Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller are previewing every team via conversation. Next up: the Philadelphia 76ers. See all prior Flanns & Zillz previews here.
ZILLER: Whoa! The Philadelphia 76ers did stuff this summer! Bryan Colangelo signed two actual NBA rotation players as free agents (Jerryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson) and a European star with panache (Sergio Rodriguez). Plus, Joel Embiid is alive and well and Dario Saric is coming to America. And as soon as Sam Hinkie repotted himself elsewhere, Philadelphia finally won the draft lottery. The Philadelphia 76ers are back!
I'm being only mildly facetious. This is no longer an embarrassment of a team. This is at least, now, a mediocre Eastern Conference also-ran.
My concern is more on the, uh, process of rising up the standings. What's the runway to relevance look like to you now?
FLANNERY: You may be overrating their mediocrity. The talent level is better. Even if Embiid doesn't make it all the way back, adding Saric, Ben Simmons, and those mid-level veterans makes them more of a functional basketball team. But the roster is still a jumble. There are too many big men, not enough decision-making guards, and not nearly enough shooting. I don't see them winning more than 20 games with this bunch.
It seems obvious that Colangelo has to start dealing from his big man deck. I'd start with Nerlens Noel -- I think he could command the most in return and he's nearing the end of his rookie deal and -- but Jahlil Okafor is still an awkward fit no matter what comes next. Where would you go?
ZILLER: I think you're right that Noel is the piece to move here, especially given his recent comments. But given his defensive potential, you really need to be sure that Embiid has a legitimate shot at making it before you spin off Noel. Saric and Simmons skew towards offense; if you keep Okafor and Embiid, trade Noel for guard help and Embiid comes unstitched? That's a problem for a team most likely to succeed in the near-term due to its defense.
Twenty wins seems like a low target, even for a team that struggled to get to double digits last season. Philly doesn't have great depth, but it has depth. Being able to bring either Henderson or Robert Covington off the bench is a boon to a team this starved of talent, and the frontcourt might be, dare I say, crowded if there isn't a preseason trade. The talent pool Brett Brown is working from isn't terribly rich, but it exists, which wasn't the case for much of the past two years.
I think the Sixers will be bad, but not the worst team in the East and not sub-20 bad.
FLANNERY: The Embiid issue hangs over everything here. If he can play, and play well, then both Noel and Okafor become largely expendable. That's a mighty big if, and I'd be in no hurry to make that wager if I were Colangelo. It's not like either is likely to fetch a huge return at this point.
That's a large part of the dynamic here. There's a logjam in place in terms of talent occupying a few positions but there's no clear answer as to who fits best with whom.
There's another element here that we might as well bring up now: the ghost of Sam Hinkie. New bosses may not feel as attached to old draft picks as former bosses, but Colangelo comes into this arrangement with the reputation of a good drafter and a less than perfect trader. He can't afford to botch this one and he's not dealing from a position of strength. Yet.
This Sixers season is the one they should have last year, when some of these assets became living, breathing basketball players. This should be a time of experimentation, but the clock is already ticking loudly on Noel and Okafor has a lot to make up after his uneven rookie season. The Sixers are such a black box that I still don't know what to make of them at this point.
Liberty Ballers season preview
Liberty Ballers season preview
ZILLER: This is where having legitimate point guards matters. Bayless is no savior, but the dude can play. We saw what a difference Ish Smith made last year. Rodriguez hasn't been in the NBA in a while, but his creativity and willingness to push the ball could really allow the young Sixers to get out and play a bit more freely. The biggest knock on Hinkie was that he didn't field teams legitimate enough to allow his prospects to develop. Seeing Okafor in a reasonably viable (if still underwhelming) offensive lineup for the first time in his NBA career will be fun.
I agree that Embiid is a major domino for what happens to the Sixers, but I feel like even if he fails, Simmons and Saric can still carry this team upwards. It reminds me a little of the Blazers of a decade ago. Greg Oden was the golden goose that would bring titles, a Duncan for a new age. Instead, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge pushed Portland up the ladder and they had a couple of really nice runs.
Simmons and Saric are massively imperfect comparisons as players, and the timing is off, but the type of core Philly has reads as somewhat similar to what the Blazers put together circa 2005 and 2006. You just need two of these prospects to hit in a big way, and you're in good shape.
FLANNERY: Sure, this is the fun part. Let's see what these guys can do for real. I'm just not that sold on their playmaking and I'm really worried about their shooting for this to be any more than just a bad basketball team with a lopsided roster.
That's progress, I guess.