Questions About the Philadelphia 76ers' Long Term Plan
Originally Published July 4, 2014
Let me begin by saying that I agree with Adam Silver's characterization of the Philadelphia 76ers roster moves this season as rebuilding as opposed to tanking. The team was not in a position to win this season, and on the surface building for the future makes sense. I've never been a fan of the term tanking because in some ways it implies that the players on the court are not doing the best that they can; that is a ludicrous implication in the NBA, where players are perpetually working towards their next contract. The league already discourages the act, as the lottery concept makes it unlikely that the team with the worst record will receive the top pick (there is a 75% chance that it will go to someone else). It should be noted that this particular draft has more than one elite player, and until recently no one has been worse than the Bucks, who weren't even trying to rebuild- but that's a completely different discussion.
Knowing that this wasn't going to be their year, Philly has logically focused on developing the players that are actually going to be a part of the team's future and taking flyers on other young players to see if they might be worth keeping around. In this case, the roster only includes four players that are sure to be around next year: Michael Carter-Williams, Tony Wroten, Thaddeus Young, and the injured Nerlens Noel. Those players, with the obvious exception of Noel, are receiving as many minutes as they can reasonably handle, although it is debatable how much a player can develop when they step onto the court every night fully expecting to be blown out by 20 points or more. So then, the gameplan is to take those four players, add two top ten picks from what will supposedly be the best draft class in quite some time, and find depth to bring along among the current roster and a large handful of second round picks. At first glance, it sounds like the 76ers have found a way to become loaded quickly and become a championship contender for years to come.
First, the Best Case Scenario...
So then, what is the best case scenario here? Michael Carter-Williams has shown flashes of brilliance (particularly in the first month of the season), but he is far from consistent and his shooting is still atrocious. Now, even LeBron was somewhat average while adjusting to the NBA his first year in the league.Let's say Carter-Williams, Noel, and the two picks from this draft are all good players by their second year in the league, and that two of them turn out to be all stars. That would mean that the 76ers would show potential next year, be a playoff team in what may still be a weak Eastern Conference in 2016, and, as pie in the sky, be a contender in 2017. There are fifty million ifs in that scenario, but I guess that could happen. But what then?
After the 2018 season, the rookie contracts of Carter-Williams and Noel will expire, followed by the contracts of the two 2014 lottery picks the year after. With the way the NBA salary cap works, and if everyone develops the way the 76ers are hoping, then Philly could only reasonably hope to keep their two best players and a respectable compliment or two and watch the others end up elsewhere. At best, the team would have two years as a contender before coming back to the pack by losing stars to the salary cap. So, in effect, the 76ers will have three playoff trips and two years of contention to show for acting as their own minor league affiliate for two years. Would it be worth it? If it actually worked out that way, sure.
There is also the very real possibility that things will not work out that way.
First, a history lesson: the highest number of eventual all stars produced by one draft class over the last 25 years was 11, which came from the class of 96. The most produced from one class this century has been 6 from the class of 2003. While this draft class has been lauded as one of the best ever all season, Jerry West, Danny Ainge, and Jonathan Givony of Draft Express have all recently admitted that the class has been overhyped; it may merely be strong in comparison to the relatively weak classes of the past few years. No matter how high a team’s picks may be, the draft is still a role of the dice.
Also, having a young team with no veteran leadership isn’t nearly as likely to work in the NBA as it is in college; Kentucky has been very successful with freshmen and sophomores, but even the oldest players in the NCAA are all of 22 or 23 and have only been playing for three previous seasons. The advantage to using veteran stars as part of a rebuilding process is that they are a known commodity; some people didn’t like the Bobcats adding Al Jefferson, but they certainly knew what they were getting more than they would have by waiting for the draft (the real problem was that they overpaid for him). I’m sure the 76ers are hoping to use the Noel injury to emulate what happened to the Spurs when David Robinson was injured and they managed to land Tim Duncan, but it is important to note that Robinson was already a well established veteran by that point and the rest of the roster wasn’t a bunch of kids.
Who knows- maybe this could work out for the 76ers. However, it seems far more likely that this will blow up in their face. To me, that would be a good thing to a certain extent – it would serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of the NBA not to do this in the future (although NBA GM’s seem very slow to learn lessons), and maybe, just maybe, no other fans would be disappointed so completely. In the mean time, this could be a seriously bad deal for Philly fans. Record breaking losing streaks followed by having your hopes built up only to have them fail miserably is the worst thing that could happen to a fan. The Cubs don’t even do that to people (I currently have no hope, so I’m not going to be all that disappointed).
June 27, 2014 Update
Instead of entering year one of player development and team building with a young roster, the 76ers instead decided to put off the true beginning of their rebuilding effort one more year by drafting an injured Joel Embiid and foreign big man Dario Saric. Embiid may not play at all next season (although he probably could and should), while Saric may not come to the NBA for two more years. By the time they have begun to develop as NBA players, the young players already on the roster will be close to the end of their rookie contracts. If the goal was to acquire a group of young stars and hope to develop them into a championship team before they become eligible for large contracts, putting things off another year makes no sense. If the goal was to accumulate tradeable assets and acquire a few veteran stars to immediately become contenders, that could have been done already. If the goal was to continue to alienate already fickle Philly fans, well then, mission accomplished. Someone in Philadelphia neglected to develop an endgame for their rebuilding effort, and that person probably shouldn’t be around when the 76ers become competitive again.
July 6, 2015 Update: Not So Fast on the Sacramento Kings' salary dump being a great move by Sam Hinkie
The 76er's trade to acquire Nick Stauskas, a lottery protected first round pick, and 12 million dollars worth of Carl Landry and Jason Thompson for the next three years is being lauded by a brilliant move by Sam Hinkie and company. That argument might hold water- if this were year 1 of the team's quixotic rebuilding effort. Instead, this is year 3, and the trade is an indication that the team is perfectly well aware that they are still multiple seasons away from being a contender. Keep in mind that Nerlens Noel, by far the most promising of the team's draft picks to this point, will absolutely, positively leave through free agency after next season- assuming he continues to improve. He will certainly warrant a max contract offer from many teams, and it would be crazy to think that he would willingly return to a team perpetually hovering around 20 wins with no endgame in sight. Again, until the team decides to begin converting its assets into actual players that can contribute and win games, the Philadelphia 76ers are going to serve as nothing more than a minor league basketball team developing talent for the rest of the league to pilfer. This is year 3 of being awful, and year 4 is virtually guaranteed as well; how long will this go on before the franchise decides that it is time for the rebuilding portion of this "strategy" to end?
February 15, 2016 Conclusion?
Even though Sam Hinkie still somehow has a job as the team's General Manager, the hiring of Jerry Colangelo into the 76ers front office should effectively mean that the bizarre strategy of continually putting off actually starting to develop a team will stop, and actual improvement will begin. The acquisition of Ish Smith, who is having a breakthrough year, is a giant step in that direction; his ability to get the ball to Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel in advantageous positions on the floor is tremendously beneficial to their development, as is simply adding someone to the roster that somewhat resembles a veteran. Smith's style of play provides the additional benefit of making the 76ers more fun to watch, which has to be a welcome sight for a Philly fanbase that has been tortured for the last couple of years.
Real change should come this offseason; while the 76ers are unlikely to add any of the big name free agents, the team's almost infinite amount of cap space will allow them to add solid veteran role players to at least become competitive and to help develop their young talent. The habit of drafting players that are a year or two away from being able to contribute at all should end, and, in addition to their own pick, the 76ers will have Miami's first rounder and Oklahoma City's first rounder to add players that will actually play. With any luck, the 76ers can turn into next year's Minnesota Timberwolves- and it only took three seasons of torture to get there.
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