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The contemporary NBA is full of rebuilding teams, but none have taken that approach to the extremes of the Philadelphia 76ers. Whereas the likes of the Orlando Magic have attempted to build a long-term core and assess the resullts simultaneously, the Sixers and general manager Sam Hinkie have allowed their process to play out on the league's version of the geologic time scale. The franchise has now spent three offseasons collecting young players, highly rated rookies, and future considerations. Yet the Sixers figure to suit up just two or three players in 2015-16 who project as potential fixtures, and the two most exciting ones are big men who might not be able to play with each other. The progress has been minimal.
That's not to say there will be nothing to like at the Wells Fargo Center this season. Second-year center Nerlens Noel had a very promising rookie season after sitting out all of 2013-14 and could develop into an elite defender. If Noel and No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor prove a decent fit inside, then the Sixers could also have a go-to scorer on the block to provide structure to what has been the league's least efficient offense for the past two seasons. And although celebrating the team's effort is a backhanded compliment given the results, head coach Brett Brown has ensured that Philadelphia's players approach games with a commitment out of step with the fact that Hinkie is likely to trade most of them the minute an offer involving a second-round pick reaches his desk.
But let's be honest — even those most excited about the Sixers' future aren't that excited to watch them for 82 games. This team is better suited to imagination than reality, to the point where Hinkie's greatest supporters point to the expected 2016-17 arrival of Croatian forward Dario Saric (the No. 12 pick in 2015) and the likelihood of holding two very high picks next June (theirs and the Los Angeles Lakers' top-three-protected selection) as essential portions. By this rationale, Okafor and Noel, two players with a single season of professional play between them, are the givens. Put more perimeter talent around them and the whole team will presumably thrive.
The complicating factor for the Sixers is that most rebuilding processes encounter major hiccups, something that most teams figure out easily enough. The difference, of course, is that those teams often commit just one or two seasons to walking down dead-end streets instead of the eventual half-decade required to suss out merely the early potential of this project. As the Sixers have already learned from the second foot surgery (and questionably effective rehab) needed by 2014 first-round pick Joel Embiid, these plans can go awry very quickly. Who knows what else will befall them as Saric and other players join the club?
For the next six months, though, the focus will be on a few key questions:
• How good is Okafor?
• Can he and Noel play together?
• Will any other players prove valuable enough to keep or trade?
• Are the Lakers going to have a top-three pick?
• How will the draft lottery shake out?
Other issues can be important, but they are ultimately secondary to the goals of the franchise. The real season starts as soon as the final buzzer sounds on April 13.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
Did the summer help at all?
We'll tell you in three years. That's only partially a joke.
The offseason started very well on draft night, when Okafor fell to the Sixers at No. 3. Ohio State point guard D'Angelo Russell would have been a more natural fit with Noel if he hadn't been taken by the Lakers, but Philadelphia desperately needed a go-to scorer. For all his apparent limitations as a defender and shooter, Okafor projects as a potentially elite low-block scorer. The Sixers don't have anyone comparable at any position and should provide him with plenty of touches. He's absolutely one of the top candidates for Rookie of the Year.
The second round was a little less exciting, although not bad. Bowling Green forward Richaun Holmes (No. 37) projects as an active role player to make plays around the basket, while North Carolina wing J.P. Tokoto (No. 58) should spend a fair amount of time in the D-League.
Two other second-round draft-and-stash picks were shipped to the Sacramento Kings on July 1, when Hinkie engineered one of his customarily opportunistic moves for second-year shooter Sauce Castillo Nik Stauskas, veteran forward Carl Landry, and veteran big man Jason Thompson (later dealt to the Golden State Warriors) as his trade partners attempted to clear cap space. Landry will get minutes at power forward, but the deal was done to obtain Stauskas, 2014's No. 8 pick. He will be given every opportunity to contribute after a terrible rookie season with the Kings.
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Sitting out free agency yet again, the Sixers got some terrible news on July 11 when it was revealed that Embiid would need a second surgery to repair his right foot and will miss the 2015-16 season. It's not clear if Embiid broke the bone again or simply had a setback related to the original injury, but there have been reports that he did not take his rehab process seriously. (It's telling that he did not have the surgery until mid-August.) It's not clear that Embiid will ever play in the NBA, let alone for the Sixers.
Elsewhere, Philly added several low-cost players on non-guaranteed salaries to fill out the roster. We will not discuss them here because they are means to an end for a franchise with other things on its mind.
To recap, the Sixers added a potential go-to guy, traded for a great outside shooter who could be a bust anyway, and lost their highest-potential player maybe forever. We promise that it seemed a lot more boring and predictable than that description suggests.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Duh, it's Okafor. The one-and-done center joins the Sixers after averaging 17.3 points per game on 66.4 percent shooting for the Duke Blue Devils. Those numbers alone should excite a franchise that entered the offseason with one player (wing Robert Covington, a pleasant surprise) who averaged double figures and played more than 30 games. Okafor struggled in the preseason and can't be expected to play like a star right off the bat, but he has scoring talents that no one else on this roster can match. There will be growing pains related to his questionable free-throw shooting and especially his defense, but Okafor has the chance to become an essential part of the team's plans.
This team is bad enough that we could list any number of weaknesses in this section. However, the Sixers clearly are not judging themselves by those standards and must be assessed on different terms.
So let's dig a little deeper into something that's already been mentioned — the rebuilding process's lack of tangible progress. After three offseasons on this path, the Sixers remain an idea more than a real basketball team worth supporting. Buying into their viability requires a great amount of optimism over players yet to wear NBA uniforms and draft considerations that haven't even been assigned official years and lottery odds. While Noel looks very good and Okafor is an exciting prospect, the latter is mostly an unknown and the duo appear to play the same position. The outlook is hazy at best.
Contributor with something to prove:
The deal for Stauskas represented a can't-lose value proposition for Hinkie, who gave up very little for someone who had been a top-10 pick just one year earlier. Still, the deal may have only looked as good as it did due to Philadelphia's paucity of perimeter talent and the context of Sacramento's questionable pursuit of ill-fitting veterans. Stauskas was terrible in 2014-15, shooting 36.5 percent from the field and 32.2 percent from beyond the arc in 15.4 minutes per game with a 7.5 PER. The Sixers love to shoot 3-pointers — their 26.3 attempts per game ranked sixth in the NBA, although they were also 29th in percentage made — so Stauskas has the chance to become a foundational piece if he finds the form that made him Big Ten Player of the Year. If he doesn't, he'll be remembered as the bust with a delightful nickname.
Potential breakout stud:
Even the staunchest Sixers skeptics must admit that Noel had a very successful rookie season. Noel served as the linchpin of a defense that surprisingly ranked 12th in points allowed per 100 possessions. Although his offensive stats could stand to improve (46.2 percent is not a good mark from the field for someone who sticks around the basket), defensive stars are becoming increasingly valuable players in this league. If Noel and Okafor prove a good fit and do not create offensive spacing issues — early returns have been pretty good — then the Sixers have their first piece of a potential contender.
Noel plays well enough to win some Most Improved Player votes. Okafor fits well with him and scores in the manner this team needs. Covington continues to look like a very good piece, and Stauskas develops into one in a new environment. Embiid takes his recovery seriously and looks able to contribute next season. The Sixers lose enough games to win the lottery or just get lucky instead, and the Lakers pick falls outside of the top three but stays in the top five.
If everything falls apart:
Noel and Okafor occupies too many of the same spots on the floor and harm each other's development, Stauskas sees no improvement, Embiid stays a lost cause, and poor lottery luck drives the Lakers into the top three and the Sixers out of the top five.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
18-64, 15th in the East and last in the NBA.
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