As 76ers Approach Historic Levels of Futility, Plan Comes Under Scrutiny
Over the past few weeks, many of the staunchest supporters of the Philadelphia 76ers rebuilding plan have had their belief in “the process” tested.
Much of that has to do with the Sixers’ 0-14 start to the season.
The Sixers have already set one record for futility, as they are the first team in NBA history to start consecutive seasons 0-14. In the coming weeks they have the chance to enter the record books twice more: to set the all-time record for losses to start the season (currently at 18), and the all-time record for consecutive losses (26), as they finished the 2014-15 campaign on a ten game losing streak.
For some fans the belief in what they are doing will return once the records stop being set, and once the Sixers begin competing at a more palatable level. There are certainly some “trusters of the process” who are annoyed at not seeing the win total progress as they may have hoped for. If the team doesn’t make that jump to 23 or 25 wins as many expected, some will jump ship, especially as they see the Bucks (last year) and Wolves (this year) make significant inroads towards competitiveness.
But for many, their faith is being tested not because of setting records or by defining progress through win totals, but because of uncertainty.
While fans have endured losing at a high volume over the past 2+ seasons, they haven’t yet been rewarded with the certainty that is the very reason the Sixers are conducting the rebuild as they are. They haven’t yet been rewarded with that two way star, that dominant player destined to develop into that top-10 player in the league who will make them truly relevant, and which makes this rebuild worthwhile.
They’ve endured the suffering without yet getting the reward.
Sure, there’s still that kind of potential inherent in many of the Sixers “assets”. If Joel Embiid gets healthy, the Sixers may already have that dominant force on their roster. If Jahlil Okafor‘s team defense improves considerably, he has the offensive game to be a force. If Nerlens Noel‘s perimeter game, and hands, improve, his dominant defense can be the backbone of a team.
The ifs extend to the draft, where the Sixers, by virtue of the pick swap with Sacramento and their own 0-14 start, are on pace to have more lottery balls than ever before. If the team wins the lottery, LSU’s Ben Simmons could potentially be that guy.
The ifs, for some, have gotten old, and as the lottery gods have cruelly reminded Sixers fans of in recent years, the lottery is no sure thing.
The Sixers are a bit of luck here and there from being the darlings of the NBA. A little bit of health from Joel Embiid and ping pong balls falling their way in the 2015 draft, and thus landing future superstar Karl-Anthony Towns, and Sam Hinkie‘s plan could be on the cusp of building the most dominant front court in the league.
In many ways, the state of the Sixers is a reflection of last spring, when poor lottery luck removed the possibility of drafting Towns and when news of Embiid’s re-injury surfaced.
These aren’t crazy what-if scenarios that were silly to think could happen. This isn’t throwing your life savings into Powerball in the hopes of getting rich. This is the kind of good luck shot in the arm that pretty much all successful rebuilds receive at some point or another, whether that’s Minnesota’s 25% chance at landing the #1 pick coming true, or 6 teams passing on Stephen Curry, or James Harden becoming available in a trade because the Thunder drafted four superstar players in the span of 24 months.
Luck happens. It’s all about putting yourself in position to capitalize on that luck, and making the right decisions when the opportunity presents itself.
But even if the plan hasn’t yet produced the certainty many had hoped for, the truths that were evident at the beginning of the rebuild still exists today. The NBA is a deeply flawed system, one which essentially removes free agency as a viable means for downtrodden NBA teams to attract the superstars necessary to be relevant.
As long as superstars rule the NBA, which is almost certainly going to be true as long as only five players take the court and only one ball is in play, then acquiring those rare elite talents will always take priority. And as long as maximum salary restrictions, restricted free agency, and a soft salary cap still define the NBA economic landscape, then the draft is the most likely place for the have-not’s to turn their franchise around.
And as long as both of these conditions are still true, then the reasons for embarking on the rebuild in the way the Sixers did back in 2013 still exist, even if things haven’t necessarily gone according to plan.
But while collecting as many ping pong balls, pick swaps, and loosely protected draft picks might continue to make logical sense, the tactic wears understandably thin for some if the results don’t follow.
That’s when true belief in the process is separated from those who thought the Sixers were on a get-rich-quick path to a superstar. It was easy to support the process when it seemed like a certainty that Andrew Wiggins was going to be a generational talent and the Sixers were destined to win the lottery, or when optimism surrounded Joel Embiid’s recovery. It takes much more conviction, much more belief in the broken nature of the NBA’s economic landscape, to to continue to march onward down this path.
But by going the route with the best mathematical odds to get the superstar they so desperately need in the draft, the 76ers have left themselves with little margin for error in the court of public opinion.
Getting a superstar in the draft, even with the most ping pong balls, is still no certainty. But because the Sixers have thrown caution to the wind and disregarded making competitiveness a priority at this stage of the rebuild, any mistake will be a high-profile mistake. Any delay will increase the anger of those already miffed at the strategy. The Sixers will need to be perfect in order to sway the growing number of dissenters, even if few NBA front offices are ever perfect.
Wins, even if perhaps counter-productive to acquiring top-end talent, buy teams and general managers time. They’re a safety net for the reputation of general managers, and the sanity of many fans.
It’s why for all the talk about Sam Hinkie and his plan, he’s not the unique one in the 76ers organizational tree. As Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders points out, there are more than a few general managers who would take this exact same route if they knew they had the job security to see it through.
Instead, It’s Joshua Harris that is the revolutionary figure in the organization, the reason that the Sixers are heading down a road never before taken, at least to this magnitude. He is the reason that the Sixers have taken previously implemented tactics to their logical, even if painful, natural conclusion. Most organizations blink if things don’t immediately go their way, causing them to look for progress in the standings even if the initial goal of acquiring a transcendent player hasn’t been met.
The final cause for some consternation among Sixers fans, and perhaps the one with the most validity, is the growing concern that the Sixers may have missed out on potentially great players in the draft. This process is entirely dependent on Hinkie’s team being able to identify superstar talent, and any and all decisions that can shed light on that ability will be magnified to no end.
As Giannis Antetokounmpo continues his ascension, as his continues to turn that latent natural talent into on-court production, the selection of Michael Carter-Williams comes under increased scrutiny. This is probably unfair. Finding superstars in the late lottery is a great boon to any rebuild, but probably an unrealistic standard to hold general managers to. If that were the case, then there are 13 other GM’s without a clue of what they were doing.
The Sixers far-exceeded the expected value of where they select Carter-Williams, both in his winning Rookie of the Year and in the Sixers’ ability to turn that relative success into the barely-protected draft pick from a 2-11 team. The Sixers turned that 11th pick into a high-value asset, a top-3 protected pick in this year’s draft from the Lakers, even if it may not have been the highest value asset available to them when they selected.
The bigger concern may be the emergence of Knicks’ rookie Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis is an incredible talent, one who I ranked neck-and-neck with Okafor heading into the draft, and one who fit considerably better with Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid than Okafor does.
Porzingis had some concerns — namely physicality, rebounding, and the ability to play through contact and finish in the paint — that made him somewhat of a risky selection, even if his offensive skill level and defensive potential gave him more ability to be a two-way player than Okafor.
But where Okafor has, more or less, looked like the player many expected — dominant in the post, enough passing where you can envision running an offense around him, inconsistent on the defensive glass, and struggling as a team defender — Porzingis has far-exceeded expectations. He’s turned weaknesses (rebounding) into legitimate strengths, and competed physically at 20 years old in a manner that almost nobody expected.
It’s still very early in the careers for both Porzingis and Okafor, and the Sixers’ big man still has plenty of time to correct his weaknesses. But the Latvian center is already correcting some of his own weaknesses, which makes it almost impossible not to ask what-if.
But all of this — the luck necessary to win the lottery, the thought, even if early, of potentially missing on a high draft pick — just goes to show how fraught with uncertainty this style of rebuild is. Certainty has never been the reasoning behind the strategy, and anybody selling certainty was guilty of false advertisement.
In order to buy into the plan at the beginning, you had to make peace with the uncertainty that came along with it.
All that the Sixers plan provides is the highest likelihood of finding a superstar in a sea of uncertain paths. The Sixers are still well-positioned to capitalize on luck, with as many ping pong balls as possible and a collection of highly-talented “if’s”.
How much is having a dominant player necessary? How scared of uncertainty are you? How much uncertainty, and losses, are you willing to live through in order to chase that superstar?
For many Sixers fans, those core beliefs have never been tested as much as they are now.