Will Philadelphia 76ers' Comeback Be Quicker Than We Think?

D.J. FosterContributor IMarch 25, 2014

Mar 21, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Michael Carter-Williams (1) reacts to loosing to the New York Knicks at the Wells Fargo Center. The Knicks defeated the Sixers 93-92. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers have been a lightning rod this season. Criticism is bound to come when you're the worst team in the league, of course, but it's gone too far and has largely overshadowed the bright future the Sixers have.

For some reason, bottoming out and clearing the decks of future salary is considered more offensive than maintaining mediocrity. Maybe that's because we'd like to think all franchises do everything in their power to win as many games as possible every year.

That's simply not reality, though, and it never has been. The reality is that Philadelphia was contending for absolutely nothing with the core that was previously in place. Attempting to change that shouldn't be viewed in such a negative light.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 21: Head Coach Brett Brown and Michael Carter-Williams #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers talk during a game against the New York Knicks at the Wells Fargo Center on March 21, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expre
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The Sixers aren't doing anything insulting to the game or league, despite all the cries of tanking. Rather, general manager Sam Hinkie is just using the best strategy available to him within the rules of the game. Say what you will about the system that's in place, but Philadelphia trotting out a bunch of young, D-League level players on minimum salaries isn't a move made in poor judgment or illegal in any way. It's the smart move to make.

It seems as though NBA commissioner Adam Silver can see that as well. Here's what he told Dei Lynam of CSN Philly earlier this season:

I don’t want to ignore the issue that the chatter is out there,” Silver said. “If there is a perception out there that teams need to be bad to get good, we need to address it.

“We have a draft lottery in place. The purpose was to take the incentive away from teams potentially losing games in order to get a higher draft pick. We have tinkered with it (draft lottery) over the years and if we need to adjust it again then we will.

“I am concerned about the perception. I am not concerned about what is happening in Philadelphia."

“Not every team is going to be successful every year,” Silver said. “What you ask for as fans is that there be a strategy and vision in place to win over time.

Fact is, the Sixers have created more interest in a rebuilding year than they would have as the 20th-best team in the league. There's plenty of hope for the future now, and thanks to Hinkie's maneuvering, these current failures should be a thing of the past very soon.

But how soon will that be? The Sixers certainly have a nice young building block in Michael Carter-Williams, and Nerlens Noel could be a real difference-maker on the defensive end going forward. With New Orleans' top-five protected pick likely coming over this season, the 76ers will have two lottery picks in this year's loaded class as well.

On top of all of that, Philadelphia no longer has any harmful long-term salaries. Thaddeus Young, still only 25 years old, is the only player on a substantial deal. The Sixers are in an enviable situation, as there are no guaranteed salaries on the roster for the 2015-16 season. If you want to pinpoint the next superstar meetup destination, Philadelphia probably headlines the list.

It's natural to think that because the Sixers are so hapless right now, that guarantees a long, painful rebuilding period. Given all of the future assets and flexibility, though, Philadelphia could easily be a playoff team in the 2015-16 season and a legitimate contender for a long time after that.

Basically, as Tom Ziller of SB Nation explains here, the Sixers have accelerated the rebuilding process and therefore have potentially shortened it:

We knew Hinkie's decisions would potentially lead to a team chock full of exciting youngsters and roster flexibility. We just didn't realize it could happen so soon. If Hinkie pulls it off -- that is, if he wants the Sixers to be good in 2014-15 instead of lagging behind to get another high pick -- he could rewrite the book on what rebuilding means. It doesn't have to be self-exile in the cellar for three or more years. Just one opportunistic disaster of a season is all you need if you play your cards right.

Bottoming out made sense this season, but there was even more incentive to do it beyond earning a few extra lottery balls and saving some money on salary this year.

That's because the Boston Celtics (via the Miami Heat) actually own Philadelphia's first-round pick in 2015, but it's protected for selections Nos. 1-14. So long as the Sixers don't make the playoffs next year, that pick won't be conveyed and will instead result in Philadelphia owing Boston second-round selections in 2015 and 2016.

Basically, the Sixers are earning a very valuable draft pick in exchange for not trying to get swept in the playoffs. The fact that the Sixers could potentially compete in 2015 with a few moves (but likely will decide against it) is a testament to how good of an idea it was to rebuild.

Again, the Sixers didn't sign up for a decade of despair in the least bit. It's hard to get better without hitting rock bottom first, and that's what this season is. Next year will be better, and it would be a shock if that trend didn't continue in subsequent years.

The ceiling, of course, is substantially higher than the floor in Philadelphia now. Outside of the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, what other teams in the Eastern Conference could win a title within the next five years? Considering Philadelphia is a big market, and there's cap room for multiple max players, and that there will almost certainly be multiple talented young players on controllable rookie deals already on the roster, perhaps no other team in the East is in a better position to win after next year than the Sixers are.

Basically, you should get all of your tanking jokes in now, because there's a strong chance the Sixers will be a contender much sooner than you would typically think.