NBA AM: Future is Bright for Winless 76ers

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Philadelphia is Losing, But the Future Looks Bright

With the NBA season just several weeks old, it may seem ridiculous to be looking ahead to the 2016 NBA Draft. But when discussing the tanking Philadelphia 76ers, it’s never too early to start discussing draft prospects, especially since this year is extremely important to Philly’s rebuilding effort.

That’s because the Sixers could have two of the top four picks in the 2016 NBA Draft – and four first-round picks total – if everything goes Philadelphia’s way this season. They currently have their own pick, the Los Angeles Lakers’ selection (which is top-three protected), the Miami HEAT’s selection (which is top 10 protected) and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s selection (which is top 15 protected).

With the Sixers currently sitting at 0-10, the NBA’s only winless team, it’s possible that this could be the season that Philadelphia finally tanks it’s way to the top draft pick. Thus far, the highest they’ve been able to pick is No. 3 (which is where they picked Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid). Winning the lottery would be huge for the franchise, as it would allow them to select a potential star such as LSU’s Ben Simmons with the first overall pick. Even landing the second pick could net Simmons, as Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere could go first (and Philadelphia doesn’t need another big man).

But wait, the Sixers could find themselves on the clock once again minutes later. That’s because the Lakers’ pick that they own is only top three protected. With head coach Byron Scott rolling with his veterans (Kobe Bryant played 36 minutes last night…) and nailing his rookies to the bench (D’Angelo Russell played 21 minutes last night…), it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Lakers fall just outside of the top three. That could allow the Sixers to add a second potential star on draft night.

If they do get to pick again, somewhere between four and seven, finding their point guard of the future would likely be the best option. Kentucky’s Jamal Murray and Providence’s Kris Dunn are two point guards who could be in the mix for the Sixers with that selection.

That would be a sensational draft for the Sixers and a huge step forward in their rebuild. Oh, but don’t forget: Next season, it’s possible that Philadelphia will also have Dario Saric and Embiid playing for the first time, making their young core even scarier. And they still have two more 2016 first-round picks, assuming Miami and Oklahoma City live up to expectations.

Imagine that squad: Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray (or Kris Dunn), Nik Stauskas, Jerami Grant and two more first-round talents.

If Philly rolls out that lineup next season, the Sixers are suddenly one of the better up-and-coming teams in the NBA and Sam Hinkie’s critics are silenced.

From day one, I’ve been behind this long-term rebuild because it does seem to be the best way for Philadelphia to land multiple star players and become a contender in the long-term. Hinkie has positioned the Sixers to land star players at the top of the draft – either with their own picks or with selections acquired from other teams.

In the NBA, if you’re a team that isn’t competing for a championship, it makes the most sense to bottom out and land one of the top picks in the draft. Executives will often say that sitting in the middle of the pack is the worst place for a franchise to be because they’re just good enough to miss out on the draft’s stars and just bad enough to be outside of contention. The Sixers may have taken this to the extreme and been very obvious about their tanking, but that’s simply Hinkie and his staff taking advantage of an NBA system that incentivizes this sort of losing.

I’ve talked to other executives who wish they could do the same thing, but they can’t because it’s a tough sell to ownership and requires a lot of patience from everyone involved.

Given time, it’s hard to imagine the 76ers’ plan not working. After all, bring in enough top prospects and the team is bound to eventually land a star and build a pretty solid squad, right?

There’s often a direct correlation between picking high in the draft and winning games. Many of the teams that are in contention today fell to the bottom of the standings at one point – either by tanking or just natural struggling. For example, look at the Oklahoma City Thunder, Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards among others.

The Thunder landed Kevin Durant (No. 2), Russell Westbrook (No. 4), James Harden (No. 3), Serge Ibaka (No. 24) through the draft to become a juggernaut. Now that this team is a perennial contender, nobody talks about the four-year stretch when they lost 219 games. And they did do some tanking here and there (remember the “let’s play Durant at shooting guard” experiment?).

Does LeBron James return to Cleveland if the Cavaliers don’t have Kyrie Irving (No. 1) on their roster? Does Cleveland acquire Kevin Love if they don’t win back-to-back lotteries that netted Andrew Wiggins (No. 1) and Anthony Bennett (No. 1). In recent years they also selected Tristan Thompson (No. 4), who became a key piece, and Dion Waiters (No. 4), who was a nice trade chip.

The Clippers’ fortunes turned around when they selected Blake Griffin (No. 1), and then were able to trade for Chris Paul and persuade him to stay. Does Paul agree to go to Los Angeles and re-sign long-term with the Clippers if they don’t have Griffin for him to play alongside?

The Spurs have seemingly been great forever, but where would they be without Tim Duncan (No 1.)?

The Bulls have done an excellent job finding talented players later in the draft such as Jimmy Butler (No. 30), Nikola Mirotic (No. 23), Taj Gibson (No. 26), etc. But even they were built around top prospects like Derrick Rose (No. 1) and Joakim Noah (No. 9).

The Wizards’ young core was assembled by making several trips to the lottery, allowing them to land John Wall (No. 1), Bradley Beal (No. 3) and Otto Porter Jr. (No. 3) among others.

These teams didn’t blow up their roster and lose quite like the Sixers, so they weren’t criticized like Hinkie and Co. for “trusting the process,” but it just shows how important it is to land a top pick and how a star or two can completely turn around a franchise.

Okafor is looking like a potential star for the Sixers, averaging 19.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 47.4 percent from the field. Perhaps most impressive is that he’s doing all of this at 19 years old and with little help around him (which means he’s already seeing double teams). Imagine how good Okafor will be if the Sixers add a legitimate second option on offense and some shooters to surround him?

Noel looks like a special player too. He’s playing well alongside Okafor, averaging 11.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.8 steals at 21 years old.

Now imagine this Sixers team with Saric and Embiid playing, along with two more top prospects (think Simmons and Murray, for argument’s sake). Do you see how this team starts to look scary? Do you see why all of the losses suddenly seem worth it? Philadelphia would have a young core that’s right up there with the rest of the league’s best up-and-coming teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic.

This is a huge year for Hinkie and the Sixers. And honestly, while most teams would be panicking about an 0-10 start, it’s no problem for Philadelphia. In fact, it’s according to plan. If they keep losing and the Lakers finish with just enough victories, the Sixers may be in position to add two more potential stars on draft night.

If that happens, look for this franchise to flip to page two of their rebuilding blueprint: Finally putting all of their talent out on the court and winning some games in the wide open Eastern Conference. Then, once that happens and Philly’s core is being discussed as one of the league’s most promising, the 76ers will have the most cap room of any team in the NBA. And they have the option of swapping 2017 first-round picks with the Sacramento Kings (protected for picks 11-30 in 2017 and top-10 protected in 2018).

Trust the process.