As we've discussed ad nauseum, the Philadelphia 76ers are the team that was least modest in signifying its intent to lose as many games as possible in the 2013-14 season. New GM Sam Hinkie traded a 23-year-old All-Star for an injured rookie and a draft pick, sat out the first month of free agency and has a roster that uses Hollis Thompson as a starter, Tony Wroten as No. 1 option off of the bench and Spencer Hawes in the role of Kevin Love. The Sixers weren't so much built to be bad as they were built to be totally awful.
As I've written before, it's not a bad plan. Nerlens Noel, once he makes his NBA debut, has a lot of potential as a defender in the paint, and we know how much paint defense matters at this level. (The top five defenses in the NBA star Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah, Serge Ibaka, Andrew Bogut and the Tiago Splitter/Tim Duncan combo.) The extra 2014 pick picked up in the Jrue Holiday trade comes from the Pelicans, and is only protected for the top 5. (If the season ended today, that pick would likely be No. 12 overall.) The Sixers picked up Michael Carter-Williams with their own 2013 pick, which was a nice gamble that looks like it will pay off. And, of course, they will be so bad that a top-5 pick is within reach.
What I didn't realize until watching the Sixers paste the admittedly-bad Kings in Sacramento on Thursday is that Hinkie has basically squeezed three years of a deep rebuild into one. Assuming Noel comes in strong and the 2014 draft works out properly, the Sixers could be good as soon as next season.
Think about it: unless the Pelicans make the playoffs (currently four games out), the Sixers will have four lottery picks in two years, with one of those likely to be very high in one of the best drafts of the past decade. To get that many lottery picks, you usually need to be awful for multiple seasons. The Sixers were technically pretty awful in 2012-13 under previous management, but that was an unhappy accident, not a tank season. Hinkie and coach Brett Brown could yank the Sixers out of the quicksand in June and be poised to take the division in 2013-14.
There's such a tremendous power vacuum in the East that the Sixers could really launch themselves into the top half of the playoff bracket with some moves in free agency, as well. Per ShamSports, the Sixers have less than $29 million in salary locked up for next season. Two lottery picks would expand it to about $32-33 million, plenty of space for Hinkie to do his work. Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes are the key free agents; Turner could be flipped before this deadline for an additional piece, and Hawes might be retained on the cheap. Alternately, Hinkie could hang on to both and see what happens. Remember, cap space isn't just for signing free agents outright. It's for making massive offers to restricted free agents (hello, Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe!) and using in trades for high-paid players without sending salary back.
We knew Hinkie's decisions would potentially lead to a team chock full of exciting youngsters and roster flexibility. We just didn't realize it could happen so soon. If Hinkie pulls it off -- that is, if he wants the Sixers to be good in 2014-15 instead of lagging behind to get another high pick -- he could rewrite the book on what rebuilding means. It doesn't have to be self-exile in the cellar for three or more years. Just one opportunistic disaster of a season is all you need if you play your cards right.
The easy comparison to make is with that of the Suns, who were supposed to be bad, but instead sit at 19-12 with the No. 7 seed in the West attached to their name. But the Suns have had exactly one high draft pick (Alex Len), who has played all of 31 minutes this season. Phoenix married a core of solid veterans with a rookie coach who is looking rather brilliant and an exciting young star (Bledsoe) freed from his role as a supplement. When the Sixers are good, it'll be with a bunch of 21-year-olds. The Suns are good right now with a bunch of young vets in their mid-20s, basically.
It's not worse: it's different. The Suns having a horrid 2012-13 season and a high pick is almost superfluous since that pick isn't really helping the cause.
But the Suns do have a number of picks in 2014: the Pacers' pick, their own, that of the Wolves (protected in the top 13) and the Wizards' pick (protected in the top 12). If the season ended today -- fear not, for it does not! -- the Suns would be picking at No. 14, No. 18, No. 22 and No. 30. So while it appeared that both the Sixers and Suns intended to be bad this season and rebuild quickly through the draft, Phoenix is likely to end up with no more than two lottery picks in two years, only one of them in the top 10. (Note that the only way the Suns get the Wolves' pick if Minnesota misses the playoffs is if Minnesota is the best non-playoff team in the league. See the sidebar for more.)
The result could be the same for Phoenix and Philly: one intentionally bad year, a quick rebuild and a period of great success. But to some extent, the Suns' foray feels like a very happy accident empowered by some brilliant moves, whereas the Sixers' gambit is starting to look like a solid plan that's going right. We'll see how things shake out over the next couple of seasons.
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