76ers face big summer that will shape success of their rebuild

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers have unlimited options, but they need to start turning those options into core pieces if they want their rebuilding effort to succeed. This summer is where it starts.

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There's no point going over the various machinations that brought the Philadelphia 76ers to the point they are now at. You already know. They blew up something mediocre and made something much worse with the intent to rebuild it emphatically.

Instead, we'll focus on what they have to use.

The first place to look is the draft. As of right now, the Sixers have a whopping seven picks to work with this year: two first-rounders and five seconds. With the lottery still to come, the firsts are currently slated at No. 2 (despite trying to be the worst team in the NBA, they were still somehow better than one that was trying to make the playoffs) and No. 10 (from the Pelicans as a part of the Jrue Holiday deal). Behind that, they also have the always-valuable No. 32 pick, as well as the No. 39, No. 47, No. 52 and No. 54 selections. They are still set to lose their 2015 first-round pick to Boston unless they are picking in the top 14 (in which case they lose their 2015 and 2016 second-rounders), and their 2017 first round pick is still owed to Orlando. Yet this is offset by the four additional second-round picks they are owed between 2015 and 2018 by other teams. They even still have the rights to the potentially useful Furkan Aldemir down the road.

In terms of draft assets, the Sixers are highly stacked.

Their free agency situation is similarly peachy. The Sixers have only $65 million committed in all seasons after this one and just $33.5 million next year. Of that $33.5 million, a large chunk is unguaranteed (see below), and none is what might be called "dead" salary, save for the waived Eric Maynor. This is then the best part of $30 million in available cap space, one accounting for first-round cap holds and unguaranteed deals. Financially at least, the 76ers are in the running for anybody they so choose.

On the trade market, every incumbent contract has some value. Byron Mullens and Jason Richardson -- still there, still injured, still guaranteed, still seeing to it that the Sixers are still paying the price of the Andrew Bynum deal -- both have expiring next season, if indeed they even exercise their player options for 2014-15. All of Casper Ware, Jarvis Varnado, Hollis Thompson, Elliot Williams, Brandon Davies, Henry Sims and James Anderson have unguaranteed deals for next season totaling $6.4 million between them, an amount less than Richardson on his own will make. Adonis Thomas bucks this trend by being a free agent at season's end. Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams, Tony Wroten and Arnett Moultrie are all on cap-friendly rookie-scale deals, all with some level of trade value if the Sixers choose to go that way. And the only other player remaining, Thaddeus Young, is a quality two-way player at a competitive price who surely will command value in a deal. As ever, everything here is flexible and no salary is dead.

Plenty of assets, just as there were designed to be.

But for all the assets, there are few cornerstones. Assets are not worth anything if nothing becomes of them. The Sixers have gone down this path in order to obtain as much talent as possible, yet so far, all they have acquired is a lot of means of potentially getting said talent, not the talent itself.

What talent do they need? Pretty much everything. Of the players on the roster, only Carter-Williams has played himself into a core role, with Noel likely to do so when he takes the court next season. Although he does not fit especially well with Carter-Williams and has major holes in his game, Wroten has done enough this season to merit some piece of the immediate future, even if his ultimate destination is another trade. Thompson and Anderson have proved their worth as wing role players, but as backup types thrust into a bigger role than they ought have been, they certainly aren't cemented long-term parts. Young seems destined to be traded. Moultrie is coming off a very injury-riddled nothing season; he's a prospect for the future, but a very unknown one.

For all the value this past season has put them in, it must not be forgotten how terrible the Sixers were on the court.

Before anything, though, they just need to accumulate talent. Before finding complimentary pieces that make core pieces fit together, the Sixers need core pieces. They desperately need a top three talent in this draft; the second first-rounder given to them by the Pelicans is highly valuable, particularly if they can move up further with it to the fringes of the top five. Personal choices will differ on who they should take -- I would want them to target Joel Embiid and Aaron Gordon, regardless of the presence of Noel -- yet the fact remains that they sorely need the two best players available.

Once they have completed what will surely be an extremely busy draft night of maneuvering, the Sixers begin the more tricky bits. Should Philadelphia choose to pursue the free agency route in a matter they have thus far ignored, they need to be careful in their approach. If enough of the young players they have been acquiring via various means work out and a core is built, that core will need paying. And if a team burns through its cap space on an expensive veteran, the ability to retain that core is inhibited.

As a point of reference, the Oklahoma City Thunder had a ton of cap space to use in the summer of 2009 and an obvious need in the front court. Yet instead of lavishing the big dollars on the David Lee-types that were on the market and on whom they could conceivably have easily won a bidding war, they instead signed only two free agents that year (Kevin Ollie and Ryan Bowen, of all people), and preserved the cap space into the season, whereafter they used it on trades for Matt Harpring (getting Eric Maynor in the process) and Daequan Cook (with the pick that became Eric Bledsoe). It smarted at the time, yet the Thunder apprehended the problem of having to pay everyone down the road and instead used the space for big short term contracts with cheap long-term assets attached. Even though the subsequent Kendrick Perkins acquisition and decline rather undermined it a bit, it was a correct decision at the time. And the same may apply to the Sixers this summer.

Similarly, Philadelphia needs to be wary of being too bad. There comes a point in any tank, rebuild or reload at which it becomes untenable, and that point is usually after the second year. For all the value of the position this past season has put them in, it must not be forgotten quite how terrible the Sixers were on the court. However strategically sound it was, it was horrible to watch. And if it sustains for too long, the fanbase and the city will become detached.

The Charlotte Bobcats have found this out in recent years, which is why they built the team they have now. There is little to suggest that the 2013-14 Bobcats are, or ever could be, a team on their way to conference title contention at any point, yet it is nevertheless a team to be proud of, a very well-coached team of good citizens who play hard, play fairly smart, and with enough youth to keep alive the possibilities of internal growth and sustainability. Had they spent another year or two tanking to clear up the mess left by unsuccessful years of tanking, the team's name and reputation would be tarnished in perpetuity. Pride comes before a fall, but it should also come after it.

The Sixers, then, need to reconcile these various factors. They need to balance the need for talent acquisition with the need and value for fluidity and flexibility. They need to balance the promise of the future with the need to one day deliver a present. And they need to balance the vast wealth of assets they have at their disposal right now with the need to commit to something in the near future.

That's tricky. It would be arguably easier to have fewer options.

And yet, it can be done. Keep the core few players they have now, and keep Young for now. Target in free agency a young veteran for slightly above the mid-level exception value, one who can grow with the core in the years to come and aid their development. Give them a three or four year contract. A Greg Monroe-type youngster if possible, or a Kyle Lowry, Luol Deng-like fringe star who plays the right way. (The three years has the advantage of expiring right when hypothetical extensions for Carter-Williams and Noel kick in; the four has the advantage of being extendable. Three would be better suited for purpose here.) Use most if not all of the second-rounders to move as far up in the draft as possible; as already established, this is a strong draft, and Philadelphia intends to dominate it. Pick the two best players available without too much regard for positional needs at the moment and draft and stash with any leftover picks.

Then, in 2015-16, with a young, dynamic, hungry core in place and a fanbase who wants to see that translate to some winning, go for it.

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