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2014-2015 Philadelphia 76ers Season Preview

The Philadelphia 76ers finished last season with an epic losing streak and an eye towards the draft. Basketball Insiders previews their 2014-15 season.

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In the NBA, rarely is a contender built overnight. After winning just 19 games last season and turning in the league’s second worst record, the Philadelphia 76ers will enter this season with minuscule expectations. While another 19-win season may not necessarily be in the cards, it probably is not outside of the realm of possibility.

Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-2015 Philadelphia 76ers.

Five Guys Think…

Nerlens Noel is going to be exciting to watch, as he’ll unquestionably be a Rookie of the Year frontrunner considering his extra year of NBA seasoning and the likelihood that he’ll play the overwhelming majority of the 48 minutes available to him in any given game. Beyond that, critics are tepid in their feelings for Michael Carter-Williams and there really isn’t much else on this roster to generate much excitement. Joel Embiid could eventually play this year, but no one’s counting on that. It’s going to be a long season for Sixers fans, who once again are waiting on the lottery, which has now become the most exciting part of the year for them.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

-Joel Brigham

The Sixers are going to lose a lot of games this year, stockpile draft picks, develop their young core and trade away veteran contributors. Sound familiar? Sam Hinkie and the 76ers could write the book “Tanking For Dummies” because they’re experts on the subject at this point. So far, the tanking has brought in a number of lottery talents including reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. The 76ers are hoping to follow the Thunder model of rebuilding, where a team spends a few years in the lottery, lands several stars (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden in OKC’s case), and then becomes a contender seemingly overnight rather than toiling in mediocrity and fighting for the eighth seed every season. In several years, we’ll see if this plan works for the 76ers. In the meantime, expect another long season that features a lot of ugly losses.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Alex Kennedy

This is the beginning of a long rebuilding process for the Philadelphia 76ers. Reigning rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams is one of the team’s building blocks and will be counted on to improve over his first season as a professional. Forward Nerlens Noel, who missed all of last season rehabbing from a knee injury, has the potential to become one of the league’s better shot blockers down the road. However, when it comes to the 2014-15 campaign, expect the youth movement to once again endure plenty of losses while gaining the necessary experience.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Lang Greene

Even in limited action, whenever he was on the court, Nerlens Noel was the man to see during Summer League action in Las Vegas. His exquisite timing, explosive athleticism and good hands are the things that scouts often look for in a big man prospect, and Noel showed that he was ready to contribute at an NBA level. With reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams and the newly drafted Joel Embiid, the Sixers actually have some semblance of a nucleus. With Embiid expected to be sidelined for the foreseeable future, so too are the Sixers’ chances of making any sort of playoff run this season. Both Luc Mbah a Moute and Alexey Shved should eventually emerge as rotation pieces for this young Sixer team, but none of them have the talent required to help this bunch escape the cellar of what could be the league’s weakest division.

5th place – Atlantic Division

– Moke Hamilton

In Hinkie, the native language of the Philadelphia 76ers, losing actually means winning (and yes, winning means losing). This is a franchise clearly focused on taking their time in rebuilding and doing so almost primarily through the draft. Through his first 14 months on the job Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie has been able to wipe the books of all contracts worth more than $7 million and collect three of the league’s more promising young players in Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. The latter two come with serious injury concerns, but their potential together is great enough to make them worth the gamble. Unfortunately, we’re probably only going to be able to see one of them (Noel) this year. Believe it or not, the 76ers are probably going to be worse this season than last year’s 19-63 campaign because their talent level is even lower with the departure of Thaddeus Young, who along with Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes – both of whom were traded midseason – played a leading role in the 76ers’ 7-12 start to the year. With another top heavy draft class coming in, though, that’s a good thing. Come the start of the 2015-16 NBA season, no team in the league could have as impressive of a young core as the 76ers.

5th place – Atlantic Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: It would be difficult to make the case for anyone aside from reigning Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams. Carter-Williams put up impressive numbers in his freshman season, averaging 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. Carter-Williams joined Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson as the only rookies in NBA history to average at least 16 points, six rebounds and six assists per game and LeBron James and Kevin Garnett as the only other active players to accomplish the feat in any season. His shooting ability—or lack thereof—clearly leaves something to be desired, but it was not all that long ago that Derrick Rose was known for having a poor jumper, as well. That’s nothing a little gym time will not fix. Overall, Carter-Williams is clearly the top offensive player on a team devoid of a talented offensive arsenal.

Top Defensive Player: Certainly an underrated player for the duration of his six-year career, Luc Mbah a Moute has been a consistent force on the defensive end in the NBA. Standing at 6-foot-8, Mbah a Moute moves well laterally and can effectively guard three positions on the floor. He has good hands and has been known to disrupt dribbles and attack the ball when opportunities present themselves and he simply does not quit on plays. He is far from a household name in the NBA, but if you ask LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant about Mbah a Moute and whether they enjoy being matched up against him, they would probably tell you no. After his summer league performance, Nerlens Noel deserves a mention here, as well, but we will reserve these types of accolades for when he actually appears in a regular season game or two.

Top Playmaker: Considering the overall lack of offensive firepower on their roster, Carter-Williams’ 6.3 assists per game last season was quite impressive. His 3.5 turnovers per game tied him at fourth in the league and the resulting assist-to-turnover ratio (1.8) is unacceptable for a starting point guard in this league. Still, all things considered, Carter-Williams is a much better floor general than we thought he would be at this level and he is clearly the top playmaker for the Sixers.

Top Clutch Player: When you win just 19 games and lose 26 games in a row, the word “clutch” does not necessarily become synonymous with your team. Surprisingly, though, last season, the Sixers were 6-3 in games decided by three points or less. Three of them were overtime games where they went 2-1. In most of those contests and down the stretch of games, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young were entrusted in many big moments. Now that each has moved on, the question of who is the top clutch player on this young team? It is very much up for debate. Like you, we will wait and see.

Top Unheralded Player: Back in 2012-13, the Russian-born Alexey Shved caught our eye during his rookie season when he was a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Shved has good size at 6-foot-6 but seemed to regress terribly in his second season in Minnesota. The presence of Kevin Martin and Shabazz Muhammad probably negatively affected his confidence, but Shved will find himself with opportunity in Philadelphia. He is a crafty dribbler but, out of necessity, must become more adept at playing off of the ball. He struggled in that role in Minnesota, but at just 25 years old and with only two pro seasons under his belt, Shved still has an opportunity to become a very good combo reserve in the NBA. After becoming a pro at 18 years old, he made a name for himself by tearing up the international circuit. All hope is not lost.

Top New Addition: Here is where we show some love to Nerlens Noel. Noel easily captured the attention of every and anyone who took in one of his appearances at the NBA Summer League last July. Even in spot minutes, Noel was clearly a pro playing amongst opposing big men who were not nearly as athletic, well-timed or active as he was. Granted, the competition was inferior and the games did not count for much, but the things that Noel showed in Las Vegas were attributes that will transfer over to the major leagues. Once he endures his growing pains, he will, at the very least, be a game changer on the defensive end.

– Moke Hamilton

Who We Like

1. Their cap situation: The Sixers are operating with tons of cap space and if Sam Hinkie so desires, he can use some of it to help hasten his rebuilding effort. Signing an impact free agent may be challenging, but Al Jefferson proved that a budding superstar with a chip on his shoulder may see greener pastures and an opportunity to prove himself by joining a rebuilding team. Even if not the case with the Sixers, their cap space can be used to facilitate trades with teams over the cap and that ability is often used as currency that nets draft picks in return. All in all, with young pieces and with less than $40 million currently committed to next season’s ledger, the Sixers are in a good position.

2. Michael Carter-Williams: By now, it should be fairly obvious that we are high on Carter-Williams, but for good reason. One thing that was not mentioned previously is his ability to shoot gaps and play passing lanes. He is far from a liability on the defensive end and impacts the game on both sides of the court. There is a lot to like.

3. Brett Brown: Coach Brown joins the long list of descendants from the San Antonio Spurs organization to find himself with a position of power in the NBA. Brown sat beside Gregg Popovich during the 2006-07 season and got a first-hand look at the type of meticulous preparation and intensity required of a head coach who wishes to win at the highest level. He comes from a good school and will prove himself to be an asset in the long run—so long as he is given an opportunity to develop his troops.

4. Joel Embiid: There is a very serious concern over Embiid and whether his body can handle the rigors of everyday life as an NBA center. Still, many scouts and even a few general managers to whom we have spoken felt that his potential was too great to pass on. If all goes well, Embiid could be the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon. If it does not? He could be the second coming of Greg Oden. Time reveals all, but at this point, we are excited at the prospect of eventually seeing him man the pivot with Nerlens Noel.

5. The Dario Saric Decision: After being acquired by the Sixers in return for Elfrid Payton, Saric has impressed with his performance during the FIBA World Cup of Basketball. Playing for his native Croatia, Saric averaged 11.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in just 26 minutes per game. It is believed that he will spend the next two seasons in Turkey, but while we do like him as a player, we also like the forward-thinking that general manager Sam Hinkie is clearly employing.

– Moke Hamilton

Strengths

Pairing a reigning Rookie of the Year with two impact defensive players in Mbah a Moute and Noel is never a bad idea. The major strength for the Sixers is their youth and upside. The other pro for this team? There is no pressure to accomplish anything great this season. Going into a year knowing that your team will not be contending for much is a bit of a downer for Sixers fans, but it will give the young core an opportunity to develop and grow naturally, at least for now.

– Moke Hamilton

Weaknesses

Not too long ago, during the 2012-13 lockout-truncated season, the Sixers came within one win of earning the right to battle the Miami HEAT in the Eastern Confernece Finals. Since then, the team was slowly dismantled. The lone holdover, Thaddeus Young, was recently dealt, meaning not one player remains from as recently as two seasons ago. In the NBA, continuity is almost as important as talent as it relates to building a winning program and as the league has seemingly become less patient, the concern here is that the new management in Philadelphia does not give the young pieces and their young coach the requisite time to gel. Aside from that, this team is in the midst of an all-out rebuild and are being led by a second-year head coach who has his first head coaching job in the NBA. The bottom line is quite simple: the Sixers do not know what it takes to be a consistent winner in the NBA. The lack of experience will put that at a great disadvantage, but that is to be expected.

– Moke Hamilton

The Salary Cap

The Sixers are going all-in on the rebuild, trading away their quality veterans while adding on high potential players like injured center Joel Embiid, second-year rookie Nerlens Noel (finally healthy) and draft pick Dario Saric (who will come to the NBA in a year or two). In the meantime, the team’s highest paid player is Jason Richardson at $6.6 million. Philadelphia has just eight players locked in with seven on non-guaranteed deals (injured Pierre Jackson is likely to get cut with a $400k guarantee). The 76ers can get as far as $31.8 million under the cap, and will certainly look to make deals this season offering to facilitate salary dumps for draft considerations. Even with the 15 players the team has under contract, Philadelphia would only have just $34.5 million on their books, $22.3 million under league minimum of $56.8 million. If the team doesn’t hit that mark, the shortfall will be distributed to the players under contract. In other words, Philadelphia can add $22.3 million in salary that they’re obligated to pay regardless. Look for every general manager looking to get out of a contract to have the 76ers on speed dial. Should the Sixers somehow climb to the cap, the team will receive the $2.7 million Room Exception.

– Eric Pincus

Dunc’d On

Sixers GM Sam Hinkie was both lauded and ridiculed for his approach last season. He kicked off the season by trading the established Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and the Pelicans’ 2014 first-round pick. Hinkie then proceeded to trade every veteran of note over the next 14 months, culminating in a swap of Thaddeus Young to the Timberwolves for a 2015 first rounder and salary jetsam. Noel did not play in 2013-14, and remains a rookie. Meanwhile, the Sixers took Embiid and Saric in the 2014 draft, and it is very likely neither will take the court for the team in 2014-15.

These trades leave the Sixers with perhaps the worst season-opening roster in league history, sporting precisely one player (Michael Carter-Williams) who was much above replacement level last year. Thus, what happens on the court this year is ancillary, aside from the development of Noel and Carter-Williams. The strategy in Philadelphia (which I have defended) is essentially to develop younger players while staying bad enough to continue to acquire high draft picks. The Sixers remain almost $30 million below the salary floor, so at some point in the next few years one would think they would finally spend to acquire complementary talent. But that certainly seems unlikely in 2014-15.

Best Case

17-65

Noel develops into a defensive force immediately and racks up unholy amounts of blocks and steals. Carter-Williams begins to show a semblance of a jump shot, and one of the bench guys looks like he might develop into a viable NBA role player. Meanwhile, Hinkie uses his cap space to absorb unwanted salary and gets at least a first-rounder out of the deal. The Sixers win the lottery in May.

Worst Case

8-74

Noel starts the season looking great, but suffers another severe injury after taking one of his many awkward falls. Carter-Williams continues to shoot less than 30 percent on threes, and players completely stop trying. Hinkie can’t work his trade magic because there are not any contenders looking to dump salary, and the Sixers get the fourth pick despite having the worst record in the league. The Sixers erase their 1972-73 brethren from the record books by recording the worst record in NBA history.

– Nate Duncan

The Burning Question

Can Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel form a truly great tandem?

Someday, they may, but not without one of the those becoming comfortable with operating outside of the paint and developing at least some semblance of a midrange game. Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan and David Robinson, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol—all four pairs had two big men whose skills complemented one another, at least in some way. A look over in Detroit, with Andrew Drummond and Greg Monroe, shows the opposite. With Noel and Embiid both young and both very, very raw, they each have a long way to go. But at this point, the bright side is that we can safely assume opposing offenses will have a tough time scoring against them and that is not a bad place to begin if you are head coach Brett Brown.

– Moke Hamilton

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