Sep 13 2014

The Sixers’ Future Is Bright(er)

Every six months or so, ESPN Insider publishes its Future Power Rankings projecting how the 30 NBA teams will fare over the next three seasons. And every six months or so, we’re reminded that the 76ers of Philadelphia are destined for eternal mediocrity.

That was, until Sam Hinkie took over as general manager in May 2013, blew up the team, then stocked up on prospects and draft picks. Or so you’d think.

ESPN’s September edition of the rankings has the Sixers at 19th, which is an improvement from last year’s (25th) though more or less exactly where they’ve been since the rankings were launched by Chad Ford and John Hollinger in Nov. 2009.1

But while the Sixers are set for another lottery-bound season, and perhaps another one or two after that, there’s reason for optimism. For one, they are projected to win more games over the next three years than the Celtics (24th), Knicks (25th), and Nets (30th) of the Atlantic Division, and aren’t far behind the Toronto Raptors (11th).

But the better news – if an updated projection is considered news – is that there are indications in the rating system’s metrics (current players, management, cap situation, market, future draft picks) that the Sixers will be on the rise after the 2016-17 season. No team rates higher than the Sixers for the “Draft” and “Money” categories and while they rank middle of the pack in “Management” and “Market,” and are 25th (tied) in “Players” – the category that carries the most weight – there’s reason to believe those areas have room for growth.

Via ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh:

Elsewhere, management led by Hinkie and coach Brett Brown appears to be progressive, but unproven. The city of Philadelphia isn’t a top draw, but it’s a fairly large market waiting to be tapped. The Sixers are trying to be the team of the future, but the target is just so far away at this point that we can’t justify a higher ranking. Sit tight, Philly fans. This is going to be a long, bumpy ride.

A long, bumpy ride indeed. But, if the “19″ holds, it’ll be just as bumpy as the last three seasons, and the three before that, and the three before that. And unlike before, there’s finally a clear plan in place. Because of that, the Sixers will eventually escape mediocrity. In half a decade. Maybe.

1. The Sixers have ranked between 16th and 25th in every edition of the future rankings since its 2009 launch. Fittingly, they have the 21st most wins in that four-year span.

Sep 09 2014

George Karl Goes Off on Sixers’ Rebuild

ESPN’s “Front Office” panel—featuring Tom Penn, Chad Ford, George Karl, Amin Elhassan and Kevin Pelton—took a deep dive in looking at the Sixers’ rebuild on Tuesday, and well, the outlook wasn’t exactly rosy.

Only two of the five—Elhassan and Pelton—expressed any sort of optimism regarding the Sixers’ long-term future, while Penn, Ford and Karl suggested Sam Hinkie’s grand plans had started to spring some holes.

To no one’s surprise, the most emphatic in his disapproval was Karl.

Via ESPN:

What is happening in Philadelphia should not be called ‘tanking’; rather, it should be called ‘destruction.’ The Sixers are at least three to five years away from even being a respectful — respectful — NBA roster. They are worse than they were at the end of last year. Three of the five starters barely played last season. I understand building around talent, but people have to understand that sometimes young players just don’t develop. You put all your eggs in that basket, but if the kids don’t pan out, you’re sunk.

[…]

I think this roster has such a low level of talent they’ll be hard-pressed to win an NBA game. To put this team through another season of turmoil will be devastating. What is being built in Philadelphia is not the development of young players, but instead a culture of losing.

So, there’s that.

Frankly, Penn and Ford raised valid concerns about the Sixers’ long-term plan. Penn questioned whether MCW, Embiid, Noel and Saric represent “true NBA greatness,” while Ford noted that the 2015 draft—in which the Sixers are likely to have another high lottery pick—”isn’t nearly as good as last year’s” and “is loaded with bigs at the top—the one thing Philly doesn’t need.” Hinkie could always trade down later in the lottery—four of the top 10 players on Ford’s 2015 Big Board are all small forwards, which is one of the team’s greatest needs at the moment—but again, these aren’t points to gloss over. They’re legitimate questions about the process.

Karl, on the other hand… well, the only thing I can think of after reading that diatribe is this:

Philly isn’t going to contend this coming season, but to say “they’ll be hard-pressed to win an NBA game” is beyond hyperbole. If the Sixers had all of their long-term salary-cap space tied up in this roster, the skepticism from the former Denver Nuggets’ coach would be warranted. However, they only have about $18.7 million on the books for the 2015-16 season, nearly $14.1 million of which is non-guaranteed (per Spotrac.com). Add a likely top-10 pick, Miami’s first-rounder (which will likely fall in the late-teens/early-20s) and $45-plus million in cap space, and the Sixers will soon be in excellent position to add talent through trades and free agency. These are points that any CBA/cap-conscious analyst would consider.

But Karl, the sixth-winningest coach in NBA history, is looking at the Sixers solely at the short-term; how do I mold these players into a title contender? It’s a narrow-sighted view of the Sixers that’s antithetical to the process that Hinkie and Brett Brown have been preaching.

Sep 04 2014

Dario Saric, future Sixer

Is Dario Saric the next Fran Vazquez? A highly-touted lottery pick who never joins his NBA team and plays international ball forever?

All the evidence (as of now) is pointing towards no. By 2016, he’ll be in Philadelphia, joining a frontcourt with two budding stars in Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. That’s the hope, at least.

Yesterday on his personal blog, Derek Bodner outlined the reasons why the Croatian sensation will opt out of his three year deal with Turkish club, Anadolu Efes, to play with Philly in the 2016-17 season. I recommend reading the whole thing, but to summarize, joining the Sixers would make sense for Saric both financially, and competitively. And by all accounts, he’s actually interested in playing in the big leagues. “I promise, for sure I’ll be here,” he told NBA TV’s Jared Greenberg on draft night.

Now, promises have been broken before. Vazquez, for example, had told his American agent Marc Cornstein that he’d play in the NBA, but signed a lucrative deal with Akasvayu Girona in Spain after the 2005 draft, and avoided the Magic for good. Given that 20-year-olds are unpredictable  and say things they don’t necessarily mean  we shouldn’t rule out Saric having a change of heart too. What if he falls in love with his Turkish club? What if he meets the lady of his dreams, and she doesn’t want to live in the United States? What if he gets cold feet about moving halfway across the world, away from his family, to play for a perennial lottery team? He does, from my understanding, have every right to stay in Europe.

But I don’t see that happening. That’s because of the reasons outlined by Bodner – the cash, the competition – and perhaps, more importantly, the impact that screwing the Sixers would have on his agent, Misko Raznatovic. I suspect that Saric’s rep assured the Sixers (and probably the Magic) that he’d be in the NBA by 2016-17. To renege on that would hurt him in future negotiations with other clients, which include Mirza Teletovic and Pero Antic.

So fear not, Sixers fans. There’s every reason to believe that your favorite European prospect, missing teeth and all, will be taking his talents to the City of Brotherly Love in 2016. If you, like Joel Embiid, can’t wait until then, check out the homie in the FIBA Basketball World Cup. Croatia will be taking on Puerto Rico 11:50 a.m. on ESPN3.

Aug 22 2014

So long, Thad

With the 12th pick in the 2007 Draft, the Sixers took a lanky 6-foot-8 freshman out of Georgia Tech with a 4.0 GPA and a Greek-sounding name. I didn’t know who he was, and I wasn’t thrilled about him at the time, but in hindsight, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

That pick, of course, was Thaddeus Young. He hasn’t just been a solid mid-first-round pick. He’s been one of the most productive players of the last seven seasons1, and one of the best in his loaded draft class. Per Basketball Reference, Thad’s career win shares rank sixth among the 2007 draftees, trailing only Kevin Durant, Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, Al Horford, Mike Conley. That’s one MVP, three all-stars, and one should-be all-star.

How does Thad make that list without having a single all-star caliber season? Consistency. Thad has been a steady contributor since he was a rookie, missing only 42 games in his seven-year career. In his first season, at 19 years old, he started 22 of the Sixers’ final 38 games and helped the underdog Sixers (40-42) take the Detroit Pistons (59-23) in six games. He put up big numbers as a sophomore (15.3 points) as the Sixers (41-41) reached the postseason and lost in six games again, this time to Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic (59-23). Those were sneaky fun teams, and Young was a major part of them.

Thad had a down year in 2009-10 under Eddie Jordan (who didn’t?), then recovered when the Sixers hired turnaround-artist-with-a-three-year-shelf-life Doug Collins. The next year, Young turned all the garbage into gold, blew up pick-and-rolls, and earned a five-year, $43 million contract before the 2011-12 lockout season.

Young has been worth every penny of that deal. Though he didn’t play well in the 2012 playoff run, the Sixers don’t beat the short-handed Bulls or take the Celtics to Game 7 without him. He quietly had one of his best seasons while the Sixers had one of their worst in 2012-13, registering a career-high 7.4 win shares in Collins’ final year. And in 2013-14, while Sixers management threw in the towel, and Thad (reportedly) wanted to gtfo, he still played hard and put up a career-high 18.8 ppg. He was the only evidence that Philly was a real NBA team.

Which brings us to now. Thad, who turned 26 in June, likely has several years of high-level production remaining in his career. He’s athletic, he’s hardworking, he’s got size, he’s smart, and he’s versatile, but if reports are true, he’ll be taking his talents to Minnesota.

That’s shitty, because Thad is Philly’s last remnant of established NBA talent. But it’s reality. If winning a championship is the goal – and that’s not necessarily the case for all owners/fans, but it sure as hell is the case for this blogger – it was time for Thad to go. That, primarily, is because he was opting out of his contract after this season, making this (effectively) an expiring deal2. His trade value isn’t getting any higher, and his on-court value is diminished by the perverse incentives created by the lottery system. I suspect this haul was about as good as they could get.

So, Thad is gone, and in his place are Alexey Shved, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Miami’s first-rounder, which will turn into a player half as productive as Thad if the Sixers are lucky.

Either way, we’ll miss Thad. Hopefully he’ll miss us too – enough to opt out of his Timberwolves contract and return to Philly on a discount next season.

1. I don’t have a breakdown for win shares since 2007, but Thad ranks 97th among active players, per Basketball Reference. The vast majority of those players ahead of him were drafted in 2006 or before.

2.. He was going to decline his 2015-16 option, according to a Liberty Ballers source.

Aug 22 2014

Woj: Thad to MIN; Shved, Mbah a Moute, 1st-rounder to PHI

After weeks of speculation surrounding an Anthony Bennett-for-Thaddeus Young swap, NBA media overlord Adrian Wojnarowski has spoken.

So, not Bennett.

A natural reaction is to be underwhelmed. After spending time warming up to the idea of an undervalued Anthony Bennett working with the Sixers’ development staff, it’s a tough adjustment to cozy up to Luc Mbah a Moute doing Mbah a Moute things instead. But it’s a reasonable haul nonetheless.

Thad was never staying in Philadelphia beyond July 1. He was going to decline his option for 2015-16, (according to a Liberty Ballers source), presumably to sign with an actual basketball team. First-round picks don’t move often, and not a single one moved at the deadline last season. That the Sixers are getting one (likely in the high-teens) for a decent starter on an expiring contract is no small feat.

And there’s more to look forward to, sort of. With Embiid’s erstwhile mentor in Mbah a Moute changing hands in the form of a $4,382,575 contract, Embiid’s “#WeAllFromAfrica” hashtag on Twitter is sure to return full force.

The jury is mostly out on Alexey Shved (also an expiring deal – $3,282,057), who racked up negative offensive win shares last season. His shooting was the culprit; he was below 30 percent from everywhere on the floor last year except for the restricted area. He’s still only 25 and he shot the ball well and was a solid playmaker overseas, so there could be room to grow. And while he’s been a borderline disaster of an NBA player, he has (occasionally) played well, when given the opportunity.

The usual causation/correlation warnings apply here, but there’s evidence — albeit in the form of a tiny sample size — that he’s capable of resembling a serviceable NBA point guard. There could be value here.

But this deal wasn’t made for Shved, or for Mbah a Moute. The prize here is Miami’s top-10 protected first-round pick. The Heat should make the Eastern Conference playoffs, though the pick has some upside; given how fragile Wade is, it’s possible it ends up being a mid-first-rounder. If the Sixers could have gotten more, it wouldn’t have been by much.

We’ll have more on this as details come in. It’s been real, Thad.

Aug 14 2014

Revisiting the Sixers’ Defensive Scheme

“I will say this: if in fact [Noel and Embiid] do play together, which is what we anticipate, we’re going to be a menace at the rim, an absolute menace.” – Sam Hinkie

Opposing teams did more than just torch the Sixers from downtown last year. They doused the arc in kerosene and held ceremonial fire-dancing parties, breaking record after record and finished with 739 threes on the season1.

This wasn’t an accident. Not entirely, at least. It happened because the Sixers were running a defensive scheme that focused on limiting shots inside the paint. Ssimple in theory, though near impossible to execute without personnel that’s both qualified and familiar with the system.

Zach Lowe explained this in a Grantland column from March:

But playing this way requires precision atop athleticism in two specific ways:

1. Players have to know when they should help inside and when they should stay closer to home.

2. Everyone else has to slide around and rotate in concert to cut off obvious passing lanes and be in position to close out on shooters in a timely fashion.

The Sixers didn’t have shot blockers last season, and they didn’t have strong perimeter defenders. On top of that, they were brand new to this particular scheme. (With an average roster age of 23.9, most of them were brand new to any NBA scheme.) Some of the newer, younger players were accustomed to the traditional zone defenses of college ball. And the few players who had been around were used to the Collins-Curry defense, which in many ways ran counter to the 2014 scheme: emphasizing perimeter pressure, disrupting passing lanes and getting out on fast breaks.

Things should get better defensively this season, and that’s not just because things can’t get worse (seriously, a 1.29 opponent PPS is as bad as it gets.). With Nerlens Noel, and just as importantly, the addition of athletic wing players — KJ McDaniels (6-6 guard, 6-11.25 wingspan2), Jordan McRae (6-5, 7-0.5 wingspan), Jerami Grant (6-8, 7-3 wingspan) — the Sixers will have the length  to compensate for at least some of their inevitable defensive lapses. They’ll have a rim protector down low protecting the paint, and terrifyingly long humans patrolling the passing lanes and closing out on shooters. The Sixers didn’t have this luxury a year ago, with Charmin Ultra Soft representative Spencer Hawes in the middle, and James Anderson and Evan Turner on the wings.

The pack-the-paint system does have its downsides. For one, it’s hard to maintain and execute. As Lowe noted in his piece, it requires lots of communication, and can be foiled by even one player gambling in a passing lane. Plus, since it’s so personnel-driven, one injury can turn a well-oiled machine into a Hummer. Take, for example, the Thunder, who had a top-10 defense with world-class athletes at nearly every position. Even they struggled to execute with consistency, and when they weren’t full strength, things got ugly. Don’t believe me? Then rewatch the Spurs torch the Serge Ibaka-less Thunder in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals. Fear of injury shouldn’t ruin the appeal of this scheme, but it’s a risk to consider, especially given the Sixers fragile frontcourt foundation.

Still, the Sixers have a roster that, on paper, has infinite defensive potential. Two vicious rim-protectors, a 6-6 point guard, and an excess supply of long, athletic wings? Yes, please. Don’t expect an overnight transformation, but it’ll be better. Nothing can be worse than the bloodbath that was the 2013-14 season.

 

1. Unofficially, this is the second-most threes surrendered. The 2014 Cavs (765) have the no. 1 spot.

2. Fourth-highest block rate in the ACC last season.

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