The Sixers have been the punch line to every tanking joke and the losing side to every “can Kentucky beat this team” argument over the past three seasons. With a record of 71-168 and a winning percentage of .297 since the 2012-13 season, the Sixers haven’t exactly deserved to be treated any differently. But if you look past the dreadful record and public ridicule, the Sixers “tanking” strategy has actually paid off.
The 76ers shook the NBA community at February’s trade deadline when they dealt arguably their best player in Michael Carter-Williams in a blockbuster three-way trade. Philadelphia received the Los Angeles Lakers’ protected 2015 first-round pick in return. The deal at the time seemed like just another tanking ploy by Philadelphia, but MCW never was an ideal fit for head coach Brett Brown’s system. Carter-Williams put up outstanding numbers during his Rookie of the Year campaign, but the lengthy point guard struggles mightily shooting from the outside. MCW’s 23.6 3-point percentage is close to dead last in the league among players with at least 100 attempts, save for Lance Stephenson. Philadelphia isn’t exactly flush with shooters, so MCW created a spacing nightmare. Sixers’ GM Sam Hinkie rolled the dice by dealing the face of the future for the Lakers’ coveted draft pick (which is top-five protected this season, 1-3 protected in 2016 and 2017, and then unprotected thereafter). The risk paid off the last time Hinkie made a similar deal.
Philadelphia made the biggest move of the 2013 Draft when it sent All-Star guard Jrue Holiday to New Orleans for a 2014 first-rounder and the No. 6 pick in the draft, which turned into Nerlens Noel, who was all-but-certain to miss the following season recovering from an ACL tear. The Pelicans appeared to have stolen Holiday, who was just 23 and fresh off his first All-Star appearance, but looking at the trade today, the Sixers are the ones who made it out like bandits.
As Holiday continues to nurse his lower right leg injury, Noel is coming on strong in the Rookie of the Year race. After a slow first half of the season, Noel averaged a crisp 14.3 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.4 steals, and 2.1 blocks per game in March. Hakeem Olajuwan in 1994 was the last player to put up those numbers in a month (courtesy of NBA Stats and Info). Those are outstanding numbers for any player, let alone a 20-year old rookie coming off a missed season. According to Basketball-Reference, Noel would be the youngest player in NBA history to average 1.9 blocks and 1.8 steals per game over the course of a season. Noel is such an emphatic shot-blocker that the Sixers started a Twitter account in honor of the youngster’s rejections. The account,@nerlensblocks, blocks the Twitter handle of any of Noel’s victims. It’s up to 137 and counting.
If Noel wasn’t enough to salvage from the Holiday deal, that 2014 first-round pick turned into European stud Dario Saric. Although he isn’t coming over until the 2016-17 season at the earliest, Saric is flourishing in the Euroleague. For those who are unfamiliar with the international game, the Euroleague is the best level of competition in the world outside of the NBA. Saric is putting up a cool 16.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per 40 minutes pace adjusted for Anadolu Efes in Turkey. That equates to a 16.8 PER, which is outstanding for a 20-year old in the Euroleague. As Nikola Mitotic has proven for the Chicago Bulls, waiting for a player to come from overseas can be worth the wait. At the moment, the Sixers wouldn’t even contemplate a Noel-for-Holiday deal. When you throw Saric into the mix as well, the Sixers handily won the 2013 Draft day trade.
Yes, the Sixers have still been terrible on the court this season, but the team has shown progress as of late. Philadelphia went 5-12 in March, which is nothing to brag about, but five of those losses were by single digits or in overtime. The Sixers have also been an above-average defensive team all season, as they currently sit 11th in the league in defensive efficiency.
The problem is on offense, where the Sixers rank dead last in offensive efficiency at 92.6 points per 100 possessions. The 4.5 point difference between No.30 Philadelphia and No. 29 New York is nearly the same difference between No. 29 New York and No. 19 Miami (4.6). Yuck.
Fortunately, the Sixers have a chance at having four first-round picks in the 2015 Draft (Top-five protected Lakers pick, top-10 protected Heat pick, top-18 protected Thunder pick, own 2015 pick). The Lakers pick will likely have to wait, but the current standings would reward the Sixers with the Thunder and Heat picks in addition to their own selection.
The Sixers can use these picks on offensive-minded players such as Emmanuel Mudiay or D’Angelo Russell. Pairing either of those players with Noel would be a nice duo for the future. That’s without including the Sixer’s first-round pick from last season, Joel Embiid. Considering how well a year of recovery worked for Noel, the Sixers have to be optimistic about Embiid’s chances of making an impact next season.
Philadelphia has also done an outstanding job of taking fliers on potential franchise-building players such as Robert Covington, Jerami Grant, Glenn Robinson III, Thomas Robinson, Isiah Canaan, and Furkin Aldemir. How long these guys stay on the roster is anyone’s guess, but giving young players a chance to produce is wiser than allotting minutes to aging veterans. Tony Wroten also figures to be a mainstay on the roster once he heals his partially torn ACL, but whether he starts or comes off the bench is a question the Sixers front office will have to address in the offseason. Either way, Wroten is a bundle of talent who’s amazingly still only 21 and cost just a second-round pick to acquire.
The 76ers have assembled an unprecedented amount of assets over the past three seasons. At some point these assets will turn into on-court production, and maybe even a playoff appearance.
The Sixers are no longer a joke. Soon enough, the joke will be on the rest of the league.