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NBA PM: Sixers are Ready to Begin Competing

After two years near the bottom of the standings, the 76ers are ready to take a step forward … Anthony Bennett is playing with confidence for Canada

Cody Taylor profile picture
Updated 10 months ago on
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Sixers are Ready to Begin Competing

Over the past two seasons, the Philadelphia 76ers have been among the worst teams in the Eastern Conference. Although they have yet to finish in last place in the conference during that time frame, they have been near the bottom of the standings.

For all of the attention that they’ve received in how they’ve approached their rebuilding effort, the franchise is only three years removed from their last playoff appearance. The negative publicity they’ve endured since that last playoff appearance feels as though it’s been much longer since playing in the postseason. After all, this is a team that has won just 71 games combined over the previous three seasons.

That 2011-12 playoff team featured the likes of Lou Williams, Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Andre Iduodala, Elton Brand, Evan Turner and Nikola Vucevic, among others. All of those players are long gone from that playoff squad. They were traded for assets and other pieces in order to rebuild from the ground up. The front office recognized that roster went as far as it could go and it was time to start over.

That rebuilding effort has brought us to where we are today. The front office has instituted a plan, and they’ve been methodical in their approach. They have remained patient during this time and optimistic as they stockpile young players and draft picks. Of course, relying on young players and draft picks doesn’t necessarily mean things will work out. No matter how promising a player out of college may appear, there is no “sure bet” regarding the NBA draft.

We’ve seen before how injuries can derail a player’s career. So, it should be no surprise that the team has gone through several players to get to where they are today. They’ll try out some players, and if they don’t work out, they’ll move on to the next crop of talent. It’s how the team settled on its new mantra: “Trust the process.”

Everyone around the organization seems to be fully embracing that motto. Everyone from the fans to even the players have bought into the system, which the team has created. It’s true that the team is improving. Each season they’ve gained more experience and have improved their individual skills. They’re beginning to believe that they can compete in the NBA.

It was just one week ago that Tony Wroten let the world know that they’re here to compete.

The reaction to Wroten’s tweet was mixed. Of course, Sixers fans embraced the message and were encouraged that their team feels they can compete. And then there were those that didn’t seem quite as sold as others. The fact of the matter is within the next few years, the team seems poised to return to the playoff picture.

During this past draft, the Sixers were handed a gift when the Los Angeles Lakers passed on drafting Jahlil Okafor with the second pick. They instead drafted D’Angelo Russell, which left the door wide open for Philadelphia to grab Okafor. The decision to add Okafor to the team was a no-brainer. He seemed to be one of the most well-rounded players in the draft and perhaps the best option to walk off of the college court and contribute immediately in the NBA.

He had himself a great Summer League between Utah and Las Vegas, which further added to the hype around him. Okafor averaged 15.8 points and 8.4 rebounds in five contests during Summer League. His best performance came against the Lakers when he recorded 19 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Although performances in Summer League are often taken with a grain of salt, his solid outings will further improve his confidence heading into training camp.

Okafor seems to be fitting in well so far with his new teammates. He has known Joel Embiid and newcomer Pierre Jackson for a number of years and considers them good friends. He also has history with Jerami Grant, as they played for Team USA together when they were younger. Point guard Isaiah Canaan even flew out to Las Vegas just to meet him during Summer League.

While Okafor’s future seems extremely bright in Philadelphia, there still remains perhaps the biggest question on the roster in Embiid. He’s expected to miss the entire 2015-16 campaign after undergoing a second surgery to repair his right foot. The team announced that his foot wasn’t healing quite up to expectations and opted to have a second surgery.

These kinds of injuries to big men are always tricky. Players in the past have proven that recovery from these injuries are not always guaranteed. Given the uncertainty surrounding Embiid’s future, the team has been heavily criticized for drafting him knowing that this could happen.

But, when you look at how the rest of the 2014 draft has panned out, the argument can still be made that Embiid was the right pick. He was the next best option in the draft after Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were taken. Several other players from the draft class have missed significant time due to injury or have yet to receive consistent minutes yet. Knowing what we know now, Embiid could still be the best option with the third pick.

This time next year, we could be talking about the 76ers making a big jump in the East. Okafor will have a season under his belt, Embiid could return healthy and the team could finally bring Dario Saric in from overseas, as he’s reportedly warming to the idea of leaving Anadolu Efes and playing in the NBA.

The Sixers could have as much as $52 million in cap space next season, depending on how they handle their upcoming contract situations. They have only Carl Landry, Okafor and Richaun Holmes guaranteed on the books for the 2016-17 season, which amounts to only $12,314,671 in commitments. They control the fate of virtually everyone else on the roster via team options, restricted free agency or non-guaranteed deals.

They’ll go through another season able to evaluate their own talent. Wroten was the team’s best scoring option last season before going down with an ACL injury in January. He looks poised to return healthy by the start of training camp as he was seen already dunking, just six months after his surgery. Robert Covington, Jerami Grant, JaKarr Sampson and Canaan are other players that seem to have bright futures in the league that could be major pieces in the next few seasons.

The Sixers also added role players in Pierre Jackson and Scottie Wilbekin after solid outings in the Summer League. Both players are on the books for less than $1 million, which is a steal considering that players are earning significantly more given the rising salary cap. Both of those deals represent great value for the team, given the upside that both players have shown.

It’d be unfair to expect the Sixers to go out and make the playoffs next season. They’re built for long-term success, which could begin as soon as the 2016-17 season. Wroten, Okafor and the rest of the team will be setting out this season to prove that they can come out from the bottom of the East and be competitive. An improvement of five to 10 games could begin to turn the franchise around, paving the way for a breakout campaign in 2016-17.

Anthony Bennett Playing Confidently for Canada

The attitude and drive that led Anthony Bennett to become a number one overall pick in the NBA seems to returning. Bennett has been playing with the Canadian Men’s Basketball team this summer, which today began the FIBA Americas tournament against Argentina.

Bennett averaged 15.6 points and a tournament-high 9.6 rebounds in the Pan American games last month and turned in a 16-point performance last week in Puerto Rico at the Tuto Marchand Continental Cup. Those around Bennett have noticed a different player this summer.

“Anthony has been exemplary this summer,” said Steve Nash (via TSN), the general manager of Canada’s men’s senior team. “He’s had a tough first two years in the league but his attitude’s been amazing. His talent has never been in question but his attitude, willingness to learn and attention to detail … not that his attitude was ever an issue, but for him to come, to play in the Pan Am Games, to partake in a whole summer with us, it shows he has a real willingness to learn and get better and a want to be a great player.”

“[I’m] just playing with confidence, pretty much,” Bennett said. “Just going out there, playing defense [and] running the court. Just doing the little things first and trying to make offence come to me.”

Bennett’s journey in the NBA has been well-documented to this point. Injuries have been a big part of his lack of development thus far. He averaged just 4.2 points during his rookie season two years ago for the Cleveland Cavaliers in which he played in just 52 games. He was then traded last summer as part of the Kevin Love deal and played in only 57 games last season in Minnesota.

“I saw him play a little bit,” said Jay Triano, head coach of the Canadian senior men’s team and assistant with the Portland Trail Blazers. “Whether there were injuries or not getting a chance in the NBA, he was always grumpy and never smiling. And I remember him as a guy who was vocal, smiling, having fun playing the game.

“It looks like he’s loving basketball again,” Triano said. “And I think that was the big thing for us. We try to make it fun for him, try to simplify it. He’s so talented in a variety of areas that we needed to just simplify what we expect of him. If he does that, the rest of it is gonna fall into place.”

The Timberwolves are hoping his new-found confidence will translate into the NBA next season. The team is now filled with several young players, including Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng and Adreian Payne. Bennett will be a huge addition to that roster if he can begin to find success in the NBA.

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Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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