More than perhaps any last place team in the history of professional sports, you often haven’t been able to go longer than a week or two without seeing the Philadelphia 76ers thrust into the national spotlight. Recently, the Sixers franchise flirted with multiple historic losing streaks, had its brush with a TMZ-driven scandal, and was at the center of a conversation spanning years, regarding how exactly one defines success as a modern sports team, and what lengths are appropriate to try and make that success a reality.
With so much to keep track of surrounding this Sixers team, let’s take a quick look back at where they’ve been, before speculating where they might be heading.
Year in Review
The 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers season brought about the death of The Process. A 1-30 start on the way to a 10-win campaign, combined with a couple off-court incidents involving rookie Jahlil Okafor, caused NBA commissioner Adam Silver to convince Sixers ownership to bring in Jerry Colangelo as a special advisor. A few months later, the front office relationship had deteriorated to such as point that general manager Sam Hinkie resigned and Bryan Colangelo was brought in to replace him. (In a total coincidence, Bryan is Jerry’s son. How crazy is it that the best candidate available also happened to be the offspring of the man who had been whispering in ownership’s ear for months? What a small world we live in. It’s just like when someone mentions that they have a friend who went to the same college as you. You don’t know them, it was a big school after all, but still, truly remarkable.)
With the first pick in the draft, the younger Colangelo made the consensus pick of LSU star Ben Simmons. A pair of European prospects in the 20’s in Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Furkan Korkmaz rounded out what was nearly universally praised as a great draft for the Sixers. To complete the rookie class for Philadelphia, Dario Saric stayed true to his word and signed with the Sixers two years after being drafted in the 2014 lottery, and Joel Embiid was cleared for play after missing the past two seasons due to a pair of foot surgeries.
With four rookies on the roster (Korkmaz will remain overseas for at least one year), Colangelo made it a priority to bring in veteran leadership via free agency. Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson, and Sergio Rodriguez were all signed to reasonable, relatively short-term deals. Add the re-signing of elder statesman Elton Brand and the average age of the roster is now almost able to rent a car (24.8 years). The trio of guards, in particular, solidly addressed positions of need for the Sixers while maintaining salary cap flexibility down the road when the team is expected to be improved enough to be a major player in free agency.
Alas, there was too much optimism around the Sixers offseason for it to continue unabated. On the final day of training camp, Simmons rolled his ankle and broke the fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot. He subsequently underwent surgery for a Jones fracture and is expected to miss at least the first few months of the season. The only solace for Sixers fans has been the play of Embiid during the preseason, as the big man has dominated play on his way to per-36 averages of 25.9 points, 15.4 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks through five games.
Best-Case Scenario for the Upcoming Season
Joel Embiid averages 30 points and 20 rebounds on his way to a Finals MVP, and Rihanna dumps Drake for him, leading to a free concert during the team’s championship parade down Broad Street. Whoops, sorry, that was a fever dream I had the other night. No, realistically, a best case scenario probably has the Sixers around 30 wins with plenty of reasons to believe they’ll make another double-digit leap in wins in 2017-18.
Embiid could continue his per-minute production from the preseason even after he gets bumped to 20-24 minutes in the regular season, leading to averages of around 16 points and 9 rebounds and Rookie of the Year honors. Dario Saric looks like the perfect frontcourt complement, as his shooting continues to improve to legitimate stretch-four territory, with the outstanding passing and rebounding completing the package; he finishes as a close runner-up to Embiid.
Additionally, Ben Simmons returns to the court in January looking like he hasn’t missed a beat. By the end of the season, the Sixers feel comfortable having him follow the Giannis blueprint of an insanely large and versatile man as the nominal point guard moving forward.
Al Horford suffers an injury, causing Danny Ainge to panic with the Celtics neck-and-neck with the Cavaliers for home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. In a win-now move, he gives up the 2018 Brooklyn pick for Jahlil Okafor and some other spare parts.
Finally, the Sixers end the season with around the 6th-worst record, but Sacramento collapses and their third-worst record actually jumps them up to the top pick, triggering the pick swap with Philadelphia. The Lakers receive the 4th pick in the draft, which then transfers to the Sixers, leading to a 2017 draft haul of Markelle Fultz and Josh Jackson. I check my pulse at least three times a day throughout the summer of 2017 because I’m convinced I’ve died and gone to heaven.
On the flip side, the darkest timeline for the Sixers obviously revolves around the injury imp continuing to wreak havoc with the hopes and dreams of fans across the greater Delaware Valley. The team has been nothing but optimistic, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Ben Simmons’ Jones fracture could require multiple surgeries, clouding his long-term prognosis.
We’ve also been hearing for close to three years now how Embiid might simply be too large a man for his feet to absorb that much impact on a regular basis. Another setback for the big man from Kansas could paint his dominant preseason in a tragic “what could have been” light. If that were to happen right after the Sixers finally decided to sell Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor for 50 cents on the dollar, it would only add salt to the wound.
While those things would guarantee a high spot in the lottery, we’ve seen the ping pong balls go against Philadelphia before. A scenario involving the Sixers falling out of the top three with the Lakers remaining in it, thus keeping that pick from transferring to Philadelphia for yet another year, completes my depressing walk down this horrible, horrible potential road.
Biggest Question Moving Forward
Aside from the health of Simmons and Embiid, which is largely out of the team’s control anyway, the biggest factor for the future of the Sixers franchise concerns what they’re going to do with their glut of big men. Philadelphia has four young centers in Embiid, Noel, Okafor, and Holmes, with Simmons and Saric both power forwards, and even guys like Robert Covington and Jerami Grant best suited playing a small ball 4. With the team clearly defining Embiid and Simmons as the players they are building around, Noel and Okafor have been at the topic of near-constant trade rumors the entire offseason.
The last thing anyone wants is another long diatribe on the Noel vs. Okafor debate, so I’ll stick to the CliffsNotes version. Noel’s defensive skill set is more widely valued than Okafor’s ball-dominant offensive game in today’s league environment, but he is a restricted free agent at the end of the season, and sure to receive an offer upwards of $15M per year. Meanwhile, Okafor is only in the second season of his rookie deal, so the savings in having Jahlil rather than Nerlens over the next few seasons could be beneficial to team-building.
I’m not going to pretend to have solved this puzzle and know the perfect deal to maximize the trade value on these guys. But I do know that although the issue has quieted down with Okafor and Noel sitting out much of the preseason, it’s going to ramp back up once they return to the court. Aside from tracking Embiid’s play throughout the season, speculating what Colangelo will due to solve the issue is going to be the predominant storyline for Philadelphia over the next few months.
Ultimately though, the years of the Process and the progress the team makes going forward all converge on Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Everything else surrounding the team is window dressing. Much of the NBA revolves around the business of drafting, trading for, or retaining the handful of superstars out there in the world. At the moment in Philadelphia, business is good.