Philadelphia 76ers are Entering Familiar, Incoherent Territory

Jan 26, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Ish Smith (1) smiles back at his bench as time winds down against the Phoenix Suns at Wells Fargo Center. The Philadelphia 76ers won 113-103. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 26, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Ish Smith (1) smiles back at his bench as time winds down against the Phoenix Suns at Wells Fargo Center. The Philadelphia 76ers won 113-103. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

The Philadelphia 76ers are entering familiar and not ideal territory by winning games late in the season and weakening their draft odds.

Ish Smith is fun. Joining the team in December, the fifth-year point guard has provided Philadelphia with absent hope, boosting the players around him and helping the 76ers win games. With Smith probing and driving his way to easy baskets, the team is 6-9 in their last 15 games. Previously, the record-setting Philadelphia 76ers were 1-30. Smith has played admirably and effectively, averaging 16.1 PPG, 8.2 APG and 1.4 SPG.

He’s the 5-hour energy drink the 76ers lacked, in this case 48 minutes, and his plus-minus totals have been repeatedly highlighted since he arrived. This is the type of performance you need to perfect your craft and stick around in the hyper-competitive NBA, especially at a position deep in talent.

Smith’s just trying to make an impact, but it could have severe, which is an understatement, repercussions for Philadelphia long term. In the past 10 years, only one team (Minnesota in 2015) has won the lottery from the No. 1 slot. Rarely does the team with the lowest record drop outside of the top three picks, but this isn’t the year for morale-building victories at the expense of losing focus of the initial goal.

In all of the losing and negative connotations associated with the Philadelphia 76ers’ rebuild, general manager Sam Hinkie’s goals primarily revolved around finding superstars in the most efficient route possible. Through the draft, utilizing high picks to reap the rewards, Philadelphia has developed a cache of big men with arguable All-Star ceilings.

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Joel Embiid flashed traits that had some basketball prognosticators labeling him as the reincarnation of Hakeem Olajuwon. With an absurd 65.5 TS% (True Shooting Percentage) and 2.6 BPG in just 23.1 minutes per game, Embiid’s stock — before the foot injury leading up to the 2014 draft — warranted a top-3 selection in what looked to be a loaded draft.

Jahlil Okafor entered the fray, as Philadelphia only had a 46.9 percent chance at landing at No. 3 in the second-consecutive draft billed to have a top tier of three players (Towns, Russell, Okafor). Basketball, however, is an unpredictable sport. Miscalculations transpire every season and the Lakers, who looked to be one of the clear winners of the lottery in 2015, seemed to have misfired on D’Angelo Russell while New York has a dynamo of a rookie in Kristaps Porzingis (14.0 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.0 BPG).

That’s why it’s presumptuous to label the 2016 NBA draft class a two-horse race with a duo of purebreds against the field. But as the season progresses, that notion is becoming more accurate with each game played. It’s LSU’s Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram who have become the universal two premier talents in this year’s crop of draft hopefuls. Both Ben Simmons’ rare versatility (19.8 PPG, 12.7 RPG, 4.9 APG, 1.8 SPG) and Brandon Ingram’s scoring and offensive upside have been highlighted ad nauseam.

The mix of Simmons protean ability to transform into a ball handler, break-starter or interior offensive presence are worth investing into if you’re a team not fit to compete in 2016. Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman, in a recent article highlighting Ingram, dug deeper than focusing on Ingram’s numbers (17.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.5 SPG) and instead, delved into how his frame has made him into a more enticing commodity for NBA general managers.

"Ingram ultimately possesses guard skills with power forward measurements. You won’t find many wings that can match his 6’9″ size, 7’3″ wingspan and smooth athleticism. He’s a mismatch around the perimeter, where he can handle the ball and either blow by defenders or play right over the top of them."

Ingram has shed one of the primary concerns regarding his NBA prospectus, as a position-less talent, showcasing versatility as a swingman or even a combo forward at the next level. Currently, it’s difficult to imagine Ingram sliding out of the top-2 selections in the upcoming draft. His competition, however, has negative connotations that are hindrances to their respective stocks.

Dragan Bender, the 19-year-old power forward for Maccabi Tel Aviv, is an easy comparison to Kristaps Porzingis. He’s 7-foot-1, can sink the three-point looks (41.0 percent) and is extremely raw compared to his draft peers. Bender should be the sequel to the ‘Zinger’. However, the 18-year-old won’t get that opportunity next season in the association.

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Liberty Ballers’ Jake Pavorsky explained that Bender’s contract, that was signed in 2014, is for four years with an option for an additional three years. Bender can make his debut in the NBA after the 2017-18 season, if he doesn’t sign on for the additional three years.

For any team wanting a quick-fix in the lottery, Bender’s contract exhibits a sense of unparalleled uncertainty compared to lottery talents currently NBA-ready. He’s unlikely to pass Ingram at No. 2 due to limited minutes, 11.2 minutes per game in 2015-16 season, and a relatively small sample size.

There are plenty of freshman talent vying to improve their stock (Ivan Rabb, Jaylen Brown, Henry Ellenson, Skal Labissiere), but likely won’t ascend the draft boards unless either Simmons or Ingram struggle or deal with a major injury to conclude the season.

Both Providence’s Kris Dunn and Buddy Hield are excelling as upperclassmen, and can be viable candidates to be selected in the top-5 in 2016. However, for Philadelphia, they’re essentially fallback plans. Both pack all-star ceiling-like upside, but with Hield older than Noel and Dunn slightly younger than the Sixers’ 21-year-old center, the option to go with an immediate need — and disregard potential — would be contradictory to Hinkie’s selecting habits in the past two drafts.

Tonight, Philadelphia attempts to win game No. 7 out of 16, traveling to play the surprisingly spry Detroit Pistons. The odds of landing the No. 1 pick are incrementally slipping away and so is the chance of drafting a Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram. The Lakers, who have lost seven-straight games and now sit just 1.5 games out of last place, are a train wreck capable of futility the rest of the season. Their top-3 protected pick, another monumental asset in the Sixers’ trove, looks likely to convey next season.

It’s come to the point where Kris Dunn and Dragan Bender seem like more realistic candidates to join the organization in 2016. For the Sixers, it would be the developing nightmare that could set back the organization for multiple years.