Big Ball: Thoughts on a Team whose Smallest Player is 6'5"

In every move Philadelphia's new front office makes this season, there seems to be a theme: over-sized athleticism. In a league dominated by 'small-ball' lineups and 'stretch' position players, Philadelphia seems to be singularly interested in players who, more than any other particular attribute, are young and tall for their position. Let us review the personnel changes that have been made since the end of last season:

Added- Michael Carter-Williams (6'6"), Tony Wroten (6'6"), James Anderson (6'6"), Elliot Williams (6'5"), Lorenzo Brown (6'5"), Hollis Thompson (6'8"), Brandon Davies (6'10"), Daniel Orton (6'10").

Dismissed- Charles Jenkins (6'3"), Darius Morris (6'4"), Royal Ivey (6'4"), Jrue Holiday (6'4"), Justin Holiday (6'6"), and all other players over 27 years of age except Jason Richardson.

Coincidence? Probably not.

Sam Hinkie's mantra as GM seems to be building a team for the future. At a glance, this can easily be dismissed this as a warm way of saying, 'we're going to be bad this year and next', but the more I learn about this guy, the more I trust in his leadership. What would a 2018 championship team look like? While there is no way to read the unpredictable future of the league, there is currently enough information to respond to.

The four best teams in the league show no signs of slowing down any time soon. Miami has proven the effectiveness of a system designed around an elite player with their small ball team, while Indiana has taken a more traditional approach to assembling a roster; meanwhile, Oklahoma City is struggling to surround its two franchise cornerstones with enough help to win it all, and San Antonio looks like the exact same team every year. What do these teams all have in common? They have invested their futures in young, oversized, multi-position, über-athletic swingmen (in OKC's case, they have two players in tandem to create the same effect).

I don't feel I need to explain Roy Hibbert's increased value when matched up against Bosh, or why Durant is particularly difficult to guard by other small forwards. These men will always have a natural advantage over most players, but there's a reason you can't just have a team of seven footers take the court every night. As far as I know, Hibbert has never even spent any time at the 4; I believe this is the case simply because NBA power forwards are generally faster and more agile than players his size.

How can this obstacle be overcome? How can Philadelphia capitalize at every position on the same sort of advantages Hibbert provides against the Heat? To some degree, I believe Hinkie is attempting to resolve this dilemma with our new roster, and the answer is peak athleticism. Michael Carter-Williams is proof of concept: a player in top physical condition can stay in front of an opponent half a foot shorter all game, every game. While I readily admit MCW to be a rare defensive talent, it cannot be denied that his unusual size is a contributing factor to his success. The newly implemented 'catapult' training system should help all of Philadelphia's players improve their athleticism and endurance, which appears to be a necessary ingredient to success on Brett Brown's team.

With so much recent talk of potential trades, it's hard for Philadelphia fans not to wonder which 76ers will still be on our roster at the end of the year. Of the three players on the team with real trade value, only one seems to meet the aforementioned criteria: Thaddeus Young. Already a top-shelf athlete, the ruthlessly efficient Young has been clearly working to improve his long-range game since the beginning of the season, and it shows. With this expanded set of offensive skills, there is no reason why Thaddeus could not play small forward for the 76ers, especially as he is already such a versatile defender.

Evan turner almost fits the bill, but appears to be a poor temperamental match for this team. To put it simply, his game just doesn't seem to mesh with other players in Brett Brown's new system-- plays seem to die when the ball reaches his hands. In the beginning of the season, Turner did a much better job of passing out of drive attempts, whereas lately it seems he is satisfied with charging into the teeth of the defense and looking for a call. As a result, Turner has had his shot blocked more times than any other player in the league so far this season. At 6'7", he was a promising candidate for shooting guard on the remodeled roster, but currently seems to hold more value as a trade chip than a piece to build a team with.

Last but not least, it seems to me that Agent Double-Zero will probably play out his best years elsewhere. I love Spencer Hawes' unusual game, but his lack of mobility and sub-par rim protection will probably keep him from a permanent role on this team, especially with Nerlens Noel's debut on the horizon.

The next logical question becomes, what else does the team need right now? It's certainly hard to say as we still haven't seen Noel take the floor, but the apparent pattern in roster changes so far can aid in some educated guesses. With Noel standing (not so) tall at 6'11", I believe it is likely he will spend most of his time in Philadelphia at the 4; this will necessitate a more developed offensive game than we saw from him at Kentucky, but it is safe to assume that the Philadelphia training staff will have helped him quite a bit in that category by the time he's ready to play. Assuming this to be true for the time being, that leaves Philadelphia in need of a shooting guard who can be effective without the ball, and a center.

If there's one type of player the league is short on, it's probably athletic centers. In fact, Andre Drummond (and perhaps Deandre Jordan?), may be the only player of this type in the league, unless Davis or Antetokuonmpo are able to put on a few more inches. Since none of those players are available for the price of Turner or Hawes, sights must be set on the draft, where Joel Embiid appears to fit the bill to a T. At 7'1", Embiid garners wide attention for his excellent mobility and running technique, which is apparently a rare and largely unteachable skill. Projected to go around the tenth selection, there is a very real possibility the Sixers will be able to add him to their roster with one of their two picks. Willie Cauly-Stein also appears to be an excellent candidate for the job, albeit a less exciting prospect (at least to me) than Embiid. Recent speak of a trade for Asik support the idea that Noel will be used primarily as a forward, and his (relative) youth means Philadelphia can lean on him until a rookie like Embiid is able to fully develop, at which point Asik can come off the bench. I believe Asik to be the one of the best backup centers in the league, but his lack of offensive game and poor free throw shooting leads me to believe he should really not be relied on as much more than a role player. As such, he alone will probably not have much impact on the Sixers' win total this season.

As for a shooting guard, the criteria seems to call for a player between 6'6" and 6'8" who can move well off the ball as MCW and Wroten are (currently) far less effective without it, largely because neither poses a potent shooting threat when left open. Even now, players like Anderson, Thompson, and Williams are competing for the position, and all seem to be thriving under Brown's new system. There are plenty of candidates for this job currently in the league and outside of it; a player like Wiggins or Parker could also fill this void in the roster without interrupting the other valuable pieces of the team.

If I were to make a guess about what will happen to the sixers roster by this year's trade deadline, I would say Hawes, Turner, and Orton will be the first ones out the door. Incoming assets will be limited to draft picks, tall guards, and possibly Omer Asik. I think Richardson is likely to stick around for his veteran leadership and Big-10 defense, and because he would have been waived with Kwame if that were part of the plan. It has been well established that Chicago is an excellent destination for Turner, but I find it hard to believe that Hinkie would take on Deng or Boozer in their best playing years at this point in the rebuilding process. Still, I have been wrong before, and the mystery is what makes this fun!

I suppose the 76ers lineup will eventually look something like this:

PG: Carter-Williams, Wroten
SG: New player, Richardson/Anderson/Williams
SF: Young, Thompson/Anderson/New player
PF: Noel, Davies/Allen
C: Asik/Embiid/Other new player(s)

Philadelphia, the small-ball eating machine. It is a good time to be a Sixers fan.

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