The Philadelphia 76ers made waves at the 2015 NBA Draft when they took Duke big man Jahlil Okafor with the No. 3 pick.
On the surface this is a good pick. When the Sixers lost their guy — point guard D’Angelo Russell — to the Lakers at No. 2, they took the next-best player in Okafor, a center whose offensive skills already rival some of the best big men in the NBA.
Yet the pick remains a head-scratcher because the Sixers already have two young big men in Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. Drafting another promising center seems to create a logjam in the rotation, and the NBA world is already wondering which of the three will be moved to create room for the other two.
Therein lies the problem with the 76ers’ radical brand of rebuilding. Blatantly tanking, threatening not to meet the NBA’s minimum salary floor, and hoarding assets is fine, particularly with idea that drafting cheap, young talent is the best path to title contention. However, over two years and a combined 37 wins, the 76ers have little to show for taking this route and seemingly no clear path to title contention.
Philadelphia doesn’t figure to be much better this season than they were two years ago when they began this process. The Sixers have collected lottery picks as a means for building a star-studded team from the ground up, and thus far, frankly, haven’t drafted well.
Michael Carter-Williams, the 23-year-old seventh pick in the 2013 draft, was traded last season. Joel Embiid, the 21-year-old third pick in the 2014 draft, hasn’t played because of injuries and may not play for a long time. That leaves Okafor and Noel as the two prizes for tanking, and there are serious questions about whether they can play together.
Noel is a promising young big man, and arguably the only player on the roster that looks like a future centrepiece for a good team. He was the only player on the roster last year to play over 1,000 minutes and post a league-average Player Efficiency Rating of 15.
If Embiid is the player most likely to be pushed out of the Noel-Okafor-Embiid triumvirate, there are still questions of how Noel and Okafor will fit together. In an era of the NBA when fast-paced, spread-out, small-ball offence rules, Okafor is a 6’11” post-based center and Noel is a 6’11” big man without a jumpshot.
If the answer to making this tandem work is pushing either one out of their natural position and forcing them to learn new skills, like shooting three-pointers to spread the floor, this isn’t a wise rebuilding strategy.
There’s also no guarantee that Okafor turns into a good NBA player, just like there isn’t any guarantee that 2014 lottery pick Dario Saric, currently playing in Europe, will be a good player when he comes to the NBA. This is the inherent risk with every draft pick, but it’s the basket the 76ers are putting all of their eggs in. Even if Okafor and Saric are, at minimum, rotation-worthy players, it will likely take a few years for them to fully develop and help the Sixers become a good team. Philadelphia can add more draft picks in successive seasons, but the timeline on this rebuilding process continues to stretch.
While the team could theoretically keep tanking season after season until they get the right combination of young talent, there is an actual clock on this process. Even with a great coach like Brett Brown and intriguing young players, contracts eventually expire and players and coaches reach a point where they want to move forward, tired of losing.
At some point, the Sixers need to make strides, and this process seems to be moving slower and more haphazardly than most expected.
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