The 76ers have been a running joke in some circles for the past couple of years. While most people agree that bottoming out and building through the draft is a smart strategy, the overt way in which general manager Sam Hinkie has gone about it made the franchise an easy target. At times there just weren’t a lot of legitimate NBA players on Philadelphia’s roster and the front office had no qualms about trading the few they had.
It’s time to update the jokes. The 76ers won’t likely make the playoffs, but they do have talent that fits together well this year. With Brett Brown leading them, they could be much better than many expect next season.
Complacency hasn’t been a problem for Philadelphia recently. The players do go all out. That effort has manifested itself more clearly on the defensive end, where the 76ers have quietly been decent, finishing last season ranked 13th in defensive efficiency despite sliding after trading Michael Carter-Williams. That’s better than seven playoff teams.
The Sixers have a lot of wiry energy guys coming off the bench and Brown has proved his worth by extracting every ounce of production out of limited players. Jahlil Okafor is a question mark as an inside defender at the NBA level, but Nerlens Noel is a game-changer in that area thanks to his athleticism and instincts. He’ll be a year older and a lot wiser, and he’s exactly the type of quick, bouncy partner a team want alongside a big man with Okafor’s weaknesses:
There’s no reason to think the 76ers will regress significantly in that area. Defense has never been the problem anyways, really. What’s held the 76ers back — clearly by design — is their offense. Philadelphia scored the fewest points per 100 possession out of any team in the league last season. The second-worst team — the New York Knicks — boasted an offensive rating that was four full points better.
There are two main reasons for that type of scoring ineptitude: a dearth of playmakers and a lack of shooters. The front office has finally addressed the latter issue this offseason.
The 76ers ran a pace-and-space offense even though they didn’t have the right players. They took the sixth-most three-pointers in the league despite converting them at the second-worst rate. That should change now that Robert Covington and Hollis Thompson aren’t the only shooters on the roster. The improvement should be especially obvious at point guard, where Philadelphia has some potentially deadly weapons replacing Carter-Williams.
Scottie Wilbekin shot 44 percent from beyond the arc during Summer League to earn a partial guarantee with the team. Pierre Jackson shot 35 percent on a ridiculous eight attempts per game in D-League play back in 2013-14 and went 6-17 in Las Vegas. Isaiah Canaan’s best attribute is his shot. Every point guard on the roster except for Tony Wroten is a threat if left open.
There’s also Nik Stauskas. The former King started out slow but made 42 percent of his threes after the All-Star break. He was as effective a shooter as anyone in college and after a year in the league, he should be used to the NBA three-point line.
With three point guards and three wings who can shoot, the 76ers will have two three-point threats at all times on the court, something they couldn’t boast in the recent past. The lack of a reliable stretch big man is a problem, but plenty of teams have cobbled together league average offenses without much shooting in the frontcourt.
Whether there’s enough shot creation in that group to build a solid attack around, however, remains to be seen. Jackson is a wily ball handler but he’s not been tested at this level. Wroten has always been as inefficient as he is entertaining and is coming off a lengthy injury-related absence. Stauskas will get a crack at running the pick-and-roll, something he did well in college but not in the NBA. Canaan, Thompson, Wilbekin and Covington are mainly shooters with limited off-the-bounce creativity. Those names don’t inspire fear.
Fortunately, Okafor’s inside game should be able to offset some of the perimeter’s inadequacies.
Whenever they can’t run-and-gun their way to an open look, the guards can simply wait for the 2015 draft’s third overall pick to set up in the post. Despite not being in optimal shape, Okafor had strong performances in Summer League in which he showed off the scoring ability that made him such an intriguing prospect in the first place. That’s a skill set that was missing last season:
Slowing the game down for Okafor will mean a departure from the style Brown has been establishing for the past two years, but it’ll be a necessity. With the spacing the team will be able to have at its disposal and the young center’s advanced passing, the offense should improve. Even if it’s not transformed into a potent attack, it shouldn’t be as dismal as it was last season. If the defense holds, that should be enough to earn the team more wins.
The 76ers’ rebuild is far from done, but it’s starting to take shape. Former lottery selection Dario Saric may join them next season, another high pick should give them another cornerstone and Joel Embiid could still pan out with some help from the Basketball Gods and modern medicine. Ownership, management and at least some of the fans have patience, and it’ll eventually pay off. The future is bright for Philadelphia.
What could change as soon as next year is the day-to-day nature of watching the team. The Sixers should look like a normal, up-and-coming squad, not a talent-starved laughingstock. The pieces are there to be competitive night in and night out. In Year 3 of the Hinkie regime, the 76ers will look like an NBA team. Who knows? Maybe in Year 5 they’ll start to look like the potential contender the GM has promised.