How is it that the best possible news for the Philadelphia 76ers still has us clutching pearls as we fret from afar about the team’s ongoing development?
Ben Simmons, the top overall pick in the 2016 draft and a rookie that has yet to play an NBA game after suffering a Jones fracture, could play this season according to Sixers coach Brett Brown. The LSU product, who was a project in search of an NBA niche even before the injury, could see the sort of token minutes and appearances that were not afforded to former 76ers lottery selections Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid during what could have been their rookie years.
Those were potential appearances that, as we work through Year No. 4 of the team’s unending rebuilding project, arguably held back the development of their young stars.
For now, let’s get giddy with news about the 20-year old Simmons. Philadelphia coach Brett Brown spoke with the media on Wednesday night prior to the team’s loss to the Boston Celtics, with Jessica Camerato at CSN Philly relaying the news:
“We do expect him to play this year,” Brett Brown said before the Sixers played the Celtics on Wednesday. “It is our expectation that he will get on a court. It’s moving slowly. It’s calculated. We’re trying to be very careful.”
Philadelphia 76ers, Very Careful. We know.
Brown went on:
“I feel like after the All-Star break, when he’s got a chance to begin practicing with us and start playing against actual defensive people and him guarding, then we will better judge on when that time frame is,” Brown said. “But I think the path right now is solid.”
We’ll take “solid.” Hell, Philadelphia fans would at least take sordid, in comparison to the differing values of the Sixers’ Atlantic Division counterparts in New York, Boston or even Brooklyn. At least the Nets can play what little they have. At least the Knicks consistently trot out their stars, even after they disappear unexpectedly. At least the Celtics, with the pre-trade deadline trade suggestions piping in from all angles, can point to the scoreboard.
Brett Brown? He became a rookie head coach in 2013, same year as Celtics coach Brad Stevens; and while both have coached 302 career games thus far, Stevens is a few wins away from vaulting over the .500 mark despite entering the league coaching a rebuilding squad that had just dealt Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, while dealing the then-relevant former All-Star Rajon Rondo during his second season.
Brown has dealt with unending roster turnover in three and a half mostly-miserable seasons. He’s won just 68 games in those 302 tries, an astonishing but recognizable number, while working through rosters that have run 23, 25, 18 and 16-players deep in his four seasons.
Speaking before his loss to the C’s, Brown offered this:
“I’m always looking over my shoulder, watching the Celtics. I respect them very much. I think the job that [team president] Danny Ainge and Brett Stevens has done and is doing is one to be studied. You get a little bit jealous and envious of continuity. They’ve got a team, they’ve had it for a while, and they just keep moving up the food chain.”
Brown went on to remind the press that he “like(s) my guys, I really like my guys,” but you can’t help but give the man a little space when he’s crediting a team on pace to win 55 games before the long-expected, franchise-defining Big Deal hits for el jefe Danny Ainge.
The 76ers, once led by former general manager Sam Hinkie and now run by veteran personnel chief Bryan Colangelo, didn’t want to move up the food chain. Rather, the team wanted to vault up it – an understandable feint considering the limited scope of Hinkie’s predecessors.
Famously, Hinkie drafted Noel and Embiid knowing full well that their injury woes would keep them out of the lineup initially (2013-14 for Noel, 2014-15 and last season for Embiid), while adding Dario Saric (who didn’t play for two seasons after Philadelphia drafted him in 2014) in the years prior to Hinkie’s removal from the scene, and Colangelo’s move to draft Ben Simmons.
Make no mistake, though, because Danny Ainge wouldn’t have minded in the slightest vaulting up the food chain himself. This is the same guy that padded his franchise with assets and draft risks in the years prior to the two major deals that netted them Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007 – he’s built enviable powerhouses two different ways, and he’ll be the first two tell you he’d prefer the more direct route to the top.
If a formula was in place to supplant his old vets with readymade near-stars in 2013, Ainge would have glommed onto any one of those hypothetical deals. Instead, he chose to take the slow payoff in the form of the trade with Brooklyn, one that landed Boston a cadre of Nets picks dating through this June (when the Celtics can swap picks with Brooklyn) and 2018 (when the C’s have the Nets’ first round pick, outright).
The quick fix deals weren’t in place for Boston or Philadelphia (despite action from both) on draft night in 2013, which is how both sides ended up rebuilding in their own, available, ways. As always, it takes two or three or four to tango (or, at least, draw others into the bedroom) when discussing and eventually finalizing these trades, and Boston is just light years ahead of Philadelphia at this point.
With the caveat being, of course, that Philly’s home run approach could pay off in more spectacular ways than Boston’s current course, as the Celtics work with two in-prime stars in Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, desperately hoping to make the right move with whatever happens to become The Big Move (which could just be Boston cashing in on its draft picks from the Nets, adding a pair of teenagers this year and next to hopefully – and this is a massive aspiration – pair properly around the adults), still an admitted step behind Cleveland and Golden State.
Boston (which has featured 19, 22, 16 and currently 15 players in its run under Stevens) could add even more players this week – the Feb. 23 trade deadline creates unbearable tension even for teams that have won 11 of 12 prior to staring down one of the easiest schedules in the NBA from here to the end of 2016-17.
The 76ers’ tension? It’s almost incalculable at this point.
Brad Stevens could add a few new players in February, but Brett Brown is a few days removed from acting as almost certain to adopt a couple more 76ers into his fold in exchange for one-time franchise hopeful Jahlil Okafor. The big man was kept out of contests over the weekend as Bryan Colangelo thought him to be too close to a trade to warrant unnecessary minutes on a team that (still, under Colangelo … and never forget that) does not want to make the playoffs.
Brett Brown admitted as much, because he has a soul to consider:
“Jahlil Okafor’s situation is transparent,” Brown said after shootaround Monday. “He’s in the middle of being discussed in trade scenarios. So I felt that it complicates things to play him the last game, and now clearly this is continuing on. That’s the reason he isn’t here.”
Working this sense of transparency through the same weekend that saw the Sixers both chide Joel Embiid for his off-court decisions while concurrently announcing what some believe could be an extended absence due to a “minor” meniscus tear was a bit much for some noted 76ers observers, including Derek Bodner:
So what happened? Did Colangelo try to use the threat of an imminent trade to pull last minute suitors out of the woodwork? Did he misjudge how imminent the trade talks actually were? Is he getting cold feet over not making a bad deal? Did he come to a sudden realization that demand could go up the closer he gets to February 23rd’s trade deadline, that whatever trade is on the table now isn’t likely to disappear over the next week?
Yet all of this obscures what should be a general level of excitement and intrigue around the team. We should be talking about T.J. McConnell’s growth into a legitimate NBA player, about Dario Saric bursting through the rookie wall towards what now seems like an inevitable Rookie of the Month performance so far in February. We should be talking about Nerlens Noel hitting his stride and returning to the player he previously was, about Gerald Henderson having the most efficient season of his NBA career. We should be excited at the prospect of getting Joel Embiid back, hopefully after the All-Star break. Excited to add Ben Simmons into the fold, whenever that may be. Tantalized by the chance to add two top-7 picks to this developing young core.
Instead fans distracted by concerns over the trustworthiness of the front office, over tales of deception, over concerns about competency. Concerns, all of which, were self-inflicted and unnecessary.
Recent “concerns,” it should be reminded, that have come up under Bryan Colangelo in ways that remind entirely of the misses in years past, with Brett Brown (save for a few novelty examples from his GM) once again having to explain away the work of his bosses in a near-daily prattle in front of the media.
Sam Hinkie’s first attempt at running a basketball team as he saw fit was problematic, to say the absolute least, but direct comparisons aren’t helping anyone at this point. The 76ers should be concerned about its three former lottery picks missing 3 1/2 total seasons (and counting) due to injury (Dario Saric, still under contract with his Turkish club in 2014-15 and 2015-16, doesn’t rank). Until Ben Simmons actually takes to the court, one has to consider him part of the crew alongside Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid.
Noel and Embiid remain major, major projects. Nerlens (who has played just 564 minutes in his third season) has his moments and remains an intriguing prospect, but he’s also about to turn 23 with very little in terms of good cheer to mark his too-long turn with the 76ers.
Okafor stands to be dealt soon after being revealed as whatever the heck he is, netting a return that wouldn’t seem ideal for the No. 3 pick in a draft from 20 months ago, and for all his delightful play Joel Embiid has worked just 756 minutes this season. Karl-Anthony Towns vaulted past that mark in the first days of last December.
Unfair? Sure. Are we eliminating context and stated principles while pushing for outsized and irrational comparisons? Probably. Hardly matters, at this point at least.
Other teams have tanked and other teams have gone slow when it comes to minding fractures, underreported wrist injuries, meniscus worries and ACL tears. At some point we have to see the bud emerging from the soil, and 756 frighteningly goofy minutes from Joel Embiid, coupled with the growth we’ve seen from other lesser lights on Brett Brown’s roster just shouldn’t be enough.
In ways that, once again, hardly damn Brett Brown. This is a basketball giant that deserves some sort of 68-win sainthood. The least the game could do is pass on denying Brown a celebrated high lottery pick for the duration of his rookie season for the third time in four seasons as head coach.
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