Take: when the Philadelphia 76ers decide they want to start winning, it will be a much quicker process than people think.
They have more cap room than anyone and a few players who would be useful role players if they were, say, seventh-men rather than top scoring options. As shamelessly as the Sixers have tanked since GM Sam Hinkie took over in 2013, they still ranked 13th in the NBA in defensive efficiency last year, which was better than six playoff teams, including the Cavaliers.
If Hinkie woke up tomorrow and said, let’s try to be good, he has enough cap space and trade assets to put together a borderline playoff team in the East in short order. Look no further than the 2012-13 Houston Rockets to see how a team with nothing can turn into a team with something really, really quickly.
The 2015 NBA Draft is going to be a good barometer of how far along the Sixers see themselves in this radical rebuilding process. Are they still in pure asset-collection mode? Or are they trying to put a good team on the court by 2017, even if it means drafting a player based on need rather than value?
What they do with the No. 3 pick could answer a lot of these sorts of questions. In all likelihood Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor will be off the board. The consensus top two players left would be Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell and Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis. Russell is the clear fit. The Sixers don’t have a point guard after flipping Michael Carter-Williams for a potential lottery pick in a trade that seemingly extended the tanking window. They already have two big men who were top-10 picks in Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. Adding Russell would give the roster some balance and create the impression that Hinkie’s grand plan is starting to produce a coherent on-court product. It would, in theory, draw the team closer to the point at which Hinkie tries to start winning.
Drafting Porzingis would create a very different impression. The Latvian 19-year-old is getting an almost absurd amount of hype right now. Some think he’ll end up being the best player from this draft. But everyone agrees that he’s raw and will need a few years to develop.
The Sixers have Noel, Embiid, and Dario Saric (who won’t come to the NBA until 2016-17). Twenty-nine of 30 NBA GMs in this situation would say they’re all set on raw big men who need a few years to develop. But Hinkie has consistently doubled-down on his philosophy over the last two years. In every situation in which he was confronted with a choice between immediate on-court impact and long-term value — drafting Embiid and Saric, trading Carter-Williams and KJ McDaniels — he has made value decision. If he thinks Porzingis is the best player available at No. 3, it’s hard to see him picking anyone else. The pick would deepen the team’s commitment to tanking and extend the light at the end of the tunnel even further into the distance than it already is, but it’d be completely consistent with what they have done so far.
The Sixers also have five (!) second-round picks on Thursday, two of which are in the top-40. What they do with those picks will also be an indication of how far along they see themselves. Do they package some of these picks together and move into the late-first round to get a player who can contribute immediately? Do they draft a multiple foreign players and stash them in Europe until 2018? Do they trade them for future picks?
Hinkie has said he’s not interested in being a 6-seed that loses in the first round of the playoffs every year. He wants to build a championship-level team, and he’s going be patient until he’s confident that one is within his grasp. After Thursday night, we’ll have a much clearer idea of just how many short-term sacrifices he’s willing to make for his ultimate goal, and just how long this phase of his plan will last.
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