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It’s Too Early to Bail on the 76ers’ Process

Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers narrowly avoided making NBA history on Tuesday night, beating the Los Angeles Lakers, 103-91, to stave off the worst start to a season ever. Still, tying the then-New Jersey Nets’ 2009-10 record of 18 straight losses to kick off a year is hardly cause for celebration in the City of Brotherly Love.

Once the shine wears off from their first victory and the losing starts anew — it could happen as early as Wednesday night against the New York Knicks — questions will again begin flying about the long-term viability of the Sixers’ ongoing rebuild. Did general manager Sam Hinkie underrate the importance of veteran mentorship in his locker room full of 25-and-under players? Can Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel learn to co-exist in this small-ball-centric era? How many of the Sixers’ pieces outside of Okafor and Noel are legitimate keepers?

As the losses start mounting once more, local and national media will resume calling them an “embarrassment to the sport” and decrying their losing culture. Critics will suggest short-term fixes to help restore the Sixers to semi-respectability. As the trade deadline approaches and unwanted veterans hit the block, the team may feel pressured to make a move to appease the masses.

If Philadelphia’s ownership takes the bait and decides to go the quick-fix route, however, these past two-plus seasons will have been all for naught.

We’ve seen countless times how impatience from ownership can short-circuit the possibility of constructing a championship contender. A few years ago, the New Orleans Pelicans’ desperation to make a playoff push led them to trade Nerlens Noel and another first-round pick (which wound up being Elfrid Payton) for Jrue Holiday. The Sacramento Kings have been a nonstop drama factory since Vivek Ranadive bought the team two years ago, cycling through three head coaches and a full offseason of DeMarcus Cousins trade rumors in that span.

If the Sixers were so inclined, they could make a major roster shakeup, shipping out Noel, Okafor or one of their tantalizing complementary players such as Robert Covington or Jerami Grant. Maybe they decide to shore up their point-guard spot by acquiring Houston Rockets point guard Ty Lawson, who’s reportedly on the trade block already, according to Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler. With Nik Stauskas struggling, perhaps they decide to trade for Jamal Crawford from the Los Angeles Clippers in hopes of getting better production from the 2-guard position. In theory, both of these moves — and countless others — would improve the team’s on-court product for the rest of the 2015-16 season.

Doing so, however, would likely undermine the Sixers’ chances of acquiring one or more potential franchise cornerstones within the next nine months.

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

If the Sixers finish with the league’s worst overall record — something they’ve failed to do since Hinkie took over in May 2013 — they’re guaranteed at least one top four pick in June’s draft. They’re also a near-lock to receive mid- to late-first-round picks from the Miami Heat (top 10 protected) and Oklahoma City Thunder (top 15 protected). Their real aces in the hole, though, are the top three protected Los Angeles Lakers pick owed to them and the ability to swap picks with the Sacramento Kings if the Kings’ pick falls within the top 10 (and is higher than Philadelphia’s).

If Kobe Bryant keeps firing 20-plus shots per game, the Lakers will be a real threat to finish with a worse record than the Sixers as is. If Philly management decides to pursue the short-term band-aid approach, L.A. would be the front-runner to wind up with the league’s worst record. Doing so would give the Lakers a 64.26 percent chance of their pick falling within the top three (thus allowing them to retain it) and only a 35.74 percent chance of it dropping to fourth (sending it to Philly).

Meanwhile, if the Sixers and Lakers finish with the worst and second-worst record, respectively, Philly would have that same 64.26 percent chance of its own pick falling within the top three, while the Lakers pick would have a 44.18 percent chance of conveying at either fourth (31.85 percent) or fifth (12.33 percent). An 8.44-percentage-point increase is nothing to scoff at, particularly when the prize could be a starting point guard such as Jamal Murray or Kris Dunn.

At this point in the season, the Sixers’ top two priorities are continuing the development of their young players and maximizing their lottery odds, respectively. Acquiring a veteran like Crawford would do significant harm to the latter, and there’s no guarantee it’d help the former much, either. If anything, the Sixers need to continue giving reps to guys like Stauskas to see whether they’re potential rotation players down the road or doomed to NBA irrelevance.

While there are legitimate gripes to be had with the execution of the “Process,” it’s time to hit pause on any scalding takes about it already being an unsalvageable failure. The team has the chance to add four first-round picks, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric next summer. Even after factoring in cap holds, the Sixers will also have upwards of $50 million in available salary cap space, per Spotrac.

Does that copious amount of cap space guarantee a top-tier free agent taking the bait and helping lead the Sixers back to respectability? Hardly. As one agent told CBS Sports’ Ken Berger, the team projects to face major hurdles once it decides to dip its toes into the free-agent waters.

“There’s nobody there, and nobody will go there,” the agent said. “Nobody. Cap space won’t matter. You know who’ll go there? Guys that are trying to steal money.”

If this winds up being true, it’ll be a significant challenge for Hinkie to overcome. There’s no sugarcoating that. He and head coach Brett Brown will also be tasked with getting the Sixers’ young players to understand the responsibilities that come with being an NBA player.

In this week’s Sports Illustrated cover story, Lee Jenkins shared a telling anecdote about LeBron James’s return to Cleveland:

Failure is a poison, and when James reentered the Cavs’ headquarters last fall, he found an organization infected. “Great young players but part-time pros,” says swingman James Jones, who followed James from the Heat. “They’d be locked in for an hour before practice, an hour after practice, but the discipline and commitment weren’t there.” Players rolled in late for treatment sessions, bagged extra shooting, left plates of food sitting around the cafeteria. “Leniency,” James says, “which was very different from the structure I’d grown accustomed to.”

Given the non-stop slew of negative headlines coming out about Okafor within the past week — not to mention rumblings about Embiid’s wishy-washy commitment to injury rehab from earlier this year — it’s clear the team has a ways to go in that regard. Similar to questions about the Sixers’ ability to attract free agents, this is no small issue for the franchise to overcome.

It’s all part of the territory for this start-from scratch rebuild, though. And while cutting corners may appeal to some after suffering through two-plus years of a 60-loss pace, no amount of wins in the next 63 games would compensate for damaging the chances of acquiring Ben Simmons or another potential franchise cornerstone in this June’s draft.

Despite the presence of Noel, Okafor and Embiid, the Sixers still may not have such a player on their roster at the moment. Simmons, in particular, appears to have that upside. Following this upcoming offseason, then — after the draft and free agency — is a logical time to take stock of how Philly’s rebuild is faring, as much of the team’s wheeling and dealing will transform from theoretical (draft picks) into tangible (actual players).

Until then? Anyone attempting to analyze the overall success or failure of the “Process” will be pontificating about an incomplete data set.

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