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The Sixers Have No Identity, and That's a Problem

Aiming toward top draft picks doesn't excuse the Sixers lacking identity.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia's leading man may be hotly debated, but the franchise's aspirations have never been questioned. Superstars and championships have been the end goal and the only goal since Sam Hinkie was put in charge, spurned by bloodletting in the present.

But there's a difference between inept and aimless, and right now the Sixers hover toward the middle of that Venn diagram.

The Sixers built a solid identity last season despite winning only 18 games, unleashing defensive savant Nerlens Noel onto foes with great effect. He anchored a defense that finished 13th in DRTG despite a void of NBA rotation players. Even with the worst adjusted offense in the league, the Sixers developed a niche.

What sort of basketball team do the Sixers want to have?

Logic suggested that bringing back a lot of the same pieces in addition to the No. 3 overall pick (and pre-setback Joel Embiid) would bear fruit in 2015-16. The 10-day contract carousel was slowing, and the best of the O.G. Process guys -- Hollis Thompson, Jerami Grant, Robert Covington and so on -- were set to lend their chemistry and skills to a more successful team, easing a new dynamo along.

It's unfair to Jahlil Okafor to say drafting him is where it all went wrong -- but it hasn't exactly gone right, either.

The polarization of Okafor discussion within the fanbase is not unlike the debate surrounding Michael Carter-Williams, aside from Okafor's loftier status upon NBA entry. Both players arrived with considerable positives attached to burning questions. Could MCW shoot well enough to start at point? Could Okafor defend in space well enough not to get torched on defense?

Pre-draft evaluation is a monster; these questions are weighed against whatever these players bring to the table, in addition to what those questions mean within the context of the team. Focus in Philadelphia has mostly drifted toward one question: Can you be great enough to anchor the franchise?

The first couple years, it was easy to see why players like Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid were taken and what the organization valued. They were the jewels of their classes in an injury-free world, but they were also athletic dynamos. Risks of their own to be certain, but in possession of tools at the very least. Raw talent has been emphasized throughout the rebuild, even (and especially) in bench fodder like JaKarr Sampson and Glenn Robinson III. Project players are a staple.

Hinkie has repeatedly swung for the fences while in charge. Trading for a center post-ACL injury is proof of this. Drafting a big with back and foot injuries is proof of this, as is drafting a long, athletic point guard with no jump shot, hoping he can "get there".

It's unfair to Jahlil Okafor to say drafting him is where it all went wrong -- but it hasn't exactly gone right, either.

Okafor was the largest cut, considering the scarcity of his archetype and the oft-shifting landscape of the league. His mere existence in a league turning to smaller players at center threatened to kneecap rivals, or leave him helpless against quicker players dashing and darting around him. The logic of selecting a player with divine skills for his age is self-evident.

But there's another problem with selecting Okafor, continuing to shoehorn him next to Noel, waiting for Embiid's health to truly assemble the band. If you're three years into a rebuild and don't know enough about the best players you have, about the type of team you want to build, what exactly is the point? What sort of basketball team do the Sixers want to have?

Okafor is not the problem, but he is the face of it. The Sixers are disjointed, caught in a lurch, grasping in 15 different directions hoping to snatch a lifeline. As of today, the Sixers are dead last in offensive efficiency and 22nd defensively, defense getting worse by the game.

After drafting Embiid, the company line was wanting to bring "violence at the rim", and yet they chose to select a player at No. 3 who will never do justice to that mantra. The team's two best players are polar opposites, a bouncy defender with little refinement on O and a generational-post presence who can go two quarters without impacting the game on D or the glass.

The endless search for a superstar and the mountain of losses doesn't excuse haphazard, anonymous basketball. There is no excuse for a lack of cutting and moving around Okafor's post-ups, nor is his startling regression as a passer post-Duke acceptable. It is on everyone, from the management selecting the talent to Brett Brown insisting on playing Grant next to two bigs.

Fact-finding should be a primary goal for the team heading down the stretch. That might mean alternating starters, starting Covington as a stretch-four next to Okafor one night and building a wall of athletes with Noel and Grant the next.

If you believe in Okafor and Noel, empower them to be the best possible versions of themselves, rather than force-feeding a diluted combination of both. We've passed the point where the team can feasibly build a 48-minute identity, but you can't drain your best players of theirs. A two-way star could put an end to all this, but the closest the Sixers have to a chance at one hasn't seen a minute of NBA action.

Plans are powerful because they give us the framework for achieving dreams, and possessing enough brashness to anger peers with your star-chasing strategy is admirable. But achievement comes from turning that imaginary framework into something resembling a base, from sticking to your core principles. The Seattle Seahawks don't become the Seahawks without adhering to things like arm-length requirements for corners, and the Sixers won't become anything at all if they continue to lack a vision beyond wanting a superstar.

Perhaps this summer, sparked by a gaggle of picks and the return of Embiid the Sixers will begin to round into something distinct. At the moment, they look closer to a cut-and-paste ransom letter or a kindergartener's vat of Play-Doh, mashed together with very little rhyme or reason.

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