The unforgettable journey that will be the Philadelphia 76ers' 2013-14 season tips off tomorrow night against the Miami Heat, to what should be a packed house of bandwagon LeBron fans and homeless people trying to get in from the cold. It's going to be that kind of season, and while tomorrow will likely be the first national embarrassment the team suffers, it certainly won't be the last. That's OK, though--the terrible season will not be without purpose, and we are promised great reward for our tremendous suffering once the season passes.
Anyway, that's the really short version of our Sixers season preview, but there won't be anything short about this season, so here's the long version, in the form of a Q&A session (with myself, natch) that should address the most pressing questions (and maybe a couple of the least pressing, too) concerning Sixers fans about these upcoming 82 games of basketball and the scrappy group of ragtag misfits that are going to play them. Read on, get pumped, and see you guys at the Wells Fargo Center tomorrow night.
So, uh, who exactly is gonna be playing on this team come opening night?
PG: Michael Carter-Williams, Darius Morris
SG: James Anderson, Tony Wroten
SF: Evan Turner, Hollis Thompson
PF: Thaddeus Young, Lavoy Allen
C: Spencer Hawes, Daniel Orton
The Sixers also just picked up Brandon Davies, a 6'9" rookie forward out of BYU who failed to make the Clippers' final cut.
Not included on the Sixers' final roster are training camp invitees Gani Lawal, Rodney Williams, Mac Kowshal, Vander Blue, Khalif Wyatt and Royce White, all of whom were waived before the deadline.
Wait, Royce White got waived? Wasn't he supposed to be good eventually? Why'd we let him go?
It's a little tough to say. There are a couple reasons Royce would've been given the axe--too out of shape, too much of a behind-the-scenes headache, too unpolished on both sides of the ball to contribute--but none of them are totally satisfying. White still seems to me like exactly the kind of player the Sixers should be rolling the dice on this year--high-upside, but needing a good deal of attention and development to reach his potential, and not too likely to help the team actually win games in the meantime.
Of course, you could say that the Sixers took an extended look at Royce in the pre-season and just determined he wasn't ever going to be that good. I don't really buy that either. True, his overall play could generously be described as erratic--he fouled at a totally unsustainable rate, turned the ball over far too much for a big man, and had an outside shot to make Thaddeus Young shudder--but there were moments of real promise. On one possession against the Timberwolves, he backed down Kevin Love on a drive with such ease that it looked like he was posting up a point guard on a mismatch. In transition against the Nets, he dribbled around one defender, sucked in another and dished to an open Thaddeus Young for an easy layup.
These moments were admittedly few and far between across five pre-season games for the Sixers, but they were there, and that was more than could be said for most of the team's other training camp departees--or, for that matter, of newer acquisition Brandon Davies in the handful of Clippers pre-season games I watched. It's been pointed out that it's still possible for the Sixers to bring Royce back on a D-League deal to play with the Delaware 87ers, and personally, I really hope they do--he was an entertaining distraction if nothing else, and we can certainly use a handful of those this season.
So what about the other guys we let go--anyone worth shedding tears over losing?
Not really, though Vander Blue showed some nice athleticism and shooting, and Khalif Wyatt had potential as a shot-creator off the bench. It was never likely that more than one of Blue, Wyatt and Hollis Thompson would make the roster, however, and Thompson probably got the edge for his size and ability to play multiple positions. None of the other guys really had much of a prayer, and I'd be surprised if any of them ended up on another NBA roster this season.
How about Daniel Orton and Darius Morris, who actually made the final team? What can they do for us this year?
Not a ton. Morris is basically there to just buy Michael Carter-Williams 10-15 minutes a game on the bench--he's a pretty solid defender, and there might be nights where he's called on to match up with Derrick Rose or Brandon Jennings in extended stints, but his offensive upside is limited to the point where it's hard to see him even being a rotation player in this league in a couple years, much less a starter.
Orton is the more interesting of the two, with a big, unmovable NBA body (6'10" with a 7'4" wingspan, about 275 pounds) and some minor skills around the basket--think of him like a Kwame Brown who can actually catch the ball and possibly even finish with it. He's a presence for sure, but he's also a little too out of shape to get big minutes in a system like Coach Brown's, and still a little too raw to produce much on either end. As one of the Sixers' only available back-up bigs, he'll get minutes to hopefully play himself into shape and into usefulness, but he's a threat to be replaced at a moment's notice if/when a better option comes along.
Didn't we also pick up a couple international guys in the summer? Where are they at now?
Arsalan Kazemi, the Iranian rebounding machine we picked up from Oregon in the second round of last year's draft, signed with an Iranian team after playing decently for the Sixers' summer league squad, out of fear that he wouldn't get the minutes to expand his game on this year's Sixers team. Furkan Aldemir, the Turkish big man the Sixers picked up from the Rockets along with Royce White, signed with a team in the Turkish League. The Sixers retain the NBA rights to both players, and if both team and player are so inclined, can bring one or both over next year to see if they can contribute to the roster.
OK, so our roster's not that great right now. But we have some dudes coming back from injury at some point this season, right?
Maybe? Of the 15 players on the Sixers' current roster, four are currently inactive: Kwame Brown, Arnett Moultrie, Jason Richardson and Nerlens Noel. It's unclear when, or if, any of these guys are going to suit up for the Sixers this year. Kwame is currently out with a hamstring strain, which shouldn't be too severe, but even if he can make it back at some point this season, it's unclear Coach Brett Brown will even give him any playing time, and Hinkie might only be keeping him around to potentially use his contract as filler in some bigger mid-season trade.
Arnett had ankle surgery a month ago and is expected some point in the new year, but exactly when is pretty vague, and the Sixers have no real reason to rush him back. It's the same sort of deal for Jason Richardson, who had knee surgery back in February, and won't be ready until at least the new year. The Sixers have a little motivation to try to prove J-Rich can still walk and shoot threes, since he could be a veteran trade target for a contender at the deadline, but it's a long-shot that he'll be ready by then, and once the deadline passes, the Sixers have no reason to play him over a younger, healthier wing that might have a shot at being part of the team's future.
As for Nerlens, we already talked about Coach Brown's comments suggesting that the team will likely play it super-safe with the rookie big man after his ACL tear back in February, and keep him out the entire season. It's still possible he'll make a late-late-season cameo, but most likely, his first game with the Sixers won't come until 2014-15.
Wait, another high-upside big man who we traded our best player for and is gonna be out for the whole year now? This is Andrew Bynum all over again, isn't it?
Understandable reaction, but not really true. The Sixers likely knew going into the trade with New Orleans that Noel was probably going to miss the whole '12-'13 season, and as I previously mentioned, that was probably the main reason they were able to get him through the #6 pick at all. Meanwhile, Bynum's condition was degenerative, while Noel's was due to a fluke accident--a devastating one, but not an unprecedented or an irreparable one--and while Bynum became a free agent immediately following his one non-season in Philly, we still have Noel under team control for a reasonable price for at least three more seasons.
It's more patience than a fanbase who just spent a season waiting for a payoff that never came should be asked to show, but there's every indication that Noel will still be worth waiting for, and that he's trying his damnedest to get back in the best possible playing condition as soon as possible. So let's not go calling him Bynum Pt. II just yet.
Speaking of Bynum, what's he up to now? When do we get to boo him at the WFC?
As you probably know, Bynum signed an incentive-laden deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers that could be worth as much as two years, $25 million or as little as one year, $6 million, depending on how much he has to offer the team in the first year. The last reports had Bynum suiting up for five-on-five team practice, though without much reporting on how he's looked thusfar, and without him getting cleared by team doctors to play in actual game action. (Coach Mike Brown ruled him out for the Cavs' season opener yesterday.)
Andrew will be making his first return visit to Philly just about a week into the season, on Friday, November 8th, but my bet is that he'll still be aways from actually playing at that point. If he suits up in Philly this season, it probably won't be until the Cavs' second visit to Wells Fargo, on Feb. 18th. Even that may end up being too soon to expect a healthy Bynum return, however, and Sixers fans should probably feel fortunate that this is all some other fanbase's headache and heartache now.
So Noel's out, but the other guy we got in the first round should play, right? Is he gonna be any good this year?
Probably not very, but that's not too important. Michael Carter-Williams, the point guard the Sixers selected out of Syracuse with the #11 pick in the draft, will undoubtedly get all the minutes in the world this season to prove himself as the floor general of the future for the Liberty Ballers, but the returns aren't likely to be immediately positive. On a team with limited offensive options, MCW will be called on to score as well as to create for others, and while he's already pretty good at the latter, he's got a long, long way to go on the former.
It's not that Carter-Williams can't shoot, precisely--his stroke actually looks pretty decent from a formalist standpoint, and when he got clean, open catch-and-shoot looks in the pre-season, he knocked them down at a decent rate--it's that he doesn't seem to really know how or when to shoot. He seems over-confident in his ability to hit pull-up threes, which has already resulted in some pretty ugly bricks this pre-season, and when turns the corner on the pick-and-roll, he has no one-handed floater in his arsenal, instead shooting some kind of weird two-handed fadeaway that looks terrible and rarely finds twine.
Personally, I won't be paying much attention to Carter-Williams' scoring or shooting averages this year, none of which project to be all that encouraging. I'll be looking at the kind of shots he's taking--whether he learns to stay within himself from the perimeter, to only take the outside shots the defense essentially forces him to take, and whether he can put in enough work with Coach Brown and his staff to expand his arsenal near the basket, and hopefully start to develop a runner in the lane--like, say, the one that Brown helped Tony Parker master during his San Antonio days.
In the meantime, MCW should be able to contribute to the Sixers in other ways. He's shown a fine eye for distributing in the pre-season, registering 16 assists and just one turnover across his first three pre-season games, though those numbers evened out a little towards the end. He's also shown the potential to be a truly stifling on-ball defender, and to create turnovers with his long arms and strong instincts for disrupting passing lines, and he's been a very solid rebounder for his position, grabbing nearly five boards a game. You can easily see Carter-Williams becoming a prized fantasy commodity a couple years down the road for his ability to fill up the box score, though in his rookie season at least, his lousy shooting percentages should tank that a bit.
There's been some talk comparing MCW's pre-season struggles to find the basket to those experienced by Evan Turner before his first NBA season, and that the likeness does not bode well for Michael's pro career. I don't see the comparison as a fair one, though--the reason Turner's early scoring struggles were so alarming were because scoring was supposed to be his primary asset as a pro, and because the reason he flailed was because he seemed to lack the athleticism to separate himself at the next level. Neither are true of Carter-Williams--he's a pass-first point guard by nature, and his struggles are a matter of an extreme lack of refinement, rather than a lack of proper physicality.
Plus, let's not forget that MCW was just the 11th pick in a weak draft, and shouldn't be expected by anyone to come around and contend for All-Star honors right away. If he can show enough progress in his rookie season to make us think he might get to an acceptable pro starter level a couple years from now, that should be good enough for us for now.
What about that Tony Wroten guy, though? He looked good in the pre-season, any chance he takes the starter's job from MCW?
Nah. Wroten did have a lot of good moments in the pre-season--a couple 20-point games, some highlight plays on the fast break, a whole lot of free-throw attempts--but putting him in the starting lineup, especially at the point guard position, would likely be disastrous. As questionable as MCW's decision-making can be at times, it's nothing compared to Wroten's recklessness with the ball (T-Wrote finished the pre-season with 24 turnovers and just 19 assists), and his outside shooting is just as bad (6-24 from deep across seven games). His defense is still inconsistent, and he can be kind of a ball-stopper in the half-court.
There's little question that the Sixers stole a real asset in Wroten this off-season, since he's a terror in the open court and is physically imposing and relentless enough for his position to get to the line seemingly at will. There's a chance that he'll be a part of the next good Sixers team, but if so, it'll probably be as a change-of-pace sixth man--he's not quite talented enough to have a starting unit geared around him, and he doesn't seem to blend in well enough with others to be a useful cog in a high-level team offense.
Of course, Wroten's also still just 20 years old--two years younger than MCW--and still has room to grow, as well as the playing time in which to do so. Wroten should bring some real excitement to the WFC before the year's over, but like Carter-Williams, he's still a ways off from actually helping a young team win ball games.
Carter-Williams won't help us this year, Wroten won't help us this year--did we get anybody in the off-season who might actually help us get some damn W's this season?
Yes. Well, maybe, anyway. James Anderson, the fourth-year wing the Sixers plucked from the Rockets after three seasons of bouncing around between Houston and San Antonio, had perhaps the most encouraging pre-season of anyone on the Sixers roster. He won't ever be the high-volume scorer or offensive first option in the pros that he was at Oklahoma State, but he's proven that he has an ability that is critical to today's NBA--and with J-Rich still ailing, otherwise totally lacking on the Sixers roster--he can hit an open three.
That might not sound like too tremendous an asset, since it's something most non-centers in the NBA are basically expected to be able to do, but it can hard to find players who can do so consistently. "Consistent" basically defines Anderson's production from deep in the pre-season, however, where he sunk at least two treys in all seven games, and shot 17-35 total from downtown. His performance from inside the arc has been a bit more of an adventure, but he's proved to be a weapon in transition, and managed to average nearly 14 points a game on incredibly impressive 57% shooting.
Those numbers obviously won't last, and the pre-season has been known to produce a mirage or two, so let's not write down James Anderson as the Sixers' shooting guard of the future just yet. Still, it was a strong enough audition that Anderson should be penned in as the team's unquestioned starter at the two-guard--not like they really have any other good choices--with an eye towards either locking him up at a reasonable price for the Sixers' future, or trying to sell high on him at the trade deadline if Hinkie and company think he won't stick. In the meantime, if he can win a game or two for us with his outside shooting, and give MCW somebody reliable to kick out to when he goes traipsing down the lane, that's not such a bad thing.
So if Anderson's at the two, that means Evan's back to playing the three. How's that going to work?
Well, based on Evan's first handful of pre-season games, it might work pretty well for him. Going against bigger, often slower defenders means that it's easier for Evan to get himself a little space for his array of turnaround and step-back jumpers, and it's more likely that he'll be able to gain a step on them on drives to the basket, which could help explain why his free throw rate (nearly eight FTAs a game) was so much higher this pre-season than it has been for most of his Sixers career, where he's been largely forced to play shooting guard. It also takes a little of the pressure off him to be a threat from deep, which is good, considering ET's long-range stroke has remained in late-season form this October (just 2-14 over six games).
The downside to this, of course, is on the boards. With Evan at the three, the rebounding advantage he had at shooting guard is largely neutralized, and with neither Thaddeus Young or Spencer Hawes a particular monster on the glass, this team is going to get out-rebounded a lot--as they were in four of the six pre-season games in which they played their starting unit, including a game in Brooklyn where they were out-boarded 54-31. The Sixers will need help from everyone, including Turner and plus-sized point Michael Carter-Williams, to crash the glass, and immediately trigger the break in the other direction, considering scoring in transition will be crucial to the team scoring enough at all to stay in games this season.
Where else besides Evan can we reasonably expect this team to get offense from?
Good question, and one without a lot of easy answers. Thad averaged about 15 points a game last year, which isn't awful for a secondary scorer, but I expect that number to go down this year--he needs a point guard to get him the ball (watching him try to score on isos can be a truly gut-wrenching experience), and it seems like he and MCW aren't on anywhere near the same level of chemistry yet that he was with Jrue last season. Spence can exploit certain matchups in the post, and two or three times a season he'll get hot with his jumper for a couple games, but relying on him as a regular third option is a pretty insecure policy. Tony Wroten will score 20-plus points with a dozen free throw attempts some nights, and he'll score four on 1-10 shooting others. Lavoy Allen...well, never mind.
Bottom line is that this team is not going to score a lot of points. Evan Turner can lead the way some nights, and I expect him to finally hit the 30-point plateau for the first time this year--maybe even more than once--but he's always be prone to the occasional night where absolutely nothing goes down, as was the case in the Sixers' final pre-season game in Minnesota, where he went 2-15 from the field. When that happens, it's going to be really hard for the Ballers to outscore anyone, even in a 1/3-crappy Eastern conference. And that will result in a lot of losses.
But that's good, right? Don't we kind of want to lose as much as possible this year?
Yup. For better or worse, this entire Sixers season is essentially just a prelude to June 26th of next year, when the Sixers will likely have two first-round picks--one from the Pelicans as part of the Holiday/Noel deal, one our own--in what is being billed as the best draft class since the 2003 set that produced LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh.
As any fan of the modern NBA knows, the more games the Sixers lose, the higher their own pick is likely to be. Without much in the way of free-agency sway or particularly sexy trade assets, this might be the best chance the 76ers get all decade to add a true franchise talent to their roster--arguably their first since picking Allen Iverson with the #1 pick 18 years earlier.
And that's okay? There aren't any rules against intentionally losing as many games as possible to help your draft positioning?
Not yet, not really--though the Sixers and some other teams are really pushing the limits this year with their transparency in not even attempting to field a competitive roster. Some people in the know have speculated that the tankfest going on across the NBA this year in advance of the 2014 draft will spur the NBA's new commissioner, Adam Silver, to action in devising measures to punish or otherwise disincentivize teams from bottoming out in such a manner, a step that will probably need to be taken sooner or later. But for now, the Sixers' strategy appears to be the safe-and-sound one, and will likely pay dividends come June.
Who do we want to get in the draft? Everyone loves that Wiggins kid, right?
Indeed, Kansas freshman forward Andrew Wiggins is being toted as the likely first-overall pick of the draft, a small forward who scouts say possess a combination of athleticism, skill and all-around potential not seen since LeBron came out of high school 11 years earlier. Wiggins might be the top prize, but he won't be the only one available--there's freak athletes like Kentucky big man Julius Randle, who looks like Zach Randolph with hops, and Arizona forward Aaron Gordon, who scouts compare to a mini-Blake Griffin, as well as do-everything players like Duke wing Jabari Parker, who was talented enough in High School for Sports Illustrated to put him on the cover, and Australian guard Dante Exum, a long-armed, 6'7" scorer with enough ball-handling skills to play the point.
Any one of those guys could end up being just as good as Wiggins, and if one of them excels at college or internationally while Wiggins fails to quite live up to billing at Kansas, I wouldn't be surprised who to take with the #1 overall pick becomes a debate that rages among basketball fans all year long. And those guys are just the tip of the iceberg--the 2014 draft goes deep enough that there might be potential All-Stars even towards the low end of the lottery, starters late in the first round, and rotation guys in the high second. Teams aren't gearing their entire future around this draft for no reason.
Who's the Sixers' primary competition in the race to the bottom, then?
Well, the Suns officially established themselves as worthy adversaries for the Sixers by trading center Marcin Gortat--the only half-decent post scorer on the roster--to the Wizards for the injured Emeka Okafor, some scrubs and a draft pick, making an already lousy team downright terrible. The Celtics are also in full-on rebuild mode, having dealt franchising-defining players Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, with the currently injured Rajon Rondo possibly to follow. The Magic were the league's worst team last year, and don't seem to be in a rush to get better anytime soon. And you have to bet on history with perennially terrible teams like the Bobcats and Kings, even though both actually made moves in the off-season to get better.
Another team that nobody mentions as a possible Tankapalooza contender but who I feel might be a force to be reckoned with is the Milwaukee Bucks. They made as many moves in the off-season as anyone, but ended up with a roster full of average players and no real point guard, which is a pretty solid two-point plan for being absolutely awful. The Sixers still have a pretty good claim to pole position for the draft sweepstakes, but it's gonna be a race to the finish with some of these teams for sure.
But what if the Sixers turn out to be too good at the start of the season? Will Sam Hinkie trade our better players before the deadline to ensure a league-worst record?
Well, luckily for us, there's not too much risk of that happening--the Sixers start their season with six of their first ten games coming against playoff teams from last year, and the other four coming again the much-improved Cavaliers and Wizards. Of their first 15 games, I imagine game #14 at home against Milwaukee would be the only one they might actually be favored in. The chances of the Sixers outperforming their skill level at season's start--with a rookie point guard, a first-year coach and absolutely no bench depth--is not great.
Regardless, though, the team's healthy veterans---all three of them--will all be at risk to be traded before season's end, should a deal present itself that's worth Hinkie's while. Of the three, imagine that Spence is the most likely to be traded--teams always need big men, and some contender might take a rental on Spence's expiring deal as a backup or replacement if he plays decently to start the season--and that Thad is the least, since he's still under team control for another season (with a player option for '15-'16) at a reasonable rate, and best fits the young, athletic, defensive-minded roster that Hinkie and company appear to be molding with this Sixers team.
The biggest question will be whether Evan finishes the season a Liberty Baller. He doesn't seem to fit Hinkie's mold at all, and pretty much all advanced metrics say that his numbers don't justify his usage rate on the court. That said, it might be tough to get value for a player like Turner in the trade market--his unique set of skills makes him an awkward fit on most playoff-bound rosters, and a rebuilding team might be reluctant to relinquish much in the way of future assets for a largely unproven player.
Largely, ET's future depends on how he plays this season as the team's primary scorer. If Evan can show enough improvement to get a rebuilding team to roll the dice on him, he very well might be dealt, espsecially if Hinkie can find a team willing to fork over a first round pick in next year's draft--after all, Phoenix already has a max of four picks in '14's first round, while the Sixers only have a measly two. But I'd bet Evan plays just well enough to stay the first option on one of the league's worst teams, and finishes the season as a Sixer.
Oh right, what about that second first-round pick? Where's that gonna fall?
Well, Sixer fans with dreams of going into next year's lottery with two top ten picks might be wise to temper their expectations a little after watching New Orleans this pre-season. The Pelicans went 7-1 in October play, with their only loss coming to the defending-champion Heat. Generally, pre-season records are meaningless, but watching the Pelicans, they really looked like a team ready to take the next step, with Jrue filling in the last piece of the puzzle for a team already loaded with an improved Anthony Davis, a (finally) healthy Eric Gordon, and an always-deadly Ryan Anderson.
Not saying the Pelicans are championship contenders just yet--even if they're as improved as they looked in the pre-season, their ceiling is still probably the sixth or seventh seed in the crowded West--just that I don't think it's likely their pick will be a particularly high one this year. In a way, though that's good for us--their pick is top-five protected anyway, so we probably wouldn't want to risk things totally falling apart for New Orleans and the pick rolling over to next year or another future, lesser draft.
Plus, there would still be plenty of potential quality players available in the mid-teens of this year's draft, and Hinkie will probably spend the great majority of the season scouting every one of them. It'll be more entertaining than watching his own team, certainly.
So that's it, then? Just close your eyes and pretend this season isn't actually happening while we count the days until June 26th? Is there any reason to, y'know, actually watch this team this season?
Oh sure, there's reasons to watch--just not ones related to wins and losses. It'll be fun, if often frustrating, to watch Michael Carter-Williams' development throughout his rookie season, as he (hopefully) starts to adjust to the pro game, figures out what he can and can't do and how he can best help his team win. It'll be amusing to see Evan go nuts for his stats in a contract year, finally free of all Doug Collins-related shackles and free to fire away. And Tony Wroten will probably be good for at least one highlight play a month that sends an absolute electrical current through the Wells Fargo Center--assuming there's anyone there to see it. And speaking of Wroten: You never know when the first Team WHOP video, mixtape or Kendrick Lamar diss is gonna drop, so gotta keep one eye out for that.
Meanwhile, Sam Hinkie will likely remain the Hardest Working GM in Show Business, shuttling misunderstood, high-ceilinged young'ns backwards and forwards across the waiver wire, throwing all kinds of once-and-future prospects at the court to see which, if any, stick. When Kendall Marshall, a 2012 lottery pick, was traded to Washington in the Gortat deal and then waived, he was on Hinkie's radar almost instantly--a scenario that should repeat itself dozens of times throughout the '13-'14 season, as various "fallen angels" around the NBA become unexpectedly available. By the end of the season, the Sixers might institute a mandatory nametag policy at practices and shootarounds. It'll keep things from getting too static, at least.
This season will at times be enthralling, and at far more times will be infuriating. But it won't ever be boring, and it certainly won't ever be as depressing as the end of last season, as a team with legitimate playoff aspirations went in the tank, with an extremely cloudy-looking future, and even screwed up that tank job by playing just well enough in a series of totally meaningless games to ensure a middling draft slot, all while Andrew Bynum cackled evilly from the sidelines.
This year, we know who we are: We're one of the worst teams in the NBA, and we're damn pleased with it, knowing that it's all for a purpose, and that it won't last too much longer. We have no expectations, so there's no way to disappoint. It's kind of liberating, isn't it? Personally, I've never been more pumped for a 15-20-win season before in my life.