Philadelphia 76ers: 5 Keys to a Successful Rebuild
The 76ers are free-falling to the season's finish line in spectacular fashion, losers of 18 straight games following Wednesday's loss to the Kings at the Wells Fargo Center. With their March schedule featuring matchups against Indiana (twice), Chicago (twice), San Antonio and Houston, who knows when their next win will be?
The franchise is embarking on the single-most important offseason since drafting Allen Iverson in 1996. Armed with two 2014 lottery picks in one of the most hyped drafts in years, a boatload of cap space and perceived franchise cornerstones in Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel, the 76ers are ready to rebuild. It's just a matter of getting the pieces that fit.
Here are the five things the 76ers need to do to ensure their rebuilding efforts go according to general manager Sam Hinkie's master plan.
Michael Carter-Williams Continues to Develop
Michael Carter-Williams was the 11th overall pick in last year's draft, and if the league were to re-draft today, odds are he would be one of the top two or three picks, depending on your preference. He came out of the gate on fire, posting a 22/7/12/9 line against the defending champion Miami Heat on opening night. He had Rookie of the Year on cruise control in the first half of the season, and although some would argue Magic guard Victor Oladipo has usurped him in the race, he's still going to get plenty of consideration. In a miserable season, Carter-Williams has been a pleasant surprise.
However, there are mistakes he needs to avoid and strides he needs to make. Since New Year's Day, Carter-Williams' numbers have gone down in most offensive categories. He's shooting an abysmal 39 percent from the field, 26 percent from three-point range and 70 percent from the free-throw line. All of those numbers need to improve in Year 2.
This is due to a myriad reasons. For one, Carter-Williams simply hit the "rookie wall." After playing 66 games in two seasons at Syracuse, he has played 50 games and counting in his first NBA season. But it's not the number of games that's important, it's the constant demoralizing beatdowns, night after night, that are undoubtedly wearing on every player on the 76ers, especially Carter-Williams.
Secondly, the Sixers traded away two contributors, Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner, and got nothing in return. That's an understood and accepted part of their rebuilding—trading away veteran players for future assets in draft picks or cap space—but it leaves Carter-Williams with no reliable help on the floor. While no one would confuse Hawes and Turner for Moses and Dr. J, they did share the scoring load and were veterans on a team lacking any sort of experience.
What Carter-Williams lacks in shooting and other-worldly athleticism of point guards like Russell Westbrook, he makes up for it with his versatility. At 6'6", he's a long defender with active hands. He's tied for fourth in the NBA in steals. He can sometimes rely too much on his length to cover up for his foot speed, but overall you have to like what he gives you on the defensive end schematically.
Offensively, he's an excellent rebounder (sixth in the NBA among all guards) and has good sight of the floor for a rookie. His versatility has resulted in two triple-doubles this season (third in the NBA among all guards). I would like to see him develop a post game so he can put that body to use against smaller guards. It would be a dynamic addition to the repertoire.
Nerlens Noel Gets Healthy and Anchors the Defense
The 76ers have no intention of putting Noel on the floor this season, regardless of what cryptic tweets he might send out.
If healthy, Noel would have been the No. 1 pick in last year's draft, but a torn ACL he suffered while at Kentucky prevented that from happening. He slipped to No. 6, where he was drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans and subsequently traded to the 76ers for point guard Jrue Holiday and an additional first-round pick in 2014.
Assuming he's fully healthy come opening night of the 2014-15 season, Noel will be the centerpiece of the 76ers' defense. At 6'11" with a 7'4" wingspan, Noel is an imposing shot-blocker who can alter shots at the rim. He blocked 4.5 shots per game in his only season at Kentucky, while averaging 10 points and nine rebounds.
He's very agile and athletic. He can run the floor like a guard and is an explosive finisher at the rim. He won't dazzle you with an outside jumper, but he did shoot 59 percent from the field last year at UK, cleaning up misses and throwing down lobs. There is infinite potential here, particularly on the defensive end.
The injury scares everyone and rightfully so, as we've seen both ends of the ACL recovery spectrum in recent years. We saw what a torn ACL could do to Derrick Rose, Robert Griffin III and countless others. Not everyone returns like Adrian Peterson. The hope here is that Noel has had ample time to recuperate, will test it out plenty over the summer, and be ready to go come training camp.
Draft Andrew Wiggins
Of course, the big caveat that comes with this is that the 76ers have to keep losing games, which it looks like they should not have a problem doing. The reason being: the news surrounding Joel Embiid's back is getting worse by the day. Many experts and insiders in league circles have Embiid as the No. 1 prospect and a likely fit for the Milwaukee Bucks (the team with the NBA's worst record, currently) should the ping pong balls bounce in their favor. In order for the 76ers to get Wiggins, they need to give themselves the best chance at winning the lottery. And the only way to win the lottery is to keep losing on the court.
With Carter-Williams and Noel in the fold, the next move is to add a young playmaker on the wing who can create his own shot. Wiggins fits that mold. So does Jabari Parker, the standout from Duke, and the 76ers drafting Parker is my backup option. The difference between Wiggins and Parker is minimal. Parker can score from anywhere on the floor—off the bounce, spot-up, fastbreak, whatever, but Wiggins' upside and athleticism gives him the slight edge over Parker.
Wiggins is 6'8", 205 pounds and his vertical has been measured at 44 inches. He's a gifted physical specimen. His length and athleticism give him the potential to be a nightmare on the defensive end. He will be battling against the likes of LeBron James, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, and those gifts will definitely be assets when playing against those dominant scoring small forwards.
Imagine a defense with the length of Carter-Williams, Wiggins, Noel and Thaddeus Young (if he's still on the roster—more on that in a minute). The opportunity to play alongside a talented defender like Noel and a versatile point guard like Carter-Williams should help bring out the "dog" in Wiggins some scouts think is his missing piece.
There are red flags with Wiggins, sure. There was the game at Texas earlier this year where he fouled out and scored only seven points on 2-of-12 shooting in a loss, but the biggest knock on him is that he sometimes gets labeled as "lazy." I'll take the guy whose criticisms are more about his demeanor than his play any day. Put him with a good head coach and with teammates who want to win and he'll be just fine.
With Embiid missing the Big 12 tournament and possibly the beginning of the NCAA tournament, don't be surprised if more of the onus is put on Wiggins to carry Kansas. It should be fun to watch.
Trade Thaddeus Young at the Draft
It's hard to believe that Thaddeus Young is the only player remaining from the 76ers' last trip to the playoffs in the 2011-12 season.
Young, despite being erratic at times, has really come a long way since being drafted with the 12th pick in the 2007 NBA draft. He's scoring a career-high 17.6 points per game this year, but his field-goal percentage is down below 50 percent for the first time since the 2010 season. His rebounding is down slightly and he's shooting a paltry 68 percent from the free-throw line. His name has been brought up in trade speculation all season but he's remained a consummate professional.
He's owed $9 million in 2014-15 and has a player option for $9 million which he would likely pick up in 2015-16. Young has been a great ambassador for the team and the city, as well as a great mentor for the young players as the de facto veteran presence on the team. It's in his and the team's best interest to ship him off to a team that gives him a better chance to win, but will there be any takers?
The best chance the 76ers have of moving Young will be on draft night and unlike Hawes and Turner, I can't see it being done for a mere second-round pick. The 76ers, already with two first-rounders and multiple second-round picks, will have to take the temperature of the elite teams in the back end of the draft.
If a player those teams are eyeing up is unavailable when it's time to pick, it's conceivable they could ship that first-round pick to the 76ers for Young and a second-rounder or some similar combination. Young would fit in perfectly with Oklahoma City or San Antonio as a sixth man who can do it all. The problem will be getting one of those elite, cap conscious teams to take on Young's salary in the process.
Oklahoma City, for example, is notorious for staying under the cap so it will take some shrewd maneuvering by general manager Sam Hinkie to make that happen.
At the end of the day, Young will end up in a better situation and the 76ers will need the future assets he will yield via trade.
Think Offense with Pelicans' Pick
This season, the 76ers rank dead last in the NBA in three-point field-goal percentage and 27th in overall field-goal percentage. Simply put, they can't shoot.
The pick they will receive from the New Orleans Pelicans should be in the 8-12 range and there's two guys I'm keeping my eye on: Doug McDermott and Rodney Hood.
McDermott may have some parts of his game that won't translate at the next level, but shooting is not one of them. He shot a lofty 45 percent from three-point range in his career at Creighton and 55 percent overall from the field.
He's going to be in consideration for National Player of the Year after averaging 26.5 points per game this season in a slightly watered down Big East.
Hood is shooting 42 percent from three-point range this season for Duke. He's scoring 16.5 points per game as the second option behind Jabari Parker. The 76ers are in desperate need of scoring and one of these guys paired with Wiggins could go a long way in improving on that end.
If the 76ers go in another direction, then they need to draft a shooter in the early second round or address that need in free agency. The NBA is predicated so much on the drive-and-kick game and currently, the 76ers have no one to kick it to.
The main point is that the 76ers need to hit it out of the park with both of these picks. They need to get their star (Wiggins) and a starter who will immediately contribute. We have seen plenty of teams have two lottery picks and they rarely, if ever, come away with two home runs.
The post-MJ Chicago Bulls were in a similar rebuilding situation in 2001 and acquired both Tyson Chandler (second pick) and Eddy Curry (fourth) in the lottery. Chandler took time to develop coming out of Dominguez High School and ultimately had his best years with other teams, while Curry flamed out completely.
Three years later, the Bulls drafted Ben Gordon (third) and acquired Luol Deng (seventh). This time, it worked out a little better for them, as they became key cogs of perennial playoff teams in a few short years.
Some teams catch bad luck. The Portland Trail Blazers made the right moves in 2006 when they traded for LaMarcus Aldridge (second) and Brandon Roy (sixth) on draft night. They were well on their way to being franchise cornerstones when injuries prematurely ended Roy's (and 2007 first overall pick Greg Oden's) career.
Kevin Durant and Jeff Green could have been two home runs the following year but Green was inconsistent and was eventually traded for Kendrick Perkins in an effort to bolster the Thunder defense.
The jury is still out on Kyrie Irving's 2011 lottery mate Tristan Thompson. Aldridge, Durant and Irving are all franchise players, but these three examples all illustrate that while it may be easy to fall into a great player at the top of the draft, it's hard to land another one later.
And that is where the 76ers find themselves. They have the picks, they have the cap space and they have young talent. What will they do with it?