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76ers looking ahead despite struggles

The SportsXchange

PHILADELPHIA -- Little was expected of the Philadelphia 76ers at the start of the season -- and for good reason, as it has turned out.

Much is expected of them now, with the NBA trade deadline looming.

They are riding a season-worst eight-game losing streak into the All-Star break, leaving them with a 15-39 record, second-worst in the league. Two of those defeats, by 45 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and 43 to Golden State, were particularly embarrassing and further dimmed memories of the Sixers' stunning season-opening victory over the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.

The expectation now is that they will unload at least one of their proven veterans -- forward Evan Turner, center Spencer Hawes or forward Thaddeus Young -- before the Feb. 20 trade deadline. ESPN.com reported recently that Charlotte heads the list of suitors for Turner, the Sixers' leading scorer (17.5), and might be willing to part with the first-round draft pick Philadelphia craves.

The Sixers already own two first-rounders in next June's talent-rich draft -- theirs and the one owned by New Orleans (provided it falls outside the top five). The addition of another would give them that much more flexibility in the selection process, that much more opportunity to restock their threadbare roster.

First-year general manager Sam Hinkie made clear that it was his intention to rebuild on draft day last year, trading All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday to the Pelicans for Kentucky center Nerlens Noel, who had been taken sixth overall by New Orleans, as well as that choice in the upcoming draft.

The Sixers then used their own selection, 11th overall, on Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams, and he has emerged as the presumptive Rookie of the Year, averaging 17.1 points, 6.5 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.12 steals -- all tops among first-year players.

Noel has yet to play while recovering from a torn left ACL suffered last February, during his lone collegiate season. While he has continued to ramp up his workouts, the team has not issued a timetable for his return, and the speculation is that he will be held out all season.

"There's a long ways to go," first-year coach Brett Brown told reporters after Noel worked out before the media on Feb. 6. "What happens is anybody's guess now."

Brown had previously said that he wouldn't mind getting Noel into a few games this season. The new coach has worked personally with the rookie in an attempt to rebuild his shot, and believes that he will be an elite defender along the lines of the retired Theo Ratliff, who during his 16-year career led the league in blocked shots three times.

Without the likes of Noel -- and with several other holes on the roster -- the Sixers have allowed more points and more 3-pointers than any other team in the league. After a 26-point loss to Atlanta on Jan. 31, Brown said his players "have no appreciation for the importance of playing defense" and added, "Defense is how this program has to be built, or we're not going anywhere."

Generally, though, Brown has exhibited patience, despite the fact that he is used to winning, having been part of San Antonio's staff during all four of the Spurs' championship runs.

"I actually deal with (losing) fine, because I see the endgame," he said recently. "In my heart of hearts, I believe in what the owners' vision is. I believe that Sam has the intellect and vision to deliver what the owners have committed to this marketplace."

Not that it's always easy. Besides their defensive problems, the Sixers are not an explosive team. They lean heavily not only on Turner and Carter-Williams but Young (17.1), Hawes (13.2) and sixth man Tony Wroten (12.7). It's usually not enough.

"This is a long process," Brown said. "At times, when you're sitting on a sideline and your team isn't guarding and your team is losing by a significant margin, you feel like you don't really want to go through this a lot. But I blink and here I am and we're through this. I love what I do. I really like coaching these guys."

If all goes according to plan and the Sixers find the reinforcements they so sorely need, he figures to like it a whole lot more in the future.
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