Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The 76ers Have Already Won

A year after they began their much discussed rebuilding process, the Philadelphia 76ers are essentially an expansion team. They only have two NBA vets on their roster - Luc Mbah A Moute and Jason Richardson - and Richardson will probably never play for them. Their highest paid player is a rookie (Joel Embiid) who may not play all season. Everyone else is an under-25 player looking to make a name for themselves.

They have taken the slash-and-burn process of rebuilding a team to its logical conclusion, thumbing their noses at many of the conventions of building an NBA roster. They haven't made many friends in the process - if they aren't violating the letter of the law, they are certainly violating the spirit of it. The decision to change the mechanics of the lottery is widely believed to be a direct response to the 76ers attempt to game it.

Instead of just the first 3 picks, the new lottery would determine the top 6 picks, meaning the worst team in the NBA could slide all the way down to No. 7 overall. The idea is to give teams with as little incentive to tank as possible - a team that slashes and burns its roster only to get picks 7-10 for three straight years would be in a lot of trouble. For the most part, outside of the Top 3 picks, it's hard to find a game-changing prospect.

That's the biggest problem with what the 76ers are attempting - you can't expect most young players, no matter where they are picked, to be able to step in right away and carry a franchise. The Oklahoma City Thunder are supposed to be the model for this type of rebuild, but what would have happened if Kevin Durant had went No. 1 in 2007 and they had wound up with Greg Oden? It's the definition of a high-risk, high-reward plan.

Even having multiple picks in the Top 5 is no guarantee that you can build a contender. Where would the Cleveland Cavaliers be right now if they hadn't won this year's lottery? Would the quartet of Kyrie Irving (No. 1), Tristan Thompson (No. 4), Dion Waiters (No. 4) and Anthony Bennett (No. 1) been enough to bring LeBron James back or would they have spent many more years wandering in the wilderness?

The real worry is that all that losing would permanently damage those young players, strangling their careers while they are still in the crib. Bennett looked like the prime example of that as a rookie, as he was woefully unprepared for the NBA and he seemed to regress amidst a very unsettled and chaotic situation in Cleveland. Tanking only works if you can hit a HR in the draft every season and that is a very difficult thing to do. 

In the first two drafts of the Hinkie era, the 76ers have been swinging for the fences, taking the highest upside pick regardless of their NBA readiness - there were huge concerns about Michael Carter-Williams' jumper, Nerlens Noel and Embiid were both projected to miss their entire rookie seasons and Dario Saric may not come over until 2016. That type of decision-making only fueled the negative buzz surrounding the team. 

If those guys don't live up to expectations, the 76ers are going to be a very bad team for a very long time, especially if they don't get any more chances to take players at the top of the draft. Being a solid 10-year starter in the NBA isn't enough - Philadelphia needs a franchise player. They need a guy who can be the best player at his position and a Top 5 player in the league because those are the only types of players that would really justify losing on that level.

If the goal is to get a few guys who could make an All-Star team, you don't need to initiate the full tank. A good drafting team can find those guys anywhere in the Top 10. The Indiana Pacers are the most prominent example of that, as they found the core of an elite team (Paul George, Lance Stephenson and Roy Hibbert) from the middle of the first round. When you are bottoming out, you are thinking LeBron James or Kevin Durant. 

You need a guy who can carry you on both ends of the floor, who can be the centerpiece of an elite defense AND an elite offense. That's what a franchise player is and you aren't going to find guys like that in many drafts, no matter how high you are picking. There really wasn't a guy like that in 2010, 2011 or 2013. 2012 had Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond, although many would still argue about Drummond. 

Davis is the exception to the rule - 99 times out of 100, you can always find flaws in young players. 2014 was hyped as much as any draft in recent memory you can play this game with almost everyone at the top of it. Can Andrew Wiggins shoot and pass well enough to be a primary option on offense? Can Jabari Parker be a good defensive player? Will Dante Exum be able to shoot? Will Aaron Gordon be able to shoot ... like at all? 

The only guy without any obvious holes in his game is Joel Embiid and he's really the key to the whole plan in Philadelphia. Embiid is as exciting a prospect as has come into the NBA in a very, very long time. If he had been healthy, he would have been the No. 1 pick, no questions asked. Instead, because he already has a back and a foot injury in his file, he slipped to Philadelphia, who has to hope he's not the next Oden or Andrew Bynum.

There is nothing Joel Embiid can't do on a basketball court. He's 7'0 250 with a 7'4 wingspan and he's an elite athlete who can get down in a stance, play way above the rim and control the defensive glass. On offense, he is a very fluid player who can play with his back to the basket, step out and knock down a mid-range jumper and find the open man out of a double team. This is after starting to play basketball only 3-4 years ago.

Embiid is the rare 7'0 who projects as an elite offensive player and an elite defensive player. In my mind, he's the best big man prospect since Tim Duncan. He's way more athletic than Yao Ming and Andrew Bynum and he's more polished than Dwight Howard and Greg Oden. Most young big men have to adjust to the NBA - the NBA is going to have to adjust to him.* This is a guy who could be the best C in the NBA by the time he's 22-23.

* It's kind of like this line from Jay-Z - My new name is just the facts / While the rest of y'all just adjust the facts / Put words together, just to match / I say what I feel, y'all adjust to that. 

Put another way, it goes something like this - We're an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too and that's how things will sort out. 

Once he gets used to the speed of the NBA game, a 7'0 with Embiid's type of two-way ability isn't going to be on a bad team for very long. Everyone wants to talk about the culture that the San Antonio Spurs have developed, but it really isn't hard to build an elite team around a guy like Tim Duncan. It almost didn't matter who was on Duncan's team from ages 23-30, his presence alone meant they were relevant.

Unless you are going to get a player like Duncan, it doesn't really make sense to slash and burn your roster. The Charlotte Hornets are a good example of that, as it's not the high picks that are getting them back to contention, it's taking a chance on FA's like Al Jefferson and Lance Stephenson. That's how good Embiid has the chance to be - he's one of the only players who is actually worth all that the 76ers had to do to get him.

Everyone else in their core has a chance to be a really good NBA player, but there's no guarantee they will be able to carry a franchise. MCW's jumper is forever a question, Nerlens didn't showcase a very advanced offensive game at Kentucky and Saric could be a 3/4 tweener. I like all three of those guys, but I wouldn't be shocked if they didn't become All-Stars. If Embiid can stay healthy, there's almost no chance he isn't one.

Embiid has no ceiling to how good he can be. That's a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of a very young man, but it's the reality. Some guys need the right context early in their careers to develop into good players - Embiid is not one of them. He is the context. He would have cracked the rotation of every team in the NBA last season and he would have started for most of them. This is a guy you clear out your roster for.

At this point, the biggest thing the 76ers have to worry about is him staying healthy. As long as he can stay on the floor, they have already won. If Embiid is entrenched at the 5, they can fit their other young players around him and they can draft almost any type of player and know that he can play off Embiid on both sides of the ball. If injury concerns were out of the question and you put a gun to my head, I'd take him over Davis.

I don't want to sound like I'm over-hyping the guy, but all the coverage of Wiggins overshadowed how absurdly dominant Embiid was at Kansas. His per game numbers weren't huge, but you have to look at per-minute stats with young players and his were off the charts - 19 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.5 steals, 4.5 blocks on 63% shooting. He was basically Anthony Davis with 30 pounds of muscle and the tie goes to the bigger player.

What I mean by that is while Davis can dominate more areas of the floor than Embiid, Embiid can dominate the only area of the floor that really matters. It's essentially the Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett debate all over again. Everyone talks about spacing the floor, but the whole point of that is to make attacking the 5 foot area around the rim easier. That's where games are won and lost at every level of basketball, always.

A 7'0 who can control the paint on both sides of the ball is the most valuable type of player there is in the game of basketball. That's why almost every dynasty in NBA history had a Hall of Fame 7'0 in the middle of it. From Russell, Wilt and Kareem to Shaq, Hakeem and Duncan, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Embiid is good enough to be the guy who takes the baton, which I admit is an almost blasphemous thing to say.

Once you get a guy like that, everything else will sort itself out in time. Regardless of what you think about the new lottery rules, they are essentially closing the barn doors after the horses have ran away, at least when it comes to the 76ers. They don't necessarily need to add another Top 3-5 pick to their roster anymore. The hard part is over - they already have the pieces to be an elite team in a few years. As long as Joel Embiid can stay healthy, they are going to look like geniuses.

This might be the most important 0:23 seconds of basketball you watch for a very long time. The only thing it's missing is Kenny "The Jet" Smith yelling "It's over! It's over!" Check out Embiid's facial expression at 0:10 - like, damn, even I can't believe how nasty I am sometimes.


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  2. What an awesome read. I've long considered myself one of the absolute biggest Embiid fans and I've been walking on sunshine ever since the Sixers landed him at #3, but even I hadn't thought of things like Embiid>AD as a cornerstone or that Embiid is essentially the perfect piece to build around regardless of anything else. Absolutely love it, and thank you for this. You have a new regular reader in me, for sure.

  3. The video is private can u please make it public