What’s the Plan? is a weekly series where we look at the long-term outlooks for teams that aren’t immediately contending for a championship. This week, we examine the team that has most embraced tanking, and see how they can convert their collection of young players and assets into a championship contender.
The Philadelphia 76ers have been content playing the tortoise to everyone else’s hare, choosing to take the long-term approach to rebuilding. The question is: can they find a way to transition from one of the worst teams in the league into one of the best?
No team has embraced bottoming out to improve more than Philadelphia since they traded Jrue Holiday to New Orleans for Nerlens Noel, a player coming off knee surgery and not expected to play his rookie season. They used their draft pick last year to take Joel Embiid, who also spent his first year as a Sixer recovering from injury. Selecting these players could very well wind up being the best move for Philadelphia. Not only did these picks help them stay at the bottom of the league in order to get more high draft picks, but Noel and Embiid have huge upside that could pay off big-time down the road.
The years before the rebuild, the Sixers had been hovering around the bottom end of the playoffs. They were the consummate “middle of the road” team, before finally realizing that fighting from the middle of the pack wasn’t working and decided to try something new. They traded away their best players for young prospects and draft picks so they’d be worse and thus pick higher in the draft. They’re the best example of a team intentionally bottoming out and building through tanking. It’ll be interesting to see if it works.
The team is still in the building stages of drafting and developing a young core of good players. It’ll take time to see if the players they’ve selected become stars, but even if they do, the team has ways to go before becoming a contender. Assuming Noel and Embiid both develop into one of the league’s best frontcourts, the team still needs to fill all of their perimeter positions with quality players before they could even be considered okay. I expect them to take either D’Angelo Russel or Emmanuel Mudiay with the third pick, as they’re so thin at guard. Either new guard will still take time to develop, and their addition will likely not be enough to shake Philadelphia out of the lottery next year. They should still be picking high in the draft, which is good, since they’ll still have plenty of holes to fill.
The Sixers eventually need to transition from bad to good, and gutting the roster over the past two years hasn’t set that transition up to happen all that soon. They’re lacking depth as much as they’re lacking elite talent, and if their draft picks blossom into elite players, they’ll still be missing the depth necessary to fill out a complete basketball team. This is where Philly’s hoarding of cap space comes in. When the team becomes ready to fill out their roster, they can use the money they’ve saved to acquire all the miscellaneous pieces to fill in the gaps.
The moment where Philadelphia goes all in and starts gobbling up role players still might not happen for another year or two. As soon as they get good, the team can’t rely on the draft anymore, and the Sixers need to find out if they have something in their young stars to build around before they commit (Noel looked really promising this season). If they can’t build around those players, general manager Sam Hinkie will have blow it all up and start the process over.