The stench of the Philadelphia 76ers' radical rebuilding plan still lingers above the City of Brotherly Love.
Even with the promise of a brighter future, the present is a mystery. And the past is a mess of mismatched rosters, over-their-head youngsters and a mountain of losses—199 over the past three seasons, 18 more than any other NBA team and at least 100 more than eight different franchises.
But the most painful part of The Process is finished. The architect, Sam Hinkie, is out, and his successor, Bryan Colangelo, has shifted priorities back to the win column. Yet it's the talent uncovered by Hinkie's methodical management that could help the Sixers change their fortune.
Those defeats paid tangible benefits, none more so than the lottery prize secured by last season's abysmal 10-72 performance. The Sixers snared their first No. 1 pick since 1996 (Hall of Famer Allen Iverson) and spent it on 6'10" playmaker Ben Simmons.
"He impacts everything," Colangelo said, per CSN Philly's Jessica Camerato. "I think he's going to impact the outlook for the organization. He's going to impact the outlook for fans. Once again, this has been a long, painful process. I think he gives them reason for hope."
Simmons projects as a potential franchise-changer. He had a wildly productive one-year stay at LSU. The collegiate game hadn't seen a player average 16 points, 10 rebounds and four assists since at least 1994. Simmons' nightly contributions to the Tigers were 19.2 points (on 56 percent shooting), 11.8 boards and 4.8 helpers. Over six NBA Summer League outings, he managed 10.8, 7.7 and 5.5, respectively.
The key to unlocking Philly's potential rests in Simmons' vision, selflessness and creativity. The roster remains lopsided with a glut of high-ceiling bigs and mostly uninspiring options around the perimeter. But the skill level up front is strong, especially with Joel Embiid finally healthy and Dario Saric finally stateside.
"Going forward, Philly will make its bones with Simmons outrunning bigs, out-muscling littles, lofting oops, and flicking assists to shooters camped around the arc," The Ringer's Ben Detrick wrote. "He can be the Delaware Valley's answer to LeBron James or Draymond Green: an uber-skilled forward who gives his team the gleam of futurism."
The Sixers need more finishers around Simmons, but the talent base ballooned over the offseason. They took minimal hits in free agency—although Ish Smith will be missed—while adding both prospects (Simmons, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot) and proven commodities (Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson and Sergio Rodriguez).
They won't be overnight contenders, but their days as a punching bag could be behind them.
Head coach Brett Brown should write his lineups in pencil because they'll be among the league's most fluid.
Simmons' ceiling sits highest as a gigantic lead guard, but his first NBA assignment will come at the forward spot. As Brown told NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper, Philly will be careful not to throw too much too fast at its new franchise face:
I think the point-guard position is the hardest position to play in the NBA as a first-year player, let alone as a person that's played a four man his whole life. He would be all over the place. It seems quite reckless to do it, almost unfair. I hope to continue to be ambitiously creative at tapping into what he really can do, and in my heart of hearts I think he can do it.
Simmons is far from a sure thing as a reluctant-for-a-reason outside shooter, but he bears the closest resemblance to one in Philly's fun-house mirror. He should lead the rookie class—and possibly the Sixers—in minutes while Brown deciphers where his prized prospect fits best.
With Simmons on the wing, Bayless fits best as the starting point guard. His score-first mindset is offset by Simmons' playmaking, and Bayless' three ball (43.7 percent last season) helps unclog the floor. Philly's need for shooting will keep Nik Stauskas and Hollis Thompson in the running at the 2, but Brown may prefer seven-year veteran Gerald Henderson to have at least one other adult in the room.
The 4 and 5 spots should eventually go to Saric and Embiid. The 6'10" Saric could be a secondary playmaker and spot-up sniper, while the 7'0" Embiid potentially adds post scoring, shot-blocking and jump shooting to the mix. But with neither proven at the NBA level, the starting gigs will initially go to the pair who filled them last season—Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor.
|Philadelphia 76ers Projected 2016-17 Rotation|
|Jerryd Bayless||Gerald Henderson||Ben Simmons||Nerlens Noel||Jahlil Okafor|
|Sergio Rodriguez||Hollis Thompson||Robert Covington||Dario Saric||Joel Embiid|
|T.J. McConnell||Nik Stauskas||Jerami Grant||Richaun Holmes|
|Source: Basketball Insiders|
Rodriguez will grab the offensive reins when Simmons gets a breather, leaving T.J. McConnell to subsist on little more than garbage-time minutes. Robert Covington could get major time as one of Philly's few perimeter threats, especially if Stauskas and Thompson struggle. Barring any trades, Luwawu-Cabarrot and Richaun Holmes will spend the bulk of their seasons in the NBA Developmental League.
Reasons for Confidence
"Trust the process" was a catchy way of saying Philly's ends would eventually justify its unsightly means. The Sixers will neither vindicate nor refute their unorthodox approach this season, but they're already showcasing why they accepted such a fate. As The Vertical's Chris Mannix observed, that potential can make even seasoned hoops scouts salivate:
Philadelphia is now in an enviable position. Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel are promising big men. Center Joel Embiid is progressing in his recovery from a second foot surgery; the Sixers are optimistic the No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft will be ready for the start of training camp. Dario Saric, drafted 12th overall in 2014, will be there, too. And Philadelphia has Simmons, a 6'10", 239-pound point forward with superstar potential.
"I hated what they did," said a Western Conference GM. "But you can't deny what they have."
No one knows if the puzzle pieces fit, but they're tremendous pieces to have. Simmons was the top selection in his draft, while Embiid, Noel and Okafor all occupied the No. 1 spot in mock drafts of their respective classes at one time. And prior to the start of last season, NBA executives dubbed Saric the best international player suiting up abroad.
Each prospect holds exceptional, unique talent. Between Simmons and Saric, the Sixers should have two 6'10" playmakers—few teams have one. Okafor is a 275-pound back-to-the-basket bruiser with nimble feet. Noel is a potent defensive weapon who can be deployed anywhere. Put healthy feet under Embiid, and he looks like a basketball unicorn.
As tough as it was to stomach the Sixers punting three consecutive seasons, it's even harder to deny the prizes received for that sacrifice.
Reasons for Concern
Ask Sixers fans the best way to enjoy the upcoming campaign, and they might all provide the same answer: with a fast-forward button. Philly's management may have ditched the process, but the players can't accelerate the pace of development and collective growth.
Even with the added talent, this group needs to form its identity. Philly's five best assets include three players yet to see NBA action and a frontcourt pairing that posted an unconscionable minus-20 net rating during nearly 700 minutes together last season.
The Sixers haven't started discovering what works and what doesn't, though they have conceded the need to eventually move either Okafor or Noel, per The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski.
Philly's foundation is falling into place, but as Colangelo told Camerato, this construction project is ongoing:
I'm sure that everyone should have optimism. But there's a word I've always used over the years about optimism. It should be guarded optimism because things take time. When you're building teams—and I've had the privilege of doing that quite a few times in my career—you're adding pieces here and there, and then once in a while you strike out and get that last piece.
I think where the Sixers are today is, this is the beginning of that particular process, and that is building what everyone would hope to be a championship team.
It's imperative to keep the Sixers' baseline in mind. They could be dramatically improved and still not approach the playoff picture.
If the 76ers eventually join the championship conversation, the 2016-17 season will likely be viewed as their turning point.
Both Simmons and Embiid should find themselves on the short list for Rookie of the Year candidates. Saric will see the game as an NBA veteran. Noel and Okafor will look better alongside more complementary frontcourt partners, and the whole team will step forward once one is traded for perimeter help.
Statistically, this Philly squad won't look much different than recent iterations. The offense still lacks primary scoring options, and the defense has its share of weak links.
But under the eye test, the Sixers' advancement will be impossible to miss. Since engineering their own demolition, they haven't had this much top talent—nor this strong of a supporting cast. Any ascent is a welcome change from Philly's cellar-dwelling.
- Final Record: 26-56
- Division Standing: Fourth in Atlantic
- Playoff Berth: No
- B/R League-Wide Power Rankings Prediction: 27th
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @ZachBuckleyNBA.