1. A time machine takes Sam Hinkie back to opening night … what’s the one thing he does differently this season?
Anthony Calabro: Hinkie waited until the final minutes of deadline day to rid himself of Evan Turner. Moving Turner was the right call, but he didn’t exactly sell high. I wonder if Hinkie had the opportunity earlier in the season to pull the trigger on a Turner deal. Maybe he could have gotten a coveted first rounder.
Eric Goldwein: Dealt their veterans earlier, perhaps. Then again, if you’re going to criticize the laughable return on the Turner trade (a late second rounder), then you have to praise the impressive return on the Hawes deal (Henry Sims, Earl Clark, and two second-rounders). There are upsides and downsides to waiting at the last second to get your shit done. Hinkie broke even with his procrastination.
Kyle Neubeck: He would move one or both of Turner and Hawes earlier, before the hysteria about tanking sunk in. Judging by the national reaction to Indy adding ET, most people weren’t as tired of his act as Philly was. Once it got to the deadline it was probably too late to extract maximum value. Then again, it takes two to tango, and I can’t imagine teams were frantically trying to acquire him early in the year. Good work, Hinkie.
Tom Sunnergren: Send the veteran “talent” packing sooner. We don’t really ever know what Sam Hinkie is thinking, because he won’t tell us, but it’s widely assumed he held on to the Thad/Hawes/ET troika as long as he did because he believed the better part of a season in an offense that played at a hyperthyroidal pace would goose their counting stats sufficiently that some poor sap with “GM” on his business card would forfeit significant value for them. This didn’t happen. I think, if given the chance to revisit this decision, Hinkie would have pulled the trigger on the Hawes and ET moves much sooner–shaving a few extra Ws off the Sixers’ record and bolstering, ever so slightly, their odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick.
Bryan Toporek: Trades Evan Turner earlier. Back in February, Tom Moore of the Bucks County Courier Times tweeted that Hinkie was offered a first-round pick for Turner on the night of the 2013 draft. As we know now, all he could get in return was a late-second-rounder. If any team offered a future first-round pick for Turner at any point this season, Hinkie swung and missed in trying to maximize his trade value.
2. Could the Sixers have been the Raptors — a second-tier Eastern Conference team that improved without making any long-term investments?
Calabro: No. This team was too bad to succeed. Also, the Sixers didn’t have Rudy Gay. Everyone knows when you trade Rudy Gay, your team automatically improves by 10 to 15 games. Pretty sure that’s a known fact at this point.
Goldwein: Hinkie had neither the personnel nor the trading partners to head in that direction, though I do suspect he was open to alternatives to the “blow it up” plan. If, say, the Sixers were offered a James Harden-like deal for a star — an offer they couldn’t refuse — they’d have taken it and made a run at the Atlantic Division. But a team led by Jrue/Thad/Hawes didn’t have the ammo to approach 50 wins, even with a few extra pieces in place.
Neubeck: No. Kyle Lowry has been woefully underrated for years, and the Sixers did not have a DeMar DeRozan level talent waiting to break out. DeRozan is actually an interesting case study for Andrew Wiggins – crazy athlete from the jump, but an underdeveloped basketball player skill wise who is finally seeing his hard work pay off. The Sixers could be a Raptors-esque team in the near future, but it wasn’t happening with the old core.
Sunnergren: No. The Raptors are a much more talented bunch. Furthermore, I’m not sure the Raptors don’t envy the Sixers’ position. You get the sense Toronto intended to tank, but the Gay trade worked out better than they imagined and suddenly they found themselves with an outside shot at 50 wins. That’s well outside tanking range.
Toporek: Nope. Not after the Andrew Bynum trade. Look at who’s fueling the Raptors’ improvements — one soon-to-be free agent (Kyle Lowry) and three homegrown draft picks (DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas). When the Sixers sent Nikola Vucevic and Moe Harkless to Orlando, they lost two potential building blocks for a wasted year of Bynum. This team needed to be torn down.
3. Is Nerlens Noel — and his plus-three inch vertical — the early favorite for 2014-15 Rookie of the Year?
Calabro: I think he’s in the discussion, but Wiggins will get the majority of the press. That’s a great thing for Noel. The less pressure on the big man, the better. He can just go out play solid defense and not have to worry about inflated expectations.
Goldwein: Yes! I’m incredibly optimistic, which means inevitable disappointment when it turns out he’s not the next Dikembe Mutombo. But the 20-year old seems to have all the physical tools of a defensive star, and after a year in the Sixers training program, he can jump a little higher and he’s no longer thin as a rail. Think early 2000s Sammy Dalembert, with a basketball IQ and, maybe, if we’re lucky, a jump shot.
Neubeck: This will largely be determined by who goes where in the draft. As much as I hate it, team success is heavily tied to awards voting. That’s why MCW was running away with the ROY vote early, and why he’s being discounted now. The other reason it’s going to be tough for Noel to win it is because he could end up being the third best rookie on the team.
Sunnergren: Maybe, though I’m an adamant opponent of guys who missed a year with injury keeping ROY eligibility. The moment you start collecting a paycheck, you’re a pro. (Insert your own jokes about college athletes being paid here.) That said, while I’m super bullish on Nerlens, I’d place my money on Jabari Parker if he doesn’t masochistically return to Duke.
Toporek: No. If Jabari Parker declares — which is no sure thing — he’ll be the front-runner for the award. The last player to win Rookie of the Year without averaging 15 points per game was Amar’e Stoudemire back in 2002-03. With MCW, Thad and the two 2014 lottery picks fighting for touches, Noel will likely make most of his impact on defense next season. Unless he’s a mini-Brow out of the gates, voters won’t reward him.
4. Who gets left out of the Western Conference playoffs?
Calabro: As a fan, I want the Suns hold on to the last spot. The Grizzlies are a veteran group and could easily take it, but I just think there was no better story in the NBA than the Phoenix Suns this season. I want more Gerald Green.
Goldwein: I…I can’t pick. These teams are too damn fun. I can’t root against Dirk. The Suns are the best surprise story in the NBA, and the Grizzlies, of the three teams, might have the best chance of making an actual run. (They’re a 55-win team if Marc Gasol played the whole year). Per Hollinger’s Playoff Odds, Dallas has a 78.7 percent shot, Memphis is 64.4, and Phoenix is 57.1. That’s a toss-up if I’ve ever seen one, but I see think Phoenix — with a Spurs, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Kings gauntlet up ahead — misses out by a game.
Neubeck: Gut says Memphis, but that’s because I desperately want to see Phoenix play San Antonio in the first round. Memphis has an easy road (they play Philly and the Lakers) but I think with Bledsoe back the Suns are going to hold on. Whoever ends up there is going to be a tough out. The West, man.
Sunnergren: The Suns. As much as I’ve enjoyed their run, the Grizzlies are cresting and have an easier closing schedule than Memphis. All the same, missing the postseason might be a blessing in disguise for Phoenix, as they get a lottery shot. That’s pretty obvious I suppose. Fine. A blessing in plain sight.
Toporek: With their win over Miami on Wednesday, the Grizzlies have the leg up on Phoenix for the West’s No. 8 seed. The Suns still have San Antonio, Dallas and Memphis on the schedule, while Memphis gets the Sixers and Lakers before closing out the season with the Suns and the Mavs. Regardless, whichever team misses out deserves to replace Atlanta or New York as the East’s eighth seed.
5. Are the 2013-14 Bobcats a success?
Calabro: I think the Al Jefferson deal signaled the end of tanking in Charlotte. When you basically tell your fans we’re making the playoffs, and you keep your word, that’s always a good thing. After beating the Wizards, the Raps hold the tiebreaker for the 6th seed and a potential first round matchup with the Raptors. The Cats can easily get to the second round. I’m sure Charlotte fans would be thrilled with that outcome.
Goldwein: Yes. They’re in the playoffs and they didn’t mortgage the future to make that happen. People freaked out when the Bobcats signed Al Jefferson to a three-year $40.5 million deal in the offseason – what’s the point of using all your cap space to for a borderline all-star who’s not going to turn you into a contender – but that addition has helped improve the reputation of a franchise that had made the playoff once prior to this season.
Neubeck: Unequivocal yes. The Bobcats have been at the bottom of the NBA barrel for years, so playing tough, competitive basketball is an important step for them. They’re like the anti-Sixers in that just being good enough to make the playoffs is probably okay. Big Al helping transform them is proof of how ridiculous the West is — he and Millsap have both flourished on new teams, equaling their shared success for new franchises.
Sunnergren: Yes.The Bobcats have been the laughing stock of professional sports for so long that simply being respectable was a huge, and consequential, step forward for the franchise. Winning 40 games wouldn’t help the 76ers, because they’re actually widely recognized as being a professional basketball team. The ‘Cats? Not so much.
Toporek: Depends how you define success. Are they a championship contender? No. Are they a marked improvement over the team that went 7-59 two seasons ago? Clearly. Since the All-Star break, Charlotte has been the league’s fifth-best defensive team, per NBA.com. Al Jefferson has been a revelation. With only one playoff appearance in the past nine seasons, a postseason berth is cause for celebration for the Bobcats. The ceiling for this team is still up in the air, though.