play and try to get something better.
Clearly this isn't what Carter-Williams chooses, and the Sixers lose possession without even trying to find a quality look.
Nobody thought Carter-Williams would excel this quickly. Nobody thought the 76ers would win very many games, let alone defeat Miami and Chicago. But even though this goes against Hinkie's plans and every tanking instinct the franchise has, in the long run, a quickly developing Carter-Williams will turn this franchise into a contender sooner rather than later.