BDL 25: The 76ers and the fascinating challenge of figuring it all out

Ball Don't Lie
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5294/" data-ylk="slk:Joel Embiid">Joel Embiid</a> gets excited at the 76ers’ 2016 Beach Bash in Avalon, N.J., on Aug. 27, 2016. (Photo via 76ers)
Joel Embiid gets excited at the 76ers’ 2016 Beach Bash in Avalon, N.J., on Aug. 27, 2016. (Photo via 76ers)

The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.

This much I believe to be true: the Philadelphia 76ers will be better this season than they were last year. I believe this because, well, they almost have to be.

Only one team in NBA history has ever managed fewer wins than last year’s 10-72 76ers. (They, too, hailed from the City of Brotherly Love.) Only two have boasted a lower winning percentage than the 2015-16 Sixers (.122): Philly’s 1972-73 squad (.110) and the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, who played only 66 games due to a season-shortening lockout and lost 59 of them, a robust .106 finish that stands as the worst ever. Both of those clubs bounced back from world-historically awful to merely dismal the following season, with the ’73-’74 Sixers going 25-57 and the ’12-’13 Bobcats going 21-61. Brett Brown’s team being that bad again wouldn’t just be tragic. It’d be unprecedented.

Last year’s Sixers ranked 25th out of 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession and dead last in points scored per possession. Moreover, they ranked dead last in overall attendance percentage, a measurement of how well a team packs the gym, whether their own or the one they’re visiting, on a given night; with all due respect to top-minutes-getters Hollis Thompson, Jerami Grant and Isaiah Canaan, hardly anybody wanted to watch the 76ers last season.

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This much I believe to be true: that will change this year, and not just because the 76ers should be better. It’s how they get better — who contributes to it, and how much, and in what ways — that’ll make them worth watching, and that’ll help clarify for us whether everybody’s favorite long-view-loving, Process-promoting shredder was onto something with his player evaluations and can-kicking approach to roster-building.

For three years, the 76ers have been all but devoid of tangible on-court reasons to believe. Sure, there were delirious flashes: Michael Carter-Williams beginning his NBA career by beating The Big Three, Tony Wroten posting a triple-double in his first career start, K.J. McDaniels’ spring-loaded swats and slams, the periodic displays of athleticism from a roster full of early-20-somethings with long arms and hops for days, etc. They were fleeting, though, as teams lacking the basic elements of NBA consistency — point guards who could throw entry passes and spoon-feed hungry young bigs, professional shooters whom defenders have to respect as credible scoring threats more than 15 feet out, and players with enough experience playing NBA defense to recognize where and when they need to rotate — mostly just drained fans’ lifeforce, offering hardly anything to rally around besides the prospect of Nerlens Noel becoming a top-flight defender.

So far, so good on that front: Noel has ranked fifth and ninth among power forwards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic during the last two seasons (a slightly odd designation, since he played a lot of center, but nevertheless!), ranked just outside the top 20 among rotation big men in opponents’ field goal percentage at the rim when he was defending last year, is already one of just 28 players in Basketball-Reference.com’s database to post at least 100 blocks and 100 steals in multiple seasons, and is only 22 years old.

In the course of a rebuilding process that threw continuity to the wind in favor of near-constant roster churn aimed at unearthing dirt-cheap diamonds, one in which drawing concrete conclusions about players has been damn near impossible, we’ve learned at least that much: Nerlens Noel, unfinished product though he might be, is good at defense. Now, the 76ers just need to figure out everything else. At long last, they’ve got some of the materials with which to start doing so.

LSU’s <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5600/" data-ylk="slk:Ben Simmons">Ben Simmons</a> raises his hand as he walks off the stage after being selected as the top pick by the Philadelphia 76ers during the NBA basketball draft, Thursday, June 23, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
LSU’s Ben Simmons raises his hand as he walks off the stage after being selected as the top pick by the Philadelphia 76ers during the NBA basketball draft, Thursday, June 23, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Ben Simmons is here, and for all his flaws, he’s instantly the best and most creative offensive playmaker the Sixers have rostered since this rebuild began. Dario Saric is finally here, coming over from Turkey two years after Philly selected him with the No. 12 pick in the 2014 draft and riding high after an eye-opening (if inconsistent) turn for Croatia at the 2016 Summer Olympics that left many observers raving about his ever-revving motor and stat-sheet-stuffing skills.

Joel Embiid is finally here after two years lost to a navicular bone in his right foot that refused to cooperate, finally on the verge of moving past Instagram workout video infamy and into full view as an honest-to-God NBA player. What exactly that will look like remains very much an open question. Well, to the rest of us, anyway. Brown has an idea, and he’s pretty excited about it. From Mike Sielski of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“I wouldn’t say that, at this stage, it’s mysterious or unknown in the environment we’ve been seeing him,” Brown said during a meeting with media members. “The speed of an NBA game, going against NBA players, will reveal more. . . . But in the world I have seen him, I feel like I get it. I feel like I know what he can do.” […]

The breadth of skills that Embiid has shown the Sixers in the comfy confines of the practice gym leaves Brown wondering about how best to use him on offense. Backing down a defender in the post to dunk or feather a jump-hook over him, catching the ball on the block and turning and facing the basket and rising up for a jump shot, running the floor for a catch-and-shoot three-pointer or a creative play off the dribble – Embiid, at 7-foot-2 and 275 pounds, already appears to have mastered them all. And he is still just 22. As several Sixers players worked out early Thursday afternoon, Brown watched from the sideline. With him were Charles Barkley, Billy Cunningham, and Jim O’Brien. You’ve been doing this a long time, Brown said to Barkley. Who do you think he is?

“And you both sort of struggle coming up with an example,” Brown said. “I think we’re going to learn a lot more when the lights go on.”

And from Jessica Camerato of Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia:

“He needs to be the crown jewel, the centerpiece to our defense,” Brown said Thursday at his annual preseason luncheon with the media. […] “I think he’s a rim protector,” Brown said.

The 7-foot-2, 275-pound former volleyball star absolutely could be a rim protector. He could also be a devouring defender in space, a glass-eating monster on the interior, an eclipsing screener, a demolishing dive man, a polished pick-and-pop outlet, an igniter who serves as chaos agent and calming force on alternating possessions. Embiid could be absolutely anything, and Simmons could change everything, and Saric’s high-energy gap-filling could invigorate everyone, and Noel could continue his evolution into the postmodern pogo stick five-man that today’s NBA demands, and Jahlil Okafor … well, um, maybe he won’t check Twitter that often or read too much stuff during training camp.

Jahlil Okafor has heard his name tossed around in trade talks. (Getty Images)
Jahlil Okafor has heard his name tossed around in trade talks. (Getty Images)

Maybe the somewhat uninspiring around-the-margins moves made by new general manager Bryan Colangelo — adding Jerryd Bayless as an apparent starting point guard, signing Gerald Henderson as a Professional Shooting Guard, bringing back longtime veteran and former No. 1 overall pick Elton Brand — will do little more than clog up the roster. But maybe those vets, their skills and experience can offer meaningful direction and development aid to the blue chippers, as well as potential-rich rotation cogs like Grant and Robert Covington. Maybe fellow import Sergio Rodriguez can add enough pick-and-roll spice to activate the young bigs and open up the offense. Maybe, with a higher concentration of young talent and a few more playable veteran options, Brown can unlock some combinations that actually help the Sixers figure out which pieces should and should not be part of their future.

Those eat-your-vegetables maybes aside, though: what a weird and compelling collection of young dudes we have here! Who plays where? Who plays with who, and when? Who knows? Who cares?

“If you have five players who can run, feel each other on the court, I think it doesn’t matter which position we play,” Saric said in July. “How we play, how we help each other during a game, I think we’ll make good things, not just me and Ben, but the whole team.”

We still don’t know what the hell we’re going to see from the 76ers. Now, though, that’s less a depressing cause to cover your eyes or change the channel than it is an enticing reason to dial ’em up on League Pass or grab a nosebleed seat on a random Thursday night. The dearth of shooting could make for some ugly scoring outings, and all that youth means we’re still likely to see sloppy defense, but sometimes — maybe not every night, and maybe not every player at once, but sometimes — they’ll make good things. Now, we get to the good stuff.

“How can we not feel a breath of fresh air?” Brown asked. “A new bounce, a higher level of hope, and an excitement that together we haven’t experienced for a while?”

For a franchise that’s seen so much nothing for so long, that’s a start, at least.

Previously, on BDL 25:

Chris Bosh’s increasingly hazy career prospects

Kevin Durant sets about winning back our love

Stephen Curry’s search for an encore, and for invincibility lost

The NBA, social activism and a change we need to see in 2016-17

The Trail Blazers, and the promise and peril of ‘pretty good’

Will the Pistons ever get into gear?

Introducing the (maybe) thoroughly modern Grizzlies

Is the new-look Indiana Pacers core worth fearing?

It’s time for Anthony Davis to resume blowing our minds

How will the Warriors recover from a historic Finals collapse?

Is the new-look Indiana Pacers’ core worth fearing?

Counting on the Clippers to contend is insane, so call them crazy

– – – – – – –

Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

Stay connected with Ball Don’t Lie on Twitter @YahooBDL, “Like” BDL on Facebook and follow Dunks Don’t Lie on Tumblr for year-round NBA talk, jokes and more.

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