Aside from making the playoffs, which would cost a high first-round draft pick and unquestionably rank among the most egregious failures in the history of the franchise, the 76ers’ greatest concern over the second half of the season remains ensuring the health of Nerlens Noel.
Little else matters over the final 41 games of the regular season, which began with Wednesday night’s game at the Knicks.
Imagine a significant setback in Noel’s recovery from reconstructive knee surgery sidelining the rookie center for all of next season, as well, further delaying the team’s efforts to develop an NBA championship-caliber roster over the next several years, and it’seasy to understand why the rebuilding organization has chosen to envelop its lanky big man of the future in a thick swath of bubble wrap, even though he’s been medically cleared to resume limited basketball activity.
Noel and point guard Michael Carter-Williams, at this point the runaway favorite to win NBA Rookie of the Year, plus the Sixers’ 2014 first-round draft pick and another likely lottery pick from the New Orleans Pelicans, are the unquestionable cornerstones of this franchise.
What happens to veterans Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young as the trade deadline approaches, and the continued development of Carter-Williams, and the search for future effective bench players like Tony Wroten and Hollis Thompson are other compelling storylines.
But at this point, more than anything, the team’s future hinges on Noel, the athletic 6-11 center and presumptive No. 1 overall draft pick until he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Feb. 12, 2013, during his freshman season at Kentucky.
Noel was nevertheless named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year after averaging 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.1 steals and an NCAA-best 4.4 blocks while shooting 59 percent from the field.
At the time of the draft, Noel was widely expected to remain sidelined through December 2013, at the earliest.
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