Sixers prepared to get worse before they get better
The Philadelphia 76ers look set to inflict another season of pain on their fans as they continue their patient rebuild by gathering high draft picks. Most NBA fans know it as tanking - purposefully making your team bad so that they lose a majority of their games and you get a better pick in the draft. The idea of completely overhauling your roster with a scorched earth approach is a high-risk, high-reward strategy that few general managers have successfully pulled off. Sam Presti in Oklahoma City being the most notable recently.
Philadelphia GM Sam Hinkie commenced with his bold plan on draft night 2013, when he traded all-star guard Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for sixth overall pick Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first round pick. It was a clever move in hindsight as Noel had been touted all year as being the best prospect in that draft class, but he would sit out the entire 2013-14 season due to his anterior cruciate ligament injury and wouldn't affect the Sixers' tanking plan. A few weeks later injury-plagued center Andrew Bynum was allowed to walk for free and sign a two-year deal with Cleveland. It was another sign that winning wasn't a priority for Hinkie.
Many experts predicted a tough season ahead for the Sixers, but they surprised everyone with a 3-0 start that included a win over the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. They quickly fell to their expected level though and at one point went on a franchise record 26 game losing streak, which tied the all-time NBA record for most consecutive losses in a single-season. At the trade deadline Hinkie offloaded key players Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner for basically only three future second round picks. Turner was a former number two pick only four years ago and is good a case study in getting your scouting and player development correct. The Sixers finished the season with a miserable 19-63 record, surprisingly only the second worst record in the league after the struggling Milwaukee Bucks.
The one bright spot for the Sixers all season was the play of rookie Michael Carter-Williams. The eleventh overall pick of the 2013 draft led all rookies in points, rebounds, assists and steals. Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson are the only rookies to do that before him. Certainly great company for him to keep so early on in his NBA career. A sign of his potential greatness was on display when he made his NBA debut against the defending champion Miami Heat. Carter-Williams recorded 22 points, 12 assists, 7 rebounds and 9 steals in the Sixers' 114-110 win.
Michael Carter-Williams accepting his ROTY trophy
In the 2014 NBA Draft, the Sixers selected Kentucky big man Joel Embiid with the third overall pick, and traded tenth overall pick Elfrid Payton to Orlando for Croatian forward Dario Saric, the twelfth overall pick. They also picked up K.J McDaniels and Jerami Grant in the second round. Later in the off-season they traded veteran Thaddeus Young to Minnesota as part of the Kevin Love trade. In return they received Luc Mbah a Moute, Alexey Shved and Miami's 2015 first round pick.
When Sam Hinkie was appointed general manager in May 2013 he decided to pursue a long-term plan to rebuild a franchise that wasn't going anywhere fast. Since the heights of their 2001 finals appearance the Sixers have been the definition of a treadmill team. In the subsequent thirteen seasons they have made the playoffs on seven occasions. Of those seven, they were bounced out in the first round five times and only made it to the conference semi final stage in the other two. In that same period they only have an 83 percent winning record in regular season games and only managed to reach the .500 mark six times.
Public pressure and fan discontent usual dissuade organisations from taking this route and usually result in them opting for quick-fix solutions and dodgy trade gambles. Deals that can often consign teams to the very mediocrity they were designed to help them break free from. They keep teams just good enough that they miss out on receiving cherished high draft picks, but still nowhere near good enough to compete for a title. It's the kind of mediocrity that leads to star players like Kevin Love, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul to leave becoming frustrated and looking to move on to more appealing pastures.
Dwight and CP3 grew tired of not contending and left
Hinkie is determined to see this project out to it's completion without taking any shortcuts. He realises that to achieve big ambitions you often have to suffer big sacrifices. It's a three year plan to collect assets and the more pain the team goes through, the more likely it is that those assets are of the high-end variety. Hinkie wants young, affordable prospects with loads of upside, the kind of guys you typically acquire via the draft. "The draft is an important pipeline of talent for our team and our intention was to add players who could position us well for the future, while also allowing us to capitalise on attractive opportunities to acquire top-flight talent or additional future draft choices," Hinkie said.
Another sign of Hinkie's commitment to his grand plan was the lack of free agent activity done by the Sixers this past off-season. Signing some veteran who could score 20 points a game and secure a few more victories might keep the crowd happy, but it is harmful to the overall objective of getting the best possible draft picks. Eventually they will become more active again in the free agent and trades markets, but for now any move that could help them win games is not on the radar for Hinkie.
The main idea is to stockpile first round picks and draft a talented young core and slowly develop them into stars. It's a direct imitation of what Oklahoma City did so well. They acquired Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka in the draft and turned them into stars. They have even made the finals on one occasion. Proof that this strategy can pay off eventually .Obviously there is no guarantee that Philadelphia will be as successful as the Thunder, but with the right scouting and development they can become an eastern powerhouse again in a few years. Sam Hinkie is in no hurry.
The Thunder are the successful blueprint to follow
Expect Hinkie to use a two-pronged approach during this rebuild. Sure his main focus will be on drafting high-end talent, but if the right player becomes available in free agency expect him to at least make an offer. Just imagine that at the end of the season Kawhi Leonard still hasn't signed an extension with the Spurs. Surely the Sixers, amongst many other teams, will throw a huge contract at the 2014 finals MVP. What if the same thing happens with Bradley Beal and Washington the year after that? You can be sure that with the salary cap flexibility that Hinkie is aiming to create he will be in a good position to tempt any young stars who become free agents.
The Sixers have an ownership group led by billionaire Josh Harris and which also includes Indonesian billionaire Erick Thohir. They will need to give Hinkie their full backing and patience over the next few years if this plan is to succeed. They need to resist making knee-jerk decisions based on the inevitable fan outcry at the results the team will be getting. After all, this strategy is about setting the team up to be able to compete for titles for a sustained period of time. At the end of the day the only reason for anyone should be involved in this sport is to win trophies. Nothing else matters.