It's been a long year for the Philadelphia Seventy Sixers. The owners inherited a metaphorical kitchen full of burnt pots and pans and mismatched silverware. Over the course of a couple of seasons they gave the old kitchen a good try and decided that they would rather have granite counter-tops and service for five that all matched. With this goal in mind they took what they had inherited and got rid of what was broken and sold off whatever still worked or had a little bit of shine still on it. Finally after settling on a kitchen theme this Thursday they pick the new counter-top.
During the course of the year as the Sixers sold off their assets and collected more we all talked about players they might bring in, all the while whispering 'Philadelphia...Wiggins' like a million tortured Golems kept prisoner in Mordor. Last month we watched the NBA give the first overall pick to Cleveland like George giving Lenny one more crack at the rabbits. And here we are just a couple of days away from the draft listening to all the talk of assets when we know that the time for assets is over and what we now need is a new avatar for Philadelphia basketball.
This draft is unique in both its talent and it's depth but also in how important it has become to the future of the franchise. The different permutations have been discussed to death. Everyone has weighed in on who will go when and which prospect the Sixers should take. There has, however, been very little discussion of the emotional impact of those picks on fans.
The 2013 draft was not supposed to be the whirlwind that it ended up being for the Sixers. Going into that night most folks thought the best the Sixers would come away with was maybe moving up a couple of slots and grabbing C.J McCollum or maybe even Anthony Bennett who generally was projected to go around ten. If you had asked me that night which Sixer was least likely to get traded I would have said Jrue. We all know what happened with the Noel trade and rapid fire swaps of second round picks. In the end Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel came in the door and it felt like victory, but even then people came away from that night with a vision of Andrew Wiggins.
In Philadelphia’s long basketball history there have only been four men that have truly served as basketball avatars for the city. Their impression is still very much felt within the city and the confines of the Wells Fargo Center. Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone, Julius Erving, and Allen Iverson. There have been other great players such as Jrue, Andre Iguodala, Doug Collins, Maurice Cheeks, and Charles Barkley but none have defined the franchise through its entire history like those four. I realize how big a claim that is but if you want anecdotal evidence come to game next season and count the jerseys you see of each player.
Andrew Wiggins was supposed to be the next avatar. He was the chosen one through expectation and the reality of the season long rebuild. Now as we’re less than a day from the draft the odds of him falling to the Sixers are slim and so we must re-configure our expectations and accept a different prospect. No matter who is taken, if it’s not Wiggins, there will be some disappointment and they will be measured against him, however unfair that may be.
The hardest outcome emotionally for fans will be if, as some project, the Sixers draft Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. Logically both would be terrific picks, emotionally it would ruinous for fans. To have to delay the payoff for last seasons misery for another year at minimum might be too much for people to take. It would be asking for an extraordinary amount of patience. It could certainly work out in the end, but you have to wonder how much goodwill would be left for Sam Hinkie and his team - even with Nerlens Noel playing this season.
Dante Exum seems the most likely to be able to take the avatar mantle if Wiggins doesn’t fall, and he would certainly be easier to swallow for fans than Embiid. His perceived redundancy with Carter-Williams aside, his game projects to be exciting and he is a fiercely competitive player. Those are qualities that will help fans get over the loss of Wiggins.
The Sixers will be bad again next year. They will be back in the lottery one more time after all this, but with an eye firmly looking at the future. Emotionally the fans need a player this year, at least, that they can watch and enjoy as a reward for suffering through the previous 82 games.
No matter what happens, it will be emotional