Could Philadelphia 76ers Be Even Worse Than Last Year?

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Could Philadelphia 76ers Be Even Worse Than Last Year?
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Amid the pain of watching their team finish with the second-worst record in all the NBA last season, fans of the Philadelphia 76ers could at least rest easy knowing general manager Sam Hinkie had a plan in place for propelling the team back to relevance.

Patience and perspective though it required, the philosophy’s principles—collecting young, high-upside assets and maintaining financial flexibility—were hard to argue with.

But with the Sixers poised to surrender leading scorer Thaddeus Young in the three-team Kevin Love trade, per ESPN’s Marc Stein, the Philly faithful are bound to wonder aloud: Could we actually be worse this year?

Hinkie isn’t giving Young up for nothing, of course. In the proposed trade, the Sixers would acquire defensive stopper Luc Mbah A Moute, combo guard Alexey Shved and a future first-round pick.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Beyond the latter asset, however, it’s difficult to say whether the trade helps or hinders Philly’s long-term play.

Both Shved and Mbah A Moute’s contracts are set to expire at the end of next season, which will help the Sixers maintain what’s expected to be the league’s largest cap space.

Having that kind of financial flexibility is, on its face, a wonderful thing. Especially given the prohibitive punishments for tax-paying teams under the league’s latest collective bargaining agreement.

Strategically sound though it might seem, Hinkie's road map ignores a crucial fact of life in today’s NBA: Unless you can prove to big-name free agents that you’re a move or two away from genuine contention, it doesn’t matter if you have a Swiss bank’s worth of cap space—a franchise savior is not walking through that door.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Indeed, for all its hard-won history, Philly has never been much of a free-agent destination. And while there’s certainly plenty to like about the team’s future prospects, it seems far-fetched to believe Kevin Durant or LaMarcus Aldridge would stake their legacies on such an unproven product.

To his credit, Hinkie isn’t exactly letting reality stop him from reaching for the stars:

Recently, Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes underscored the principal problem with Philly’s radical rebuild—at a certain point, it’s worth asking whether there’s actually a plan at all:

Bottoming out has become a widely accepted method of reaching the top in the NBA. The notion of throwing away seasons understandably rubs many critics the wrong way, but it's not like the Sixers are the first team to aim for the lottery and a fresh start instead of mediocrity.

What Hinkie is doing isn't new. What is somewhat novel, though, is his willingness to just keep doing it.

That leaves the Sixers with one coherent alternative: Keep stockpiling draft picks and hope against hope a handful of them become stars in their own right. Once the core group is secured long-term, it’s merely a matter of reinforcing on the fringes.

Judging by how the team has approached the last two drafts, this seems like the most likely long-term play.

You start, as so many of today’s teams do, at the point guard position, where Michael Carter-Williams—fresh off winning Rookie of the Year honors—looks to be every bit the backcourt bulwark he was made out to be. Given a few more years of steady development, Carter-Williams has a legitimate shot of joining the league’s positional elite.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

That, unfortunately, is where the seeming certainty ends.

After sitting out his entire rookie season recovering from a knee injury, Nerlens Noel—last year’s sixth overall pick—is finally ready to join the fray. But despite Noel’s strong showing at the Las Vegas Summer League, it’s still unclear what, exactly, Hinkie and the Sixers are getting in the 6’11” big man.

Noel’s situation will be further complicated by the presence of recent No. 3 pick Joel Embiid, who may likewise forgo his inaugural NBA season with a foot injury.

With both players being seen as traditional centers, it’s incumbent on the Sixers to figure out how the two stand to mesh in the team’s overall positional framework. By delaying that process yet another year, Philly risks putting itself even further behind the curve, particularly considering Dario Saric, the team's other 2014 lottery pick, is expected to be starter-ready if and when he's brought across the pond.

Jack Arent/Getty Images

Of course, Embiid and Noel being completely unknown NBA quantities means there’s a chance one’s fate may be as a short-term backup. Unless Hinkie has designs of dealing one of them shortly down the road, that is.

As for the rest of the roster, the ranks abound with raw rookie projects, D-League castoffs and young unknowns—plenty of promise, to be sure, but with enough in the way of risk to make even the most optimistic Sixers fan a bit forlorn.

For his part, Sixers head coach (and Gregg Popovich disciple) Brett Brown seems to appreciate the process for what it is: one where trial and error is an ethos, rather than a fact of hindsight. From Hoops Habit’s Miles Wray:

Next year, when you look at it, it’s going to be an educated science project where we try some different things and look at some different things with players and give young players a chance. So that we can have a shot polishing up something that really is a talent.

Beyond Carter-Williams, it’s hard to say from whom, exactly, Brown should expect a next-year leap. Shved, Tony Wroten, Elliot Williams, Hollis Thompson: All have proved themselves serviceable. Whether they can become legitimate secondary weapons, however, remains to be seen.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Add it all up, you have the makings of a team that, no matter how hungry or well-coached, appears poised for another year of dining in the doldrums.

Perhaps it’s all in Hinkie’s plan—the inevitable germination period for seeds sewn by one of the most radical rebuilding efforts in modern NBA history. Perhaps a decade from now we’ll find ourselves looking back in disbelief, damned that we ever doubted him at all.

In today's NBA, rebuilding means selling your franchise faithful on the light at tunnel's end. Just don't blame Philly fans for fearing it might be nothing more than a mere mirage.

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