Once again, to the dismay of GM Sam Hinkie and the rest of the folks running the Philadelphia 76ers,.the NBA will insist the franchise play all 82 games this season rather than just skip straight to the only part they seem to care about: the draft lottery.
After all, no team has seemed to make less of what goes on between the lines from late October through mid-April than the team that has openly flaunted the rules, believing it is the only way to build a legitimate championship contender. Coming off 18 wins, on the heels of 19 the previous campaign, this was the season the Sixers were supposed to almost ready to take off.
But that was before they learned that their center in waiting, Joel Embiid – who had sat out the 2014-15 campaign – would also miss this season when doctors determined his previous foot surgery had been a complete flop. Instead of being ready to finally compete, now the Sixers are gearing up for another season with minimal expectations, even though rookie Jahlil Okafor looks like a potential star.
With that in mind, here’s what lies in store for coach Brett Brown’s gang this season.
1. Moving Okaforward
With Joel Embiid – who teased not only Sixers brass but also fans with his pregame shooting drills – now tucked out of reach for at least another year, the main story line this season will be how quickly the precocious Jahlil Okafor develops. While he did slip to third in the draft – behind Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell – it is easy to forget the big man from Duke was the consensus top player throughout the land the first two-plus months of his freshman season.
The Sixers will plug him and his top-of-the-line low post skills into the lineup alongside defensive-minded Nerlens Noel, who showed minimal offensive skills in his rookie season. It does not figure to be a comfortable pairing along the lines of other “Twin Towers” like Ralph Sampsom and Hakeem Olajuwon or Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
But from all expectations, Okafor seems like the real deal, providing some desperately needed inside scoring punch. The problem is there’s not a whole lot to go with him.
2. What’s the point?
While the Sixers seem to be cornering the market on big men, having drafted Okafor, Embiid and Noel the last three seasons while adding a few other valuable pieces, there seems no one really qualified to get them the ball. Having decided by mid-season that Michael Carter Williams – less than a year removed from winning Rookie of the Year – wasn’t the answer at point guard and trading him, the conventional thinking was they would find their man at the draft.
But when the Los Angeles Lakers passed on Okafor to tab D’Angelo Russell with the second pick, the Sixers had no backup plan. They compounded that by not going after any proven point guards in free agency – unless you want to count the injured Kendall Marshall. Incumbent Tony Wroten, who’s more of a slasher to the hoop than pure distributor, hasn’t played since mid-January and might not be back until November or later.
That leaves four unproven candidates, three of whom – Pierre Jackson, Scottie Wilbekin and T.J. McConnell – have never played an NBA game, along with Isaiah Canaan, more of a long-range shooter than passer, to battle it out.
That means consistently getting the ball to Okafor, Noel and forwards Robert Covington, Jerami Grant and Hollis Thompson will be a consistent problem.
3. Hot “Sauce”
There was a time last season when Brett Brown complained that the team he had on the floor was not the team he expected. With the Sixers holding the Nos. 3 and 10 picks in the 2014 draft, he fully expected them to land Andrew Wiggins and Michigan sharpshooter Nik Stauskas, rather than an injured Embiid and Eurostash forward Dario Saric.
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Well, it took a year, but half of that dynamic duo is finally here. In one of Hinkie’s best moves since taking over as GM, he snatched Stauskas from the Sacramento Kings in a lopsided trade that also will bring the Sixers a future first-round pick and the right swap picks next season. Following a rookie season under three different coaches that could generously be described as “disappointing,” Stauskas was moved by the Kings, who were looking to create salary cap room to sign free agents. The Sixers were happy to oblige.
Ironically in a game against Philadelphia, Stauskas received the nickname “Sauce Castillo.” He brought the nickname East with him. The Sixers are hoping he also brought his jump shot, which was what attracted them in the first place, especially from well beyond the arc. After a strong performance in the FIBA Americas Championships for Team Canada, he may finally be ready to take the next step.
The Sixers can’t wait to find out.
4. The natives are restless
This will be the third straight season Sixers fans have been told that winning doesn’t matter. And while a surprising number are still on board with Hinkie’s philosophy, others are beginning to question things. Embiid’s injury was as big a blow to the public’s confidence in the process as it was to the club itself. Now many are wondering if – or when – they will ever see progress?
It didn’t help that Brown, in a weak moment late last season, complained that he was tired of coaching “gypsies,” a reference to the constantly revolving door of a roster. While Brown has backtracked a bit since, it clearly demonstrated that the fans weren’t the only ones frustrated. And that was before they found out Embiid wouldn’t be joining the party this season.
So how long will Sixers fans remain patient and come out to watch a team that although improved still seems nowhere close to contention? As good a game as Hinkie still talks, if there’s no indication of results on the horizon, it may not be long before they stop listening.
5. Wait ’til next year
Amid the cries of downtrodden teams in all sports, nowhere will it be more put to the test than in Philadelphia. If all plays out as planned – when does that ever happen? – the Sixers will have a respectable season, which puts them somewhere in 8-12 range in the lottery.
That’s where it gets interesting, since Philadelphia has the right to swap picks with Sacramento as part of its bounty for taking on the contracts of since re-traded Jason Thompson, Carl Landry and Stauskas. The Sixers also have the Lakers’ first-round pick (top three protected) through the trade of Carter-Williams.
But wait, there’s more. Philly also has Miami’s first-round pick (top 10 protected) from last year’s Thaddeus Young deal and Oklahoma City’s first-round pick (top 15 protected) from another deal for essentially nothing but cap space. The Sixers even have the right to trade places with the champion Warriors after trading them Jason Thompson for since-released Gerald Wallace.
Bottom line: The Sixers figure to be busier than ever next June, although the same was expected last year before all those protected picks became protected – and thus unavailable. Plus, they are fairly confident that Saric will finally be able to get away from his European commitments and join them. And then there’s Embiid, if his foot ever heals.
Put it all together and finally – FINALLY – the Sixers may be ready to start playing for real in 2016.
Jon Marks has covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Dr. J and his teammate, Joe Bryant (best known as Kobe’s dad). He has won awards from the Pro Basketball Writers Association and North Jersey Press Club. His other claim to fame is driving Rick Mahorn to a playoff game after missing the team bus. Follow him on Twitter.