This offseason, the bloggers and analysts who had been clamoring for the Sixers to change course—to hire a more analytically inclined GM, hop off the hamster wheel of mediocrity and tank their way to contention—found themselves on the receiving end of a very mixed blessing: we got exactly what we wanted.
In short order, Doug Collins was shown the door, Sam Hinkie was brought in, and the proverbial house was cleaned. And now, to borrow an expression, we are entering a period of consequences.
2013-14 won’t be a fun basketball season for readers of this blog, for folks who primarily experience the NBA through the prism of 76ers fandom. The team will be boring—its most exciting player from a year ago (Jrue Holiday) was traded while the most dynamic piece it added (Nerlens Noel) is unlikely to see the court this season; Tony Wroten will play major minutes; Spencer Hawes is still here; um, Kwame Brown—and, for many of the reasons it will be boring, it will be bad. Maybe more bad than it is boring.
Precisely how bad is an open question, but the fact of its being bad is not. It was constructed to be bad. Bad = Things are working. Bad = Lottery balls are being accrued. Bad = Down the road, Good. This is more easily understood than experienced though. It’s one thing to recognize that a sub-20 win season is what’s best for a franchise’s long range health. It’s another entirely to actually watch your team win fewer than 20 games—to get steamrolled night in and night out, by faster, stronger, smarter, better basketball teams. For 82 games. Vegetables are good for us and we hate eating them. This season is a heaping plate of steamed cauliflower—no salt or pepper—and we don’t get dessert until we finish.
But here’s the thing: there will be dessert at the end. In the rosiest scenario, the Sixers land the No. 1 overall pick, inherit the No. 6 overall selection from the Pelicans (it’s top 5 protected), and walk away from the 2014 draft with something like Andrew Wiggins and Aaron Gordon to add to their Noel/Carter-Williams core. And then they conquer the universe.
Even in the most pessimistic outcome, the Sixers finish with something like the 4th worst record in basketball and choose fifth or sixth with their own pick while New Orleans thrives and, by season’s end, hands over only a high-teens selection to the 7-6. Guess what? This is still really good. A core of Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams and, say, Marcus Smart and Mitch McGary would be one of the better young groups in the league and, if Hinkie is as smart as we hope/suspect he is, probably gives him the requisite raw materials to wheel and deal the Sixers to contention. And, again, this is the worst plausible result of this season. A 5th percentile event. The plan, in other words, is a smart one.
And then there’s the other stuff, the little pockets of potential that we aren’t quite letting ourselves get excited about but are keeping an eye on, albeit a skeptical one, for good measure. The stuff that might be, almost, fun.
Michael Carter-Williams might look like a baby deer out there this season—raw, overmatched, little motor-control to speak of, all knees and elbows—but he also might make good on the promise of his 6’6” frame and athleticism, the promise that made him the No. 11 pick in the draft and convinced Hinkie to trade a 23-year-old All-Star point guard and hand MCW his slot in the lineup. The rookie will learn how to play NBA basketball this season by playing NBA basketball. This is weird and intriguing. And Evan Turner might, at long last, turn things around. While he’s looked bad, in general, in his four-year NBA career, he’s always looked less bad—more confident and purposeful—when he’s had the ball in his hands; when it’s been on him to create. This season, it will be on him to create. The style of basketball the Sixers play should also be more compelling than it has been in recent seasons: gone is the long midrange shot, here (to stay) is an emphasis on more efficient—and entertaining—3s and dunks. The coach adds a neat wrinkle too. Brett Brown worked under Gregg Popovich for 11 years, and yet—considering his experiences with the Australian Institute of Sports, and the extent to which they’ve influenced him—that’s only the second most encouraging aspect of his resume. Also: Thad Young.
I have some predictions, of course. The Sixers are going to win 19 games this year. Evan Turner will accumulate numbers that will—coupled with his “former No. 2 overall pick” pedigree—make him attractive to other GMs and Sam Hinkie will trade him to one of them. Thad Young will be great, because Thad Young is always great, and it will be sad when we trade him but, like a well-loved pet that has to be put down, we’ll understand that it’s the right thing. We’ll watch him in the playoffs and smile, both parties better off. Michael Carter-Williams will be play dreadful basketball in the beginning of the season—sub-replacement level—then improve to “bad,” and then, by spring, sort of resemble a serviceable point guard. He’ll shoot below 39 percent on the season, though.
And I’m good with all of this, really. The Sixers are going to be bad this season, probably next, and maybe, if things don’t cut our way, the season after that as well. And that’s fine. It really is okay.