Will Philadelphia 76ers Tank Again After Win-Later Draft Picks?

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistJune 29, 2014

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Some Philadelphia 76ers fans aren't going to like this, but it's probably for the best.

And, either way, it's inevitable.

General manager Sam Hinkie fired an unmistakable message across the NBA's bow on Thursday, taking Joel Embiid with the No. 3 overall pick and functionally guaranteeing that the Sixers will be really bad for at least another season, maybe longer.

It's not Embiid's fault, of course. He just happens to be injured, and it may take him all season to recover from surgery to fix a stress fracture in his foot. Philly is going to approach his situation much as it approached Nerlens Noel's last season—patiently and deliberately.

According to NJ.com's Matt Lombardo, "Hinkie outlined a similar plan for Embiid to the one that allowed Noel to miss an entire season in order to fully rehab before making his anticipated debut this summer in the Orlando Summer league."

"I've seen reported some four to six months [for Embiid]," Hinkie said, per Lombardo. "That's not the number I heard. The number I heard from the surgeon himself was five to eight months.

Hinkie added, "We will focus on the long-term health of the player. That's all that matters. Will we be smart about that? Of course. Will we be patient? Yes. If he can remain healthy, he can have a fantastic NBA career."

But Embiid's absence isn't the only reason Philadelphia will struggle.

The team also acquired Dario Saric in the first round, and he won't make it to the NBA for another two years at the very soonest.

These are the kind of moves that make a lot of sense from a long-term perspective. They're just going to be awfully painful in the meantime.

While Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams will now be joined by a healthy Nerlens Noel, the 76ers still have precious little in terms of NBA-ready talent.

Hinkie wouldn't have it any other way. Such is the logic of tanking. Why waste just one season when you can multiply the dividends by doing so again in 2014-15, likely yielding another premium draft pick in the process?

Again, it won't be pretty. 

In theory, Philadelphia could use its wealth of cap space to pursue virtually any free agent of its choice. At the moment, the organization has just over $25.8 million in salaries on the books for next season. That number will increase before all is said and done, but it almost certainly won't increase on account of adding someone like Carmelo Anthony.

Even if Anthony were somehow interested in helping the 76ers turn things around, that's not the path Hinkie's taking.

He's building this team from the ground up, accruing as many assets as possible and watching them mature into something valuable. It's the same strategy adopted by Hinkie's mentor, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 29: General Manager Daryl Morey and James Harden of the Houston Rockets poses for a photo as Harden is introduced to the media on October 29, 2012 at Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
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Though the Rockets never sank to Sixers-like depths, the principles remain the same. Acquire as many draft picks and prospects as possible. They'll either develop into serviceable in-house talent (e.g., Chandler Parsons) or eventually translate into trade bait that can land veteran talent (e.g., James Harden).

Assigning value to Philadelphia's assets is difficult at the moment, suggesting it will be another season or two before these tactics come full circle. But once guys like Noel and Embiid have established their worth, Hinkie will have options at his disposal.

And options are a good thing.

"I think there'll be a lot of opportunities for us (with cap space, via trades, free agency)," Hinkie told reporters on Friday. "I think we'll be open-minded."

You kind of have to be open-minded to stomach another season of league-worst basketball. 

We probably should have seen it coming, too. When Philadelphia parted ways with leading scorer Evan Turner midway through the 2013-14 campaign, it became abundantly clear that this franchise wasn't about winning—it was about building an actual winner.

Consider the alternative.  

Philadelphia could overspend on second-tier free agents. It could have drafted a healthy prospect like Dante Exum. It could trade draft picks for veterans who are ready to contribute. The organization could do any number of things to improve immediately.

And where would it get them?

CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 28:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat hugs Michael Jordan after defeating the Charlotte Bobcats 109-98 in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Time Warner Cable Arena on April 28, 2014 in
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The Charlotte Hornets signed Al Jefferson, and it got them to the first round. The Phoenix Suns assembled a pretty talented squad last season and almost made the playoffs. The Atlanta Hawks added Paul Millsap and managed to secure the eighth seed.

None of those teams, however, is positioned for the long term like Philadelphia is. None of those teams can boast the possibility of having two young, elite big men at their disposal when 2015-16 rolls around. None of those teams is likely to snag another top-five draft pick next summer.

The choice is between a middling existence and one that's capable of actually winning a championship.

Remember how far away the Oklahoma City Thunder once looked from such lofty goals. Things can change fast in this business, especially when franchises are unequivocally committed to delayed gratification. 

The Sixers will wait. And it will hurt.

But don't be surprised if they have the last laugh.