Can the Warriors avoid the ‘Disease of More’ and repeat? Will the arrival of LaMarcus Aldridge and the continued ascension of Kawhi Leonard be enough to extend the Spurs title window another year? Has Kevin Durant’s foot healed well enough for the Oklahoma City juggernaut to become a reality once again? Is there anyone in the East who can prove a speed bump to Cleveland’s LeBron-paved path to the Finals?
The NBA has any number of intriguing storylines to follow at the top of the standings. But what about all the way down at the bottom? I’m glad you asked. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, your 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers season preview.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR
The Sixers lost 64 games, which, despite all the continued outrage from old-school circles, meant they still haven’t finished with the worst record in a season during Sam Hinkie’s tenure as general manager. Finishing ahead of both the Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Knicks in the standings (and ultimately behind Minnesota and the Los Angeles Lakers in the lottery) could be seen as an organizational failure for a franchise geared around finding a superstar through the draft.
Meanwhile, the team lost some goodwill with a section of the fan base when it traded reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams to the Milwaukee Bucks as part of a pre-deadline deal that saw the team receive a Lakers protected first-round pick in return. Although many agree the return for the shooting-impaired Carter-Williams could wind up being favorable, his trade, combined with that of rookie fan favorite K.J. McDaniels around the same time, left fans who wanted to see bold steps to rebuild feeling disgruntled.
It wasn’t all negative news last year, though. Coach Brett Brown somehow crafted a top-12 defense out of a rotating door that saw 25 different players receive playing time over the course of the season. A large part of the defensive success was due to rookie Nerlens Noel, who averaged 1.9 blocks and 1.8 steals while offering outstanding rim protection, as opponents shot just 45.4% at the rim against him. While Noel had a good argument for Rookie of the Year, he ultimately finished 3rd due to Andrew Wiggins’ advantage in more traditional counting stats and voter fatigue (disgust?) around the Sixers prolonged rebuild.
The Sixers also unearthed a great find from the D-League in Robert Covington, who shot 37.4% from three on over six attempts per game. Covington was selected for the Rising Stars Challenge, ironically replacing an injured Michael Carter-Williams. Second-year player Hollis Thompson continued to look like a solid rotational player for years to come, shooting 40% from three for the second straight season. Finally, Sam Hinkie made a savvy move in acquiring an Oklahoma City’s protected first-round pick just for taking on JaVale McGee’s salary in a deal with Denver.
WHAT HAPPENED THIS SUMMER
While many expected the Sixers to select point guard D’Angelo Russell, the Lakers surprised the world by grabbing him one pick ahead of them at No. 2 overall. That domino effect meant the Sixers would go the “best player available” route and draft Jahlil Okafor, the third straight year they used their top overall pick on a center.
Sadly, the concerns about fitting the three big men together were somewhat mitigated when it was later learned that Joel Embiid had re-broken the same bone in his surgically repaired foot and would require another season-ending surgery. Alongside the new Okafor-Noel frontcourt, the Sixers will look to second-round draft pick Richaun Holmes, and possibly training camp flyer Christian Wood, to round out the big man rotation.
Sam Hinkie was not content to sit on his hands all summer, though, as the always-tinkering general manager pulled off quite the coup in early July in a deal with Sacramento. The Sixers acquired former 10th overall pick Nik Stauskas, along with potentially very valuable draft considerations in the form of pick swaps and a future first-round pick, just for taking on the salaries of Carl Landry and Jason Thompson. If you’re Sacramento, and you need to create cap space to sign the likes of Rajon Rondo and Marco Belinelli, I guess you have to do whatever it takes.
The next move by Hinkie was a bit more of a head-scratcher, as he sent Jason Thompson to Golden State for Gerald Wallace and a pick swap that is only worth something if the Warriors have a worse record than either the Oklahoma City Thunder or Miami Heat this season. With Wallace since released, the Sixers will be paying a combined $22 million combined to Wallace and McGee not to be around.
The last significant move was the signing of point guard Kendall Marshall. Like fellow guard Tony Wroten, Marshall is coming off ACL surgery and will be competing for one of three point guard spots among a largely uninspiring group of six players that also includes Isaiah Canaan, Pierre Jackson, Scottie Wilbekin, and T.J. McConnell. The Sixers hope Marshall can quickly regain the form he showed in his stint with the Lakers in 2013-1 so his elite passing skills can the development of big men Okafor and Noel.
KEY PLAYER TO WATCH: JAHLIL OKAFOR
Clearly, the most important player for the Sixers is a second-year player who already has 32 career NBA starts under his belt. The question is: did JaKarr Sampson lose all of his powers when he cut his hair off this offseason?
No, but seriously, this season is largely about the evaluation and development of Jahlil Okafor. For the first time in the three drafts general manager Sam Hinkie has overseen, the Sixers selected a player with their top pick that would not be sitting out for his entire rookie season. Everything about the tear-down process Hinkie initiated a few years back has centered around finding that “franchise player”, and right now, Okafor is the best hope to achieve that goal. Joel Embiid has had more surgeries than games played, Michael Carter-Williams has already been shipped out of town, and Nerlens Noel projects as a defensive anchor, but not a two-way star.
Okafor’s ticket to stardom comes on the offensive end, where he’ll have every opportunity to show what he can do on a Sixers roster largely devoid of playmakers. The base set for the team will consist of dumping the ball down low to Okafor with shooters like Robert Covington, Nik Stauskas, and Hollis Thompson splayed around him behind the arc. If his defender plays him straight-up, Okafor will be relied upon to score using those sweet, sweet pump fakes and post moves scouts drooled over at Duke. His development will hinge both upon his consistency to score efficiently, and also, in the instances where double teams come at him, recognizing where the help is coming from and making quick, smart decisions with the ball. Okafor generally did a solid job of that in college, but teams on the professional level do a much better job of feinting and disguising their defensive rotations. It will be interesting to see how the big man adjusts.
On the defensive end of the court, the ceiling is much lower but the Sixers just need the floor to be above basement level. Where Okafor projects to struggle immensely is in pick-and-roll coverage, which wouldn’t be a problem except that’s what teams run on practically every possession in today’s game. Okafor has subpar lateral quickness and had difficulty identifying his pick-and-roll responsibilities, even at the college level. The big man does have a sturdy frame and good length, so there’s some hope for him to be a solid post defender. Still, it’s going to take a lot of hard work for him to reach even average defender status; the Sixers and their fans hope his rookie season provides that glimpse of promise.
Following win totals of 19 and 18 in 2013-14 and 2014-15, respectively, Vegas projects the Sixers to achieve a small uptick during the upcoming campaign, setting the line at 21.5 wins for this season. With such a low bar set, there’s not a whole lot of variance for how things could conclude on a wins basis, but the long-term prospects for the franchise could hinge on any number of developments.
A worst-case scenario for the Sixers would have Jahlil Okafor looking like a complete sieve on the defensive end while Nerlens Noel’s defensive skills are almost entirely wasted chasing power forwards around on the perimeter. Meanwhile, Joel Embiid has yet another setback in his rehab, Dario Saric decides to remain in Europe another year, and Nik Stauskas’ rookie year in Sacramento proves to be more of an accurate portrayal of his ‘bust’ status than fans might have hoped.
However, the best-case scenario paints a much rosier picture: Okafor wins Rookie of the Year averaging around 18 ppg, as he and Noel show signs of working well together as the Sixers frontcourt for years to come. All the news from the Embiid camp is positive, and he’s set to participate in the 2016 summer leagues. Saric announces he’ll join the team in 2016 because fulfilling his dream of playing basketball at the highest level ultimately trumps the extra money he would earn by waiting until 2017 to cross the pond. Finally, Stauskas approximates his numbers from after the All-Star break last season and shoots slightly above 40% from three on the year.
As it is with most things, the truth will ultimately lie somewhere in the middle. I predict the Sixers will win 23 games, grabbing another top-3 pick in the process. With someone like Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram arriving alongside the Lakers, Heat, and Thunder first-round picks, the 2016-17 season is when the Sixers will officially put the “tanking” era in the rear-view mirror.