By Erik Leonard (@BrickPollitt):
My daughter loves our iPad (free advertising, Apple! Send me money!). She’s glued to it more than Sam Hinkie is to 2nd round picks. When I start to notice a glazed, zombie-like look on her face, I know it’s time to take it away for the day. Every time this happens she always whines to me, “What should I do now?” My response is typically the same: “use your imagination.”
After watching the first four games this season I quickly realized that I’m going to need to employ the same advice I so readily provide my kid. If I’m to get through yet another Sixers tank job of a season I’m going to have to envision their possible future far more than the slop I’m actually watching on a nightly basis. To quote myself from my Sixers preview piece last year, “This team is going to be awful and painful to watch most nights.”
Before we enter my fantasy world (if you dare!), let’s go back and revisit where this all started. To understand the future, you sometimes need to appreciate the putrid and horrific past.
The ten years after the 2001 championship appearance is what set this unprecedented tanking effort in motion. Billy King, Ed Stefanski and Tony DiLeo oversaw the direction of the Sixers during that time and that direction was directly into the ground. The head coaching Carousel of Hell included notable non-contributors such as Randy Ayers, Chris Ford and Eddie Jordan. To this day I’m not sure Ol’ EJ even knew that he was the head coach. The team blindly shelled out approximately $800 million (I don’t have a calculator) to future hall of famers like Kenny Thomas, Sam Dalembert, Elton Brand (after tearing his Achilles tendon which is a key body part when participating in athletics) and the immortal bowling idiot Andrew Bynum. Year in and year out they attempted to pair AI up with a 2nd “superstar.” According to the still employed Billy King (!!!), Matt Harpring, Glenn Robinson, an unwelcomed return of Derrick Coleman and a more than washed up Chris Webber qualified to fill that role.
I watched all ten years of this era and hated almost every minute of it. There were some shining moments but they never seriously competed for a title during this time. While most of the NBA was figuring out that analytics, smart cap space management and proper drafting were the keys to success, the Sixers were running their team like it was in the ABA. Throwing money around and trading away 1st round picks for washed up players who once shined all equated to ten years of mediocrity which is death in today’s NBA. New ownership, GM and a risky, unparalleled direction led to…
FLUSH!!! Last year was amazing to watch. Not the games so much but what happened off the court in the front office. The Sixers colon was backed up by ten years of cap clogging contracts so Hinkie and the Nerd Crew took a big shot of Analytical Metamucil to clear it out and replenish it with refreshing cap space and 1st round picks (Ahh. Doesn’t that feel better?)
Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes were just reminders of the era referenced earlier. Losing Thaddeus Young was tough because he could actually play but by the time the Sixers are ready to make the playoffs again, he would’ve been long gone anyway. Instead of losing him for nothing, they got Joel Embiid’s best friend (Luc Mbah a Moute), a really skinny guy with a killer Russian gangster name who doesn’t play D but has an expiring contract (Alexey Shved) and the Heat’s 2015 1st round pick. That’s one Dwaayynenw (sp?) Wade knee injury away from being in the mid-teens. Which leads us to…
This season is all about five things:
1. Getting the last remnants of decaying contracts off the books
The Sixers are the youngest team in the NBA at an average age of 23.9 years. That even includes the cadaver of J-Rich who is slated to make $6.6 million this season. He hasn’t even been on the bench during the first four games of the year which makes me wonder if he even knows the season has started. I imagine Sam Hinkie’s nerd phone ringing w/ “J-Rich” on the caller ID while he slowly swipes the Reject Call option and then focusing his attention back on the court for an ugly Chris Johnson “thhrree pointer” (I’ve come to love you, Marc Zumoff).
After they wheel J-Rich off into the sunset after this season along with Moute, Shved, Travis Outlaw and Eric Maynor (who apparently were on the team at one point) they’ll have only $13.5 million on the books. While that doesn’t count their 1st round picks in 2015, they’ll have a ridiculous amount of money to spend in 2015 or, better yet, 2016…
2. Nerlens Noel getting through his 1st full season of basketball since he was in high school
Born four months before I went off to college (I’m slowly turning into J-Rich) the future is bright for Nerlens. He needs to continue working hard and developing some kind of offensive game. He currently has no plausible move to the basket and can’t shoot but he’s uber-athletic and his defensive instincts are there. He needs to focus on getting offensive rebounds and being ready for alley oops while really working on his free throw shooting. The bright spot so far: blocks. Dude can protect the rim as evidenced by his recent Swaticide™ of The Beard. It was a glimpse into the future and briefly made me forget that they’re only going to win 15 games this year. The other shining light…
3. MCDub improving upon his Rookie of the Year campaign (and proving the doubters wrong who claimed his 1st year was a sham in light of very little rookie competition)
Don’t get me wrong. This guy could get traded at any point. Hinkie would swap his own mother for two 2nd rounders and an expiring. But unless the deal is too sweet to pass up, I hope MCDub sticks around. He’s a 6-6 PG, super quick, has great hands and is a steal machine. I’m pumped to see him and Nerlens on the court together crashing the rim on a pick and roll. Of course the pick and roll works much better if the guard can shoot which MCDub cannot. But again, he’s only 23 and only has one year of pro ball under his belt. I want to watch his overall improvement but if he’s not on the team at the beginning of next season, I wouldn’t be surprised. As for the rest of the team…
4. Rounding out a bench
More than any other team, Hinkie and his crew of nerds have an inordinate amount of time to evaluate who can be a contributor when they begin to seriously compete. After four games this season, don’t get it twisted. Tony Wroten is part of these assessments. He’s not an NBA starter on a playoff team. He’ll get stats on a bad team as proven so far in 2014. Tony Wroten’s per game stats: The Good-19 pts, 6.5 ast and 3 stl. The Bad-4.5 tov, 58% ft and 30% 3p (yikes!). I’m not going to waste your time on the rest of the roster but if they can develop two or maybe three guys outside of Noel and MCDub, it would be a victory. Onto the unspoken issue facing them…
5. Hoping Brett Brown gets the team to compete this year.
I don’t mean that Brown needs to get this team to pull out some wins. That ain’t happening this year or probably the next. But they at least need to show some heart and play hard defensively after nearly breaking the NBA losing streak last year. While I understood that the Tank would include some serious losing, I didn’t imagine that they would approach infamy. At one point last season, my brother BJ and I were watching a Sixers-Rockets game and realized that we couldn’t name anyone on the court for our beloved team. Brown needs to start steering this shipwreck towards some respectability. They’ll still get a high 1st rounder regardless but they don’t have to embarrass themselves getting there. Finally…
This picture from Joel Embiid’s twitter account is the most exciting thing to happen this season outside of Noel nearly decapitating James Harden. The Future 3 flew to Spain to support the 12th pick of the draft and future Sixer Dario Saric (they were probably there to party hard with some foreign ladies as well but wouldn’t you do the same?). He’s a 6-10, 220 lb, 20 year old forward who plays tough, is smooth around the basket and slated to join the team just when they’re ready to possibly compete. He’s exactly what they need while MCDub buzzes around the court stealing passes and Nerlens and Joel are simply wreaking havoc around the rim and averaging ten total blocks along with eight total Mixtape-moment dunks a game (it’s too much to even think about).
His arrival, a ridiculously deep free agent pool in 2016 (Durant, Horford, Noah, Batum, Parsons) and their fiscal ability to go after them as well as restricted free agents has placed the Sixers in the enviable position of being the team with the most upside in Philadelphia. The Eagles lost my trust years ago (my Super Bowl hangover is now ten years and counting), Big Rubes is still the GM and Hextall just started the rebuilding process.
Of course luck with draft picks, signings and injuries will play a part but that’s the story for every team. If it works, they’re NBA contenders in 2016. If not, this will go down as one of the worst experiments in sports history. I’m betting (and hoping) on the former simply because I have to. I’m a man of little faith but I’m placing it in a team that was literally built to lose this year. In Hinkie I Trust. Amen.