2016 was a productive year for the Philadelphia 76ers, even if it doesn’t necessarily feel that way when looking at the team’s 15-65 record during the calendar year.
During that time the team was finally awarded the #1 overall draft pick, selecting one of the more unique, and capable, franchise building blocks in recent years in Ben Simmons. Perhaps just as importantly, Joel Embiid‘s troublesome navicular bone in his right foot finally cooperated, allowing him to finally make his NBA debut more than two years after being selected third overall.
In the 546 minutes of NBA basketball Embiid has played since he’s shown that he was worth the wait. His averages of 18.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, and 1.9 assists per game are incredible for a rookie in their own right, but even more staggering when you consider Embiid’s doing it under a heavy minutes restriction that’s allowed him to play just 24.8 minutes per game. Embiid’s shown the ability to dominate in virtually every facet of the game, and proving he can do that in an NBA environment makes 2016 a big success.
With that brief retrospective out of the way, what should be on the Sixers’ agenda for 2017?
Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Richaun Holmes — pick 1
This one goes at the top, because it’s at the forefront of most of our minds, but, despite what Bryan Colangelo said the other week about the possibility of keeping all four centers, the situation is untenable long-term.
Part of that is the human element, and keeping all of these guys happy, most of whom came into the league with a high amount of pedigree and expectations, is just not possible with the limited amount of playing time available. Head coach Brett Brown can get creative — playing guys out of position, rotating off days to limit how many are available in any one game — but over the long haul, more incidents like the Nerlens Noel situation will pop up.
Just as important, though, is putting Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in the position where they can reach their highest levels of success, and that’s with as few traditional, post-bound big men as possible. Both Embiid and Simmons need as many shooters as possible around them. Whether that’s Ersan Ilyasova at the power forward and Simmons at the small forward position, or Simmons at the power forward spot and 3 more traditional wings around him, the Sixers need shooters, shooters, and more shooters. Lineups with Simmons, Embiid, and another member of the backup-center-triumvirate should be avoided as much as possible.
That means you pick one of Jahlil Okafor, Richaun Holmes, and Nerlens Noel, have them be the backup center (~15-18 minutes), and give them just enough minutes alongside Embiid to bring them up to the 25-30 minute per game mark, with the exact number slightly dependent on inevitable injuries and missed games throughout the season.
In reality, this could be a pick 2 situation, since Holmes doesn’t have the trade value where it makes sense to move him, likely doesn’t have the playing time demands to become disgruntled if he’s relegated to third string center brought out in the case of injury, and doesn’t have the contract where having him in such a role would be detrimental to the team. But keeping both of Okafor andNoel isn’t a long-term possibility, and keeping just Holmes is an option as well.
Another home run in the 2017 draft
The 2015 draft sticks out like a sore thumb, with 21-year-old Kristaps Porzingis (20.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocked shots per game, 40.2 percent from three-point range) a superstar in the making and a perfect theoretical fit alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the fact that he’s doing so in New York is taunting Sixers fans with every made three-point shot and weakside rotation.
Still, the Sixers plucked franchise cornerstones in the 2014 (Joel Embiid, 3rd overall) and 2016 (Ben Simmons, 1st overall) NBA drafts, potentially setting themselves up for a decade of NBA relevancy.
The work isn’t quite done, though. The Sixers have yet another great opportunity in 2017, with a stacked draft class filled with perimeter talent that could complement the Embiid/Simmons foundational pieces. They have the lottery ball combinations to get it done, too, with their own draft pick (8-24 record as of now), the Lakers draft pick (top-3 protected, 12-24 record), and the potential addition of the Sacramento Kings lottery ball combinations giving them the right to swap draft picks with the Kings if Sacramento jumps the Sixers in the lottery.
(The Kings currently have a 14-19 record, which amazingly places them in the playoffs if the season ended today thanks to the collapse of the Portland Trailblazers. They’re also just 2.5 games out of the 8th worst record in the NBA and just 3.5 games out of the 6th worst record, so the fight isn’t yet lost, especially for a team that seemingly lives its life on the precipice of collapse).
In addition to that, the Sixers also have the Kings unprotected 2019 draft pick, which could be a huge trade chip at draft time, especially if the Kings situation, specifically as it relates to DeMarcus Cousins, sours at any point over the next few months. Cousins’ contract expires at the end of the 2017-18 season.
The point in all of this is that now is the time to strike. Unlike past seasons, when the Sixers didn’t have the building blocks necessary to move the rebuild forward in the way most want, they’re now at the point where getting some certainty around Embiid and Simmons will become a priority. They’re also at the point where Embiid and Simmons, as they continue to get acclimated to the NBA game, will pull them away from worst-team-in-the-league territory, and these opportunities to get elite talent will become increasingly harder to come by. Strike now while the opportunity is there to do so.
What does that mean? Obviously the best outcome is to get lucky on May 16th, the night when the NBA holds its annual lottery drawing. Getting the #1 pick and the right to select Markelle Fultz would be an incredible stroke of luck. If that doesn’t happen, trades are a possibility, especially for a team with so many assets at its disposal. There’s also the very real possibility that 2-3 potential stars will emerge outside of the #1 pick, and that’s where Bryan Colangelo and his scouting team will be tested. Because hitting on another home run in the draft, especially with the ramifications of the new collective bargaining agreement, would set the Sixers up for a long time.
Evaluate the Embiid/Simmons dynamic
There are three general goals that I’m going to lump into this: get Ben Simmons healthy, get him shooting jump shots in game situations, and get him as much playing time as possible next to Joel Embiid.
The first one is obvious. One of the main reasons 2016 was a success is the simple fact that Joel Embiid is healthy and playing basketball. The same can be said for Simmons, who will, barring any kind of setback, hopefully make his NBA debut sometime this winter.
As for shooting, Simmons has to launch from the perimeter. At this stage the effectiveness isn’t as important as just getting him the confidence to attempt them in games, although obviously you want to see the ball go in more often than not. More importantly, though, you just want to see Simmons get in the habit of taking what the defense gives him and get over his reluctance to shoot from the perimeter. Launching a total of 3 three-point attempts over the course of a season may work in the SEC, but the NBA will cut off his driving lanes if they can completely disregard Simmons 15+ feet away from the basket. This is one of the few things Simmons could work on during his time off, so hopefully some progress has been made on the weakest part of his game.
Finally, when Simmons does get back, Simmons and Embiid should be attached at the hip. In a normal scenario, Brown might be tempted to stagger Simmons and Embiid to make sure one of his two superstars is always on the court. In this scenario, though, you want to maximize how much playing time they get together, both to develop chemistry between the two and also to evaluate what kind of skill sets fit well next to the pairing. No-brainer roster decisions, such as the chance to draft an elite talent or sign Kevin Durant in free agency, are rare in the grand scheme of things. One of the keys to finding undervalued talent is how well that talent fits with your scheme and franchise centerpieces, and figuring that out now will help Colangleo know who to target in the offseason.
If Ben Simmons comes back with a 20-minute playing time restriction (and that’s just a hypothetical), you want as many of those 20 minutes to be with Embiid as possible.
With the exception of the Noel/Okafor situation, nothing absolutely needs to happen. The Sixers don’t need to go out and and acquire a specific player to push them over the edge and make a playoff push. The Sixers will improve, organically, with the growth of Embiid and Simmons. There’s almost no need for panic moves.
What the Sixers can be, though, is opportunistic. With two building blocks in place, unlimited cap space, and a treasure trove of future draft picks at his disposal, Colangelo can pounce on unexpected opportunities that pop up over the next 12 months. The awareness of what is a true opportunity and what is window dressing will be an important distinction for him to make.
Evaluate Brett Brown
Head coach Brett Brown has always been fighting an uphill battle, with talent deficiencies that make the team’s struggles entirely predictable.
With Simmons returning Brown will finally have his first real high-level shot creator from the perimeter, and he can combine that with a unique two-way big man down low. Add in that the Sixers having some legitimate shooters on the team (the Sixers are shooting 35.9 percent from three-point range on the season, good for 10th in the league) along with secondary playmakers like Dario Saric receiving minutes and Brown can finally start running some semblance of the offensive sets he’s had in his back pocket.
The 2016-17 season may still wind up being a tough one to truly evaluate Brown on, as Simmons may not be fully comfortable and adjusted to NBA life until the season is drawing to a close, but you should be able to get more of a read on Brown the coach by the end of the 2017 calendar year.
One goal you’ll notice that’s not on the list is a win total. The Sixers will win more games. That’s natural when you add Ben Simmons to the lineup, as Joel Embiid develops, and as you add talent through the draft. Wins will likely come in even greater numbers as smart decisions are made and wise strategies are executed. But setting an arbitrary win total now and reaching it doesn’t necessarily mean the year was an unqualified success, as the context around it, the moves that were made to reach it, and the impact that has on future years has to be taken into account as well.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.