A few hours after the 2014 NBA Draft concluded, several Philadelphia 76ers fans celebrated outside of the Westin Hotel in New York where players and executives were staying. The fans were excited about Philadelphia’s successful draft and wanted to come face-to-face with their favorite member of the Sixers. No, they didn’t want to meet Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel or Joel Embiid. They wanted to see Sam Hinkie, the team’s general manager.
The fans wore customized No. 76 jersey shirts with Hinkie’s last name. Critics of the 76ers’ rebuilding effort often say that the team’s tanking is unfair for the suffering fans, but many in Philadelphia feel the same way as these Hinkie supporters.
Even though the Sixers are almost guaranteed to be one of the league’s worst teams, fans are fine with this because they understand that tanking gives the team its best chance to land several star players and become a contender in the near future.
“It’s really important not to take your eyes off what matters,” Hinkie said on media day. “And what matters is not feeling great about yourself the 3rd of March, but to give yourself a chance to feel great about yourself the 3rd of June.”
Many people around the league are upset with Philadelphia, but what Hinkie is doing makes perfect sense. In fact, some of the anger toward Hinkie seems to be because other executives are jealous. After all, not many GMs are allowed to do what Hinkie is doing, since owners are rarely this patient and fan bases typically don’t blindly support the executive who constructs a 19-win team. However, Hinkie has been given this opportunity, mainly because he and his staff have done a good job spelling out the big-picture vision for the team so everyone is willing to back him for now while the process plays out.
And so far, Hinkie has done a solid job as he carries out his plan. He has stockpiled draft picks and then used those selections to bring in high-upside players who could be stars in several years.
Carter-Williams and Noel were strong picks in last year’s draft. The former won Rookie of the Year last season and the latter likely would’ve been a much higher pick if he hadn’t gotten injured during his lone collegiate season at Kentucky. Both players have a lot of potential and seem like they could be franchise cornerstones for Philadelphia as they continue to develop.
This year’s draft yielded two more very talented players in Embiid and Dario Saric. Embiid, like Noel, may have been the top overall pick in the draft had he not gotten injured during his one-and-done season at Kansas, and talent evaluators believe he’s the best center prospect to enter the NBA in quite some time. Saric likely would’ve gone higher as well if it weren’t for his contract with Anadolu Efes that will keep him overseas for at least one more year. Scouts were very impressed with the progress Saric showed last year, but the overseas deal scared some teams off.
It’s possible that neither player will play this season, but that actually may be Philadelphia’s preference so they can also land a top selection in the 2015 NBA Draft. Hinkie also made the most of his multiple second-round picks, selecting K.J. McDaniels and Jerami Grant (who were being projected as first-round picks at one point during the pre-draft process) as well as Jordan McRae.
“I think we are going to be pretty good going forward,” Embiid said. “We have Michael Carter-Williams, who was Rookie of the Year, and I think that Nerlens is going to be Rookie of the Year this year. [We have] Tony Wroten, and Dario Saric will come. I think the future looks great.”
Hinkie also hired a respected coach in Brett Brown to lead the team last offseason. Hiring a coach like Brown isn’t easy to do when the blueprint calls for tanking. After all, coaches are judged by their win-loss record, so being able to hire Brown after telling him the plan is to lose as many games as possible shows that the head coach believes in the franchise’s long-term vision (and his four-year guaranteed contract helps too).
The 76ers will tank once again this year, judging by the lack of talent on their roster. Last year’s squad featured plenty of inexperienced, mediocre players but they also had veterans like Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner at the start of the year. Now, those players are gone and, outside of Carter-Williams, Noel and Embiid, the Sixers have a group of prospects even the most diehard NBA fan would have trouble recognizing. McDaniels, Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims will likely start for Philadelphia, while players like Grant, Wroten, Brandon Davies, Chris Johnson, Casper Ware and Elliot Williams will likely be in the rotation. On most teams, those individuals are end of the bench players or perhaps just training camp bodies. On the Sixers, they’re key contributors.
By playing these young players, Hinkie can try to find a diamond-in-the-rough who could be part of the team’s core on a bargain contract going forward. But more importantly, this roster guarantees that Philadelphia will struggle once again and land a top pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, which is projected to be very good.
Philadelphia’s strategy may rub some people the wrong way, but Hinkie knows exactly what he’s doing. Many teams that fell to the bottom of the standings – through intentional tanking or simply struggling – in recent years are now very good teams, such as the Oklahoma City Thunder, Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers, Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards. This is no coincidence. Being very bad and getting a top pick is the easiest way to land a star, and it’s no secret that stars attract other stars in the NBA.
Without Kyrie Irving, LeBron James likely doesn’t return to Cleveland. Without Blake Griffin, Chris Paul likely doesn’t accept a trade to the Clippers and ultimately re-sign with the franchise.
Oftentimes, it’s the teams that refuse to have a down year just to land a top pick that end up being in the middle of the pack year after year. Sometimes, this is the general manager’s choice. Other times, it’s the owner who refuses to intentionally put a bad product on the floor.
The 76ers clearly don’t mind doing just that. Philadelphia will be very, very bad this season, likely finishing with even fewer than 19 wins (last year’s total). However, that’s exactly what Hinkie and his staff want because all of the losses will be worth it if the influx of lottery talent allows the 76ers to assemble one of the best up-and-coming teams in the NBA and eventually contend.
Horford Shaking Off Rust in Preseason
After playing in just 29 games during the 2013-14 NBA season, Atlanta Hawks big man Al Horford is using this year’s preseason to get back into game shape and return to All-Star form.
Horford went down with a torn pectoral that required surgery and he missed Atlanta’s first two preseason games as he was still recovering. Now, he has been able to play in the Hawks’ last three games, but the team is easing him back into the lineup. He played 11 minutes on Oct. 14 against the Miami HEAT, 16 minutes Oct. 16 against the Chicago Bulls and 21 minutes on Oct. 18 against the Detroit Pistons.
The 28-year-old has averaged six points and 4.3 rebounds in his first three outings. Last season, he was averaging 18.6 points (a career-high), 8.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks prior to the season-ending injury. He made the All-Star team in 2010 and 2011, and could once again be an All-Star if he returns to full strength.
Horford’s most impressive game of the exhibition season was against the Pistons, when he had 12 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals in 21 minutes. After that game, which was his first time playing over 20 minutes, Horford didn’t have any issues with his pectoral.
“I felt really good,” Horford said. “I was pleased with the way that I felt.”
Because he hasn’t played meaningful minutes since last December, Horford knows he’s not going to be back to 100 percent immediately. Fortunately, he’ll have two more preseason games to shake off the rust before Atlanta opens their regular season against the Toronto Raptors on Oct. 29.
“It’s going to take, for me, just time,” Horford said. “I will keep getting in game situations, start that chemistry again with Jeff and get it going. I need to catch up with everybody else. I’m confident that we’ll figure it out. We’ll take it game-by-game.”
“I think he really made a noticeable step forward – his length and going and getting rebounds and extending, just looking comfortable,” Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Horford has two years remaining on his contract with the Hawks, making $12,000,000 in both seasons. Last year, Atlanta managed to win 38 games and still make the playoffs despite losing Horford so early in the season. With their star big man back, the Hawks should be able to take a significant forward this year and be even better.
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