Suffice to say, I’ve never seen this before. The level of ineptitude currently displayed by the post-deadline Philadelphia 76ers is bordering on the historic. There is literally nowhere to maneuver in this situation, the season’s final third will likely feel like a recurring nightmare as the 76ers dwell at the bottom of the league awaiting sweet lottery relief.
Occasionally there are glimmers, keeping us engaged with the tantalizing prospect of what is to come. Michael Carter-Williams’ potential is longer than his wingspan and Tony Wroten’s combination of passing and length allows him to intrigue as a sixth man with Rajon Rondo-esque capability. Thaddeus Young meanwhile, continues to resemble a ball-playing Ivan Denisovich, surviving and adapting to life in the NBA’s gulag, a brave face in the harshest environment. It seems that with every turnover or half-court mishap comes a decent fast-break or circus lay-up, highlights plays can deceive but they keep us interested. At times, It’s important to remind ourselves of what all this is for.
True contention is a rare status that few teams ever reach. Even now when you think objectively about title contenders, who do you think of? Miami, Indiana, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and possibly (generously) the Clippers. That’s only five teams out of 30 so already the odds are against an NBA team. This isn’t a transitory list either, contenders don’t just come and go, as usually they are defined by specific, other-worldly talents (i.e., Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, even Gregg Popovich) that raise their team’s floor so that even an otherwise mediocre roster (sorry Cleveland) can hit 55 wins.
I say this because much has been made of Philadelphia’s “tanking” efforts. They have not deliberately lost games but since the Sam Hinkie administration arrived they have deconstructed an average roster into an uncompetitive experiment. Nine months after Hinkie’s hiring, Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen (among others) have been dispensed in exchange for Nerlens Noel, a 2014 lottery pick from New Orleans (top-five protected) and a large caché of second-round picks. The macroscopic view of the haul is decidedly worse compared to it’s perception in the blogosphere.
Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen were not valuable irrespective of their expiring contracts, which only further devalued them. And in the curious case of Jrue Holiday, the term “23-year-old All-Star point guard” is both entirely factually correct and rather misleading. Holiday was playing at a slightly above average level (PER 17.45) for a struggling New Orleans team this year before suffering a stress fracture in his leg. He is a fine floor leader and a capable scorer but he is not a franchise point guard capable of affecting the fortunes of a franchise. The draft picks received in exchange for him may not do so either, but his most likely achievements in a 76ers jersey this year would have been to keep the 76ers draft lottery dreams in the deep end.
The draft can go in any direction, as can the cap flexibility the GM has unscrupulously acquired. The deconstruction is almost entirely complete and the rebuild has already commenced with the selection of Noel and Carter-Williams but the biggest steps will probably be made this offseason with two lottery picks and a roster made closer to Hinkie’s vision. Far from contention though, this team may not see the playoff picture for 3 more seasons, any longer and the administration will probably be out of a job only for the rebuilding to start again, any less seems optimistically premature.
Time and development both shift very slowly, the modern NBA is littered with stars but only a minor handful significantly impacted the league as young players. Incremental improvements are all that can be asked for each year, Kevin Love, John Wall and Kyrie Irving are still to play their first playoff game. Blake Griffin may be waiting, too, if Chris Paul hadn’t ended up on the Clippers. The teams at the bottom of the league have long realized that finding good players is hard to do, you cannot expect a future MVP in every draft, you shouldn’t even expect All-Stars.
In looking at rebuilding teams, it never occurs quickly. Oklahoma City made almost every correct decision and won a playoff series four years after drafting Kevin Durant while also drafting All-NBA guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden on the way. They still are an exception. Good teams take time and currently the 76ers are as far from being a good team as can be, even basic competence may take years.
The thrill in the chase should be enough for now. Chasing the lottery picks, chasing the highly touted draft picks, building them up in our heads and then watching it all play out on the court as they let us down or as they soar above expectations. There is no use waiting for a championship, the likelihood is it may never come. This season has been and will be tough to watch, but the foundation is being built right now, loss after loss after loss.
This youth movement is unprecedented and regardless of result, in 5 years time Philadelphia will be watching the culmination of years of decisions, training and hard work. So fear not about banners and rings, the journey and the growth is coming, that’s all anybody needs.