As each NBA team is eliminated from contention for the 2015-16 title, The Washington Post will look ahead to what they have in store for this offseason. The series begins with the Philadelphia 76ers, who became the first team eliminated from playoff contention Monday night when they lost to the Washington Wizards.
Things went exactly how they were supposed to this season for the Philadelphia 76ers. Terribly.
Most teams would be furious about having single-digit victories on March 1, and already having been eliminated from a chance at making the playoffs. But the Sixers are not most teams — and, in fact, have been trying to be one of the NBA’s worst teams for three seasons running.
The thinking is that, by being as bad as possible, Philadelphia could get the best possible odds of getting the top pick in the NBA draft, and with it the best and easiest chance at getting a superstar onto its roster. That plan hasn’t worked out the past two years, as the Sixers finished with the third pick in both 2014 and 2015, and they’ll be hoping their luck will change this year when they could have as many as four first-round picks — including two in the top five.
But while lottery success is no guarantee, the way Philadelphia has constructed its roster the past three seasons has guaranteed the Sixers would be awful, and they have been. They’ve found a few intriguing young players, including Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Robert Covington, but have mostly been horrendous. As Philadelphia moves into the offseason, the biggest question facing the franchise is if that plan is finally coming to an end.
2016 draft picks
First round: Their own, Los Angeles Lakers (top-three protected), Miami Heat (top-10 protected), Oklahoma City Thunder (top-15 protected), plus the right to swap first-round picks with the Sacramento Kings (if the Kings finish with a better pick than the Sixers).
Second round: None
2016-17 projected salary cap space (with projected $90 million cap)
$57.3 million ($24.5 million committed to six guaranteed contracts; $7.1 million to three projected first round picks; $1.6 million to three roster charges).
2016 free agents
PG Ish Smith, PF Elton Brand
Five questions to answer
1. Who will be running this team?
For the past three seasons, the Sixers have been defined by “The Process” – the plan put in place by general manager Sam Hinkie to rebuild the team. But after enduring more than two seasons of falling among the worst teams in the NBA, owner Josh Harris brought in Hall of Famer Jerry Colangelo to become the franchise’s top decision maker in December.
There have been rumblings ever since that Colangelo will replace Hinkie after the season, or at least bring in another day-to-day basketball operations person to work alongside or above him. Colangelo added to those rumors when he said the following during All-Star Weekend in Toronto:
“I think that any time you have an opportunity to enhance your organization, and you bring in people to accomplish that, you need to consider it big time. You really do. I think, in our case, we have a very bright young man in Sam Hinkie, who holds the title of president and GM. In his space, he’s really strong.
“One could build a case for saying you’d like to have more people added who have experience in other aspects of those jobs. That’s the kind of conversations that’s going on.”
That sure sounds like Philadelphia will be looking for some front office help in a few weeks.
2. Can Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor play together?
As the NBA is becoming more and more obsessed with small lineups featuring positional versatility, Philadelphia entered this season with a conundrum: trying to find a way to make its two best available assets, Noel and Okafor, co-exist. The two big men offer very different skill sets – Noel, the No. 6 pick in 2013, is an athletic shot-blocker and defender, while Okafor, the No. 3 pick in 2015 is a polished scorer who struggles defensively.
Both are centers, however, and have struggled to find a comfortable fit together.
“I’ve admitted candidly to the media, and to our team, that we are trying to grow those two bigs, and it comes with pain sometimes with matchups,” 76ers Head Coach Brett Brown told reporters Monday. “But that’s the way it goes.”
The numbers spell that out. In 696 minutes Noel and Okafor have played together, Philadelphia has been outscored by a staggering 263 points. This is going to be a tricky situation for Brown and the Sixers to navigate, and may have to result in them moving on from one of them.
3. What will happen at the draft lottery?
Hinkie’s plan to maximize his lottery odds hasn’t paid dividends so far, but the Sixers will be hoping that changes this season. Winning the lottery would likely mean they’ll take LSU star Ben Simmons, who would be the kind of star this team so desperately needs to revive its image and breathe some life into a franchise lacking much of it.
But that’s not the only stroke of lottery luck Philadelphia is hoping for this year. Perhaps more important to the Sixers’ rebuilding plan is getting the Lakers’ first-round pick, which is top-three protected. Los Angeles currently has the second-worst record in the NBA — meaning if the Lakers don’t have their ping-pong balls selected, Philadelphia would have no worse than two top-five picks in this year’s draft.
For a team desperate to start turning things around, having things break that way would be a huge boost to Philadelphia’s rebuilding effort.
4. Will Joel Embiid and Dario Saric play for Philadelphia next season?
The thing Hinkie has been criticized for more than anything else is what he did on draft night in 2014, when he took Embiid with the No. 3 pick and Saric at No. 12 – two players that were undoubtedly worthy of being selected in those spots from a talent perspective, but who had no chance of playing for Philadelphia in 2014-15.
Close to two years later, neither one has played in a single game for the Sixers – Embiid because of multiple foot injuries, and Saric because he’s still playing for Anadolu Efes in Turkey. There’s no guarantee either will play for them next season, either. Embiid still has to prove he can actually get on the court, while Saric would be freed from the rookie salary scale if he waits one more season to come to the NBA, a decision that would allow him to make far more money over the first few seasons of his NBA career.
Like the draft lottery, this is a situation with a wide range of outcomes. Philadelphia could have up to eight first-round picks on its roster at the start of training camp if things work out optimally. If Embiid and Saric both can’t play, though, and if the Lakers keep their draft pick, things could look dramatically different.
5. How will the Sixers approach free agency?
Under Hinkie, Philadelphia has almost completely sat out of free agency the past two summers, as he had no interest in improving the on-court product. That feeling has changed, though, with Colangelo pledging to try and make the Sixers better now. Plus, with so many young players on the roster, it’s time for them to start adding veterans.
Here’s the problem: will anyone be willing to take their money? The Sixers have a very negative perception around the league after the way they’ve acted over the past two years – particularly with agents, who have seen Philadelphia hoard cap space and wonder why they aren’t spending it on their clients. Colangelo’s presence should help with that, as would the potential arrival of someone else to work above, alongside or in place of Hinkie in the front office. But even that will likely leave Philadelphia in a situation where the Sixers will have to overpay veterans this summer to get them to choose to play there.
More in our NBA Postmortem series: