Team Name: Philadelphia 76ers
Last Year's Record: 18-64 (3rd worst in NBA)
Key Losses: Luc Mbah a Moute, Ish Smith, Jason Richardson
Key Additions: Jahlil Okafor, Nik Stauskas, Kendall Marshall
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?
Just like 2013-14, the entire 2014-15 season for the 76ers was a forward-looking exercise. Player development took precedent over win/loss records, and Sixers paid more attention to the draft than the last 50 games.
This off-season was no different. The Sixers continued to eschew short-term improvement for long-term gains. The team added Jahlil Okafor in the draft, a poor fit with the current roster, because he had the biggest long-term upside. The team let productive veterans like Luc Mbah a Moute and Ish Smith leave without even attempting to woo them back. The Sixers signed four point guards over the summer, with only Kendall Marshall having actual NBA experience.
Drafting Jahlil Okafor was the most significant move, but the most shocking and Sixers-centric transaction was the acquisition of two draft pick swaps, a future first round pick, Nik Stauskas, Carl Landry, and the since-traded Jason Thompson for almost nothing, taking advantage of a Sacramento Kings team that wanted modest short-term improvement and was willing to mortgage the future to do so.
The trade gives the Sixers more ping pong balls in the next two draft lotteries, provided Sacramento misses the playoffs, and a lottery pick from the 2014 draft. Higher draft picks usually result in better players, and the chance to get better players is what the team is playing for.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
Is "lots of room for improvement" a strength? That would be the biggest marker in the team's favor, that the team should improve with more experience. But in all seriousness, the team does have a couple of legitimate strengths that could add some wins to the modest total this season:
1. A rapidly improving defense - led by Nerlens Noel, who was one of the league's premier defensive players as a rookie, the Sixers can overwhelm unprepared offenses with their athleticism. The Sixers have a lot of hard-working, undeveloped athletes who can execute basic defensive concepts. That made the team league-average against all odds last season, finishing in a tie for 13th in defensive efficiency. While Okafor shouldn't help in that regard, improvement from returning players should put the team in position to finish around the same rank this season.
2. Shooting on the wings - the Sixers feature three wing players: Robert Covington, Hollis Thompson, and Nik Stauskas who should be above-average three point shooters. The Sixers finished 29th in three point percentage as a team last year after an abysmal start to the season, but there's opportunity for improvement. And even with Tony Wroten returning, the team should have better overall shooting from the point guard position with Marshall, Isaiah Canaan, and whoever else makes the team compared to last year's squad.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Talent and experience. Just those, no big deal or anything.
We're talking about maybe the least experienced team in NBA history. Inexperience and development come hand-in hand. Veteran Carl Landry is the only player on the team who's seen time in a playoff rotation. More players are in their first training camp with the team than not. The inexperience leads to mistakes, and mistakes in key situations lead to losses.
And even with the third overall pick in consecutive drafts, the team just lacks top-end talent. Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel appear to be great prospects, and the Sixers have found some useful role players on the fringes of free agency, but the Sixers will play guys who quite frankly would not sniff the court for legitimate NBA teams throughout the season. In the quest for top draft picks, Sam Hinkie has intentionally neglected signing veteran role players. It will show again this season, even if it's clearly the right call by the GM.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Is the number one pick a goal? The Sixers are clearly in the tank for one more season, and having the best odds at the best pick is still important.
But from an on-court perspective, the key development will be the tandem of Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. Can they function together? Can Okafor bring his prodigious back-to-the-basket game into the NBA? Can Noel function as an offensive "four?" Everything else is secondary to how their potential superstars perform together. If they can't make it work, then the tank may continue to run for years to come as the team cycles through talented players while looking for the right fit.
5. Are the Sixers ever going to start winning?
When the team drafted Jahlil Okafor and announced that Joel Embiid would undergo a second season-ending foot surgery, the timeline for vacating the tank extended onward, as the core of the team is still in flux. The message from the start has been clear: the Sixers will tank until they get their superstar core, because the ultimate goal of championship contention is in the front office's opinion best achieved by having the best players, and the best way for a non-glamour market to find the best players is through the draft.
Trading Michael Carter-Williams - an unproductive and not-that-young player - or not signing productive veterans, to the contrary of what many think, were not moves specifically designed to kick the proverbial can down the road. The failure of The Process would not result from trading a non-shooting NBA point guard or by neglecting to sign someone who would help you win two extra games during the season. The failure of The Process would stem from the team drafting the wrong players (even with a sound decision-making matrix, the results have so far been mixed) or from not developing them properly.
The team's timeline has been derailed for many reasons - injuries to core players, the Lakers and Heat going into the tank themselves, Dario Saric's European adventures - but with up to four first round picks this season, at least three of those being likely to convey, Dario Saric likely signing after his contract expires this summer, and as much cap space as anyone going into the biggest free agency bonanza in league history, it's hard not to be excited about where this team will be a year from now.
Even if the last sentence sounds a lot like last year.