As the Sixers begin the 2014-15 NBA season tonight, season 2 of Sam Hinkie's reign, many are asking themselves what qualifies as a success.
The won/loss record is the most obvious metric, and one that many look to, if for no other reason than gambling purposes. Vegas has pegged the Sixers at either 15.5 or 16 wins.
Many in the national media continue to assert that this could be a historically bad season. In what seems to be almost a counter-reaction, many among the Sixers faithful believe that picking the over would be easy money. It seems almost a defense of what Hinkie is doing, as if to say we're bad, but we're not THAT bad. That other teams have been comparably bad, but have not received the national attention that the Sixers have over the past 16 months.
And there's obviously some truth to that. The Sixers didn't even have the worst record in the league last season, which belonged to the Milwaukee Bucks, who had 4 fewer wins. There have been 19 teams with 19 wins or less during the 21st century, and only one of those happened during the lockout shortened 2011-12 season. Based solely on what the Sixers did last season, they are certainly not unique.
But when I'm looking at projecting this team for the upcoming season, the fact that the team won 19 games may not be an accurate representation. With an offensive rating of 99.4 and a defensive rating of 109.9, the Sixers -10.5 net rating was by far the worst in the league. The Bucks "only" had a -8.8.
In fact, since the 2000-01 season, only two teams (out of 417 team seasons) have had a net rating of worse than -10.5: The 2005-06 Portland Trailblazers (-10.8) and the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats (-15.2), a team which won 7 games in the strike-shortened season.
Looking at the Simple Rating System, which is a formula used on Basketball-Reference which combines point differential with strength of schedule, the Sixers -10.66 SRS was also worst in the league, by a considerable margin, as the Bucks were once again 2nd worst at -8.41. In fact, only 10 other teams in the history of the NBA have had an SRS as bad as the Sixers did last season, and none of them won more than 15 games in a season.
Either the Sixers and Brett Brown found a way to win close games at a higher rate than any other bad team in NBA history, with an incredible ability to hit falling-out-of-bounds three pointers at a higher rate than normal, or they had relatively good luck last season. If the latter is the case, there could be some regression coming this season.
And that's before one begins to take into consideration the loss of Thaddeus Young this summer. You can explain away the fact that losing Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner may not make that much difference in the grand scheme of things (although I think Hawes and his 2.6 win shares did provide some value, particularly on the offensive end), but losing Young's production is harder to explain away as being a short-term positive. Young added a team-high 3.5 win shares last season, while also leading the regulars in the lineup with a 16.6 PER. While he struggled a bit with his efficiency trying to shoulder the increased scoring load, he was one of, if not the, best defenders on the team, particularly important in their pick and roll defense.
Still, replacing Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes with K.J. McDaniels and Nerlens Noel should yield a considerable improvement on the defensive end, where the Sixers finished 26th in the league last season, even with the loss of Thaddeus Young.
Some preseason stats from John Schuhmann seem to confirm that. The Sixers ended the season with a 96.9 defensive rating, good for 12th in the league during the preseason. This needs to be taken into context, as in the preseason offenses almost always lag behind defenses. During the 2013-14 season, only 1 team, the Indiana Pacers, had a defensive rating below 100. 22 teams had a defensive rating below 100 during the preseason. With teams evaluating players who would normally not play, while having only a shell of their offensive scheme in place, preseason offensive basketball is usually not a thing of beauty. Still, ranking 12th in the league is an impressive improvement, especially considering Nerlens Noel missed some significant time.
It's the offensive side of the basketball that has a chance to be historically bad. The Sixers 91.1 offensive rating in the preseason was by far the worst in the league, with the Wizards coming in 2nd worst at a 94 offensive rating. Nobody in the league was even in the same ball park in terms of offensive ineptitude as the Sixers.
It's this side of the court that I have the biggest questions. Not in how they impact the won/loss total, as whether or not they are above or below the Vegas line is largely academic. They will be one of the 2-3 worst teams, record wise, this season. Where my questions come in is the impact the teams offensive makeup has on the ability to develop and evaluate the pieces on the team that matter the most. Namely, Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel.
Brett Brown has spent most of his training camp and preseason teaching his team defensive concepts. While the progress is nice, I do wonder whether, especially somebody who is in charge of running a team, would benefit from a more structured offensive system in the formative years of his NBA career. Not that Brett Brown doesn't spend time to teaching offense as well, but with the Sixers lack of floor spacing, it's hard to really run an offense that is a reasonable facsimile of the schemes they will run when the team building is finally complete.
The Sixers have instead chosen to try to find the diamonds in the rough, the guys cast away or overlooked by other teams, to try to find and develop a useful piece that they can have under team control, cheaply, for an extended period of time. They're doing this by giving guys like Hollis Thompson 4 year contracts at the minimum salary, and trying to structure contracts for 2nd round picks in a way to keep them under team control for as long as possible.
The goal, from a financial perspective, is seemingly to strike in free agency during a specific window. That hopefully there will be time between when Michael Carter-Williams, Joel Embiid, and Nerlens Noel (and possibly one of Jahlil Okafor, Emmanuel Mudiay, or Karl Towns as well) prove that they're factors in the NBA, but before those players are up for a contract renewal. That those young players can establish a league-wide reputation while still on their rookie contracts, so that the Sixers can use them to draw an impact free agent while they still have the maximum amount of salary cap space possible.
That time after the salary cap goes up starting in the summer of 2016, but before Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel are due to receive raises in the summer of 2017 (and Joel Embiid in 2018, and Okafor/Towns/Mudiay in 2019), could be a very lucrative time for the Sixers. Trying to cultivate cheap role players who are under contract during that time makes a ton of sense.
But, I can't help but wonder if the lack of floor spacing could impact our (or outside general managers as well as superstar players) ability to evaluate Michael Carter-Williams. About whether the lack of floor spacing could exacerbate his struggles finishing in the paint, or artificially inflate his turnover numbers, making it appear that the progress he's making isn't as substantial as it otherwise could have been.
That ability to evaluate Michael Carter-Williams is so key to this whole thing. The Sixers need to be able to properly evaluate Michael Carter-Williams, not only to know whether he is a guy who can be built around, and not only to determine his worth when his rookie contract is up, but also to try to determine the skill sets of the complementary role players needed to surround him with. They need other players to be able to accurately evaluate Michael Carter-Williams (or, at least, to not underrate Carter-Williams because of stats artificially held down by the constructs of the team) in case the Sixers can find somebody who is willing to pay a kings ransom for Michael Carter-Williams. And they need potential impact free agents to rate Michael Carter-Williams highly if they want to try to draw them to Philadelphia in the future (although Joel Embiid, and his development, will play a large role in this as well).
And, perhaps the worst case scenario, they need to make sure Michael Carter-Williams doesn't develop bad habits by trying to play outside of his skill set because of the lack of offensive talent and system around him.
That's not to say that any of this will necessarily happen. The team built around Carter-Williams will cause him to almost certainly have incredible counting stats, which as we saw last season, will garner considerable attention. I worry that people will be less willing to overlook his efficiency when evaluating him after he does it for 2-3 seasons than they were after just his rookie season, but we do not know now how it will play out. I think Michael Carter-Williams is studious enough, and Brett Brown has enough attention to detail, to not let bad habits overtake him.
But, as Brett Brown said last season, this is all one big science experiment. That being said, the development of Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel are ultimately how we will rate the success or failure of this upcoming season. And some of the criteria being used (Carter-Williams' ability to hit shots coming off the pick and roll, his shooting off of open set shots, etc) can be judged mostly irrespective of the talent around him. His overall 3 point percentage might not accurately reflect progress, but with a teams increasing ability to look specifically at shots where he has floor spacing, progress can be found.
But that's not to say there's no concern whatsoever. Giving playing time to guys like Tony Wroten, Jerami Grant, JaKarr Sampson, Chris Johnson, and Malcolm Thomas might allow them to find a diamond in the rough, a guy who can be on a cheap contract over the next few seasons and potentially develop into a useful role player down the line.
But is it the best for the development of Michael Carter-Williams? Is there risk surrounding Carter-Williams with unproven, unrefined players? Does that risk outweigh whatever reward these guys have of developing into useful role players?
These are all questions that make this little science experiment of the 76ers so fascinating.
Meanwhile, check out the practice videos and interviews recorded below:
Nerlens Noel vs Henry Sims 1-1
Shooting Drills at Practice
Malcolm Thomas Interview
Sixers pregame player introductions - Preview