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2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Philadelphia 76ers’ 2015-16 season.

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The Philadelphia 76ers won just 18 games in the 2014-15 season. For most teams, that campaign would be an absolute failure and embarrassment. For the Sixers, it was exactly according to plan and it yielded the third overall pick in the draft, which they used to select Jahlil Okafor. Now, entering the 2015-16 season, their tanking will likely continue while everyone in and around the organization “trusts the process,” as general manager Sam Hinkie likes to say.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers.

Five Thoughts

On the bright side, the Philadelphia 76ers seem to actually be putting some building blocks into place. Let’s just hope they don’t decide to trade Jahlil Okafor after what will absolutely be an amazing rookie season the way they did Michael Carter-Williams. Unfortunately, with Joel Embiid ruled out for this coming season, this team will only go as far as Nerlens Noel, Nik Stauskas, and Okafor can carry them. Sadly, that ain’t that far—not even in the Eastern Conference. I think both Noel and Okafor are the real deal and I hope, for their sake, they can find a way to coexist on the floor together. Okafor does have some semblance of a midrange game, but with his polish and footwork, I would want him to get the ball on the box at least two out of every five possessions and I am curious to see how Noel responds to effectively becoming this generation’s version of Marcus Camby. What also interests me about the Sixers is the Stauskas acquisition. For years, the Sixers have been using their salary cap space as a dumping ground for other teams and “charging” them in the form of draft picks, but the Stauskas acquisition takes the cake. The Sacramento Kings needed to clear some cap space to sign some free agents this past summer and now, the eighth overall pick in the 2014 draft has found a home. Stauskas made just one start for the Kings (in the final game of the season, nonetheless) but figures to make many more in Philadelphia. Now, the Ontario-born shooting guard who came under scrutiny for suggesting that he must overcome negative stereotypes about his talent and his game because of his race will have every opportunity to do so. He and Okafor, for me, will make the Sixers worth watching this season and that is true even if they do fail to win as many as 20 games for the third consecutive year.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Moke Hamilton

I think this season will be very similar to the Sixers’ campaigns in recent years: Philadelphia will lose a lot of games, but they’ll get their young players a lot of valuable playing time, tank their way to another top pick and likely have a Rookie of the Year candidate (just like they did in recent years, with Michael Carter-Williams winning it and Nerlens Noel in the mix last year). I believe Jahlil Okafor will be this season’s Rookie of the Year, since he’s NBA-ready (with several go-to post moves, a high basketball IQ, great passing ability, etc.), will be Philadelphia’s focal point and should put up excellent statistics. I do think that Okafor could develop into a star and the Sixers’ franchise player, and they were very fortunate that he slipped to them on draft night. Philly will likely lose a ton of games again this season, but I am excited to see what Okafor can do throughout his rookie year. The 2016-17 season is when I expect the Sixers to start competing. By then, their young players will be a bit more experienced and they should have all of their prospects in place (if Dario Saric comes over as expected and Joel Embiid is healthy enough to play). Not to mention, they may decide to spend some of their loads of cap space to improve the roster. But as far as this year goes, I think it’ll be another “trust the process” type of season that goes just as planned, with a lot of losses and Okafor and Noel shining.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Alex Kennedy

Sixers fans, please brace yourselves and get ready for another year of looking forward to next year’s draft lottery while tirelessly scouting prep / international prospects. The good news in Philadelphia is that rookie big man Jahlil Okafor unexpectedly landed in the franchise’s lap in June’s draft. Okafor is a beast on the low block offensively and coupled with forward Nerlens Noel, a developing defensive maestro, the team could have fearsome frontcourt in a few years.  But for now, there just isn’t enough talent to make noise this season.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Lang Greene

It took Sam Hinkie three drafts, but he finally found a foundational young star in Jahlil Okafor that the team can actually start focusing on as the centerpiece of its rebuilding project. Nerlens Noel is a respectable supporting cast member, but Michael Carter-Williams was shipped off to Milwaukee and neither Dario Saric nor Joel Embiid will have played a single game for Philly two years after having originally been drafted. So really, this team essentially consists of Okafor, Noel and a bunch of players that may or may not be any good. Tony Wroten will likely be healthy, Nik Stauskas is a year removed from the lottery himself and rookie fliers like J.P. Tokoto and Christian Wood are at least interesting projects, but none of this will likely lead to on-court success. Expect a lot of growing pains and another rough season.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

Another season, another waiting game. Joel Embiid continues to be sidelined with a nagging foot injury. While his return is uncertain, the 76ers will focus on the development of Jahlil Okafor. The third overall pick has the potential to become a true talent in the post. Pairing him with Nerlens Noel will be an intriguing duo to watch grow together. Last season the 76ers edged out the Knicks by one win to stay out of last place in the division. This time around they could fall to the bottom.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Jessica Camerato

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: Jahlil Okafor

Philadelphia had the worst offense in the NBA last season, ranking dead last in points per 100 possessions (93). Their top scorer was Tony Wroten, who averaged 16.9 points with ugly shooting percentages. Fortunately, they were able to land Okafor on draft night and he will instantly become their offensive focal point. As I mentioned earlier, Okafor has several go-to post moves, terrific foot work, excellent touch around the basket and a high basketball IQ to go along with his NBA-ready body. He’s only 19 years old, but he’s so much further along than most centers are at that age. As a freshman at Duke, Okafor averaged 17.3 points while shooting a remarkable 66.4 percent from the field. He will be the Sixers’ No. 1 option and will get plenty of touches all year long, which is why many have penciled him in as the favorite to win this season’s Rookie of the Year award.

Top Defensive Player: Nerlens Noel

After missing his entire rookie season due to injury, Noel made his NBA debut last year and played very well for the Sixers. He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting and earned a spot on the All-Rookie First Team. While he’s still raw and needs to develop on the offensive end, he was a difference maker for Philadelphia on the defensive end. Last year, in his 71 games as a starter, Noel averaged 1.9 blocks, 1.8 steals and 8.3 rebounds per game. Then, he was even better in the second half of the season, averaging 2.3 blocks, 2.1 steals and 10 rebounds per game in the 26 games after the All-Star break. Noel is still just 21 years old and it’s going to be exciting to watch him develop alongside Okafor, especially since they complement each other so well, thriving on opposite ends of the floor.

Top Playmaker: Tony Wroten

Interestingly, the player who led the Sixers in assists per game last season is no longer on the roster and doesn’t have a guaranteed contract right now. Ish Smith averaged 6.1 assists last year for Philly, and he just recently signed a non-guaranteed training camp deal with the Washington Wizards. With Smith gone, this designation could’ve gone to either Wroten or Isaiah Canaan since they are the primary ball handlers for the Sixers. Wroten gets the nod since he’s more of a facilitator than Canaan. Last year, Wroten averaged 5.2 assists to Canaan’s 3.1 assists. It’s possible that Canaan’s assist numbers will improve a bit this year since this is his first full season with Philly and should have better chemistry with his teammates. However, until he makes that improvement, Wroten gets the top playmaker label.

Top Clutch Player: Jahlil Okafor

Every player who had a positive clutch plus-minus rating from last year’s Sixers team is no longer on the roster, which says a lot about the team’s turnover rate but also makes it hard to project who will be the team’s best clutch option. With that said, it seems likely that Okafor will have the ball in his hands when the game is on the line. He’s the best offensive weapon that Philadelphia has, as previously mentioned, and in addition to his scoring ability he also has the high basketball IQ and passing ability to make the right play in clutch situations.

The Unheralded Player: Robert Covington

There are many unheralded players on the Sixers. Their roster features many relatively unknown players who most NBA fans don’t know much about. However, Covington gets the nod here because he became an important piece for Philly last year after joining the team out of the D-League. He was the first overall pick in the 2014 NBA D-League draft by the Grand Rapids Drive and then joined Philly in November. Despite starting the season out of the league, he ended up playing 70 games for the Sixers and averaging an impressive 13.5 points (second-best on the team) as well as 4.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals. Perhaps most important, he really stretched the floor for the Sixers, shooting 37.4 percent from three-point range – on a team that had the NBA’s worst True Shooting Percentage (49.4 percent) and the NBA’s second-worst three-point percentage (32 percent).

Best New Addition: Jahlil Okafor

Okafor is the obvious pick here. The third overall pick in the draft has star potential and, if he maximizes his full potential, he could be a franchise-changing player for the Sixers. Considering the Sixers didn’t really make any other splashy moves this summer, Okafor doesn’t have much competition in this category. It’ll be a lot of fun watching Okafor making the transition from college to the pros.

-Alex Kennedy

Who We Like

1. Sam Hinkie: Hinkie has his critics, but I’m not one of them. I love what he has done in Philadelphia, taking advantage of an NBA system that incentivizes tanking. If all goes as planned, Hinkie’s approach should allow the Sixers to land multiple cornerstones and become one of the better up-and-coming teams in the league. Hinkie also deserves credit for his terrific trades. He has been able to stockpile so many draft picks and young assets (that will either pan out or serve as trade chips) by being willing to take on bad contracts and help teams free up cap space. Hinkie has also done a terrific job explaining his long-term plan so that players, fans and, most importantly, ownership remain patient and “trust the process.” At some point in the near future, the Sixers will need to start spending money and winning, and I think that time will come soon. If (or when) that happens, Hinkie will deserve a ton of credit.

2. Carl Landry: Speaking of Sam Hinkie, I loved the trade that brought Landry to Philadelphia. Sacramento was desperate to clear cap room, and the Sixers pounced on a great opportunity to add assets. Philadelphia gave up a future second-rounder and the draft rights to an international player in exchange for Landry, Nik Stauskas, Jason Thompson and a protected first-round pick as well as the right to swap firsts with Sacramento in two other drafts. Shortly after, they flipped Thompson for Gerald Wallace’s $10 million expiring contract, cash and draft considerations. It was a terrific move for the Sixers. But let’s focus on Landry for a moment. One of two things will happen with the veteran power forward this season: He’ll be a strong veteran mentor for Philly’s young players and be a consummate pro (as he has been his whole career), or he’ll be traded prior to the February deadline for additional assets. Either way, he’s a good guy for the Sixers to have on their roster.

3. Nik Stauskas: Stauskas was another huge pick up in that deal with the Kings. Just one year ago, Stauskas was the No. 8 overall pick in the draft and I believe Sacramento gave up on the 21-year-old far too early. As I mentioned earlier, the Sixers were terrible shooting the ball last year, so adding a three-point specialist was a great pick up for this team. Stauskas will have every opportunity to succeed in Philadelphia and will get the chance to showcase his game since he’ll get playing time and touches, which wasn’t really the case in Sacramento (starting just one game and averaging 15.4 minutes a night). Even though he was underwhelming as a rookie, Philly can afford to be patient with Stauskas, letting him develop and play through his mistakes. He’s exactly what this roster needs, and all signs point to this change of scenery being perfect for him.

4. Jerami Grant: The 39th overall pick in last year’s draft, Grant got plenty of playing time in Philadelphia last year and performed well at times. He finished last season averaging 6.3 points, three rebounds and one block in 21.2 minutes per game. He’s a bit of a project for the Sixers, but the 21-year-old was able to start 11 games last year and he’ll continue to further his development in Philadelphia. Grant may never be as good as his brother, New York Knicks point guard Jerian Grant, but he definitely has the potential to become a quality rotation player in the NBA. Oh, and he’s extremely fun to watch, as evidenced by highlight plays like this and this.

-Alex Kennedy

Strengths

Surprisingly, Philadelphia had the 12th-best defense in the NBA last season. They allowed 102.1 points per 100 possessions, which was tied with the Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics and ranked them ahead of talented teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Cleveland Cavaliers among others. Another strength is the Sixers’ patience – throughout the organization and among their fan base thanks to Hinkie’s great explanation of his long-term plan. This patience is why Philly is able to play their young guys, throwing them into the fire and letting them learn from their mistakes. It’s also why their tanking has been tolerated – and even supported – by many people in and around the team. But perhaps Philly’s biggest strength, as previously mentioned, has been Hinkie’s ability to land excellent assets in trades without giving up any significant pieces.

-Alex Kennedy

Weaknesses

The Sixers obviously have a lot of weaknesses. While they played well on defense, as previously mentioned, they really struggled to score the ball. Philadelphia had the worst offense in the NBA last season, scoring just 93 points per 100 possessions. Adding a legitimate No. 1 option in Jahlil Okafor should help, but the team needs to make huge strides on that end. Shooting is also a big problem for the Sixers. Hinkie has assembled a lot of players who struggle with their jumper with the hope that they can improve their shot in the years to come. While that may work and pay off eventually, it led to Philly having the worst True Shooting Percentage of any team in the NBA last season (49.4 percent). And even though they missed all of these shots and had a ton of rebound opportunities, the Sixers still managed to have the second-worst rebounding rate in the NBA last year. Inexperience is also a major issue for the Sixers, since they have a ton of young players who likely wouldn’t be rotation players on most teams. And, as with any young team, closing games has been an issue with Philadelphia. This team has a long way to go, but everyone knew that when they started down this path.

-Alex Kennedy

The Burning Question

When will the Sixers finally start competing rather than tanking?

This is the question that everyone is asking about Philadelphia. Sixers legend Julius Erving may have tipped off the organization’s long-term plan in a recent interview with Sirius XM NBA Radio. Dr. J said that when the new ownership group acquired the team, they told him of a seven-year plan that would involve tanking and then finally being in position to contend by the 2018-19 season. That means we should start seeing progress from the Sixers in each of the next few years. I believe they’ll tank once again this year – especially with Dario Saric not on the roster and Joel Embiid once again sidelined – which could allow them to add another star to their young core (hello, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown). After that, I expect them to take a significant step forward in the 2016-17 season and continue to improve each year as their young core inches toward their collective prime (which they’ll be nearing right around the 2018-19 season, validating Dr. J’s statement). While it’s possible that the Sixers could accelerate their rebuild depending on how the team performs (or if the lottery format is changed), this is currently my best guess for how the team will progress over the next several seasons.

-Alex Kennedy

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