TrueHoop: Philadelphia 76ers

Hope for the Philadelphia 76ers

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
2:01
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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There are some signs that the Sixers' efforts at player development are paying off, says David Thorpe.

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Hints of Tim Duncan

December, 19, 2014
12/19/14
1:59
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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76ers coach Brett Brown on the status of the prized, injured big man Joel Embiid.

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76ers' success, of a kind

December, 12, 2014
12/12/14
3:09
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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What, if anything, has gone right for the 76ers this season? Coach Brett Brown takes a look at the big picture.

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Would Sixers draft another center?

December, 11, 2014
12/11/14
1:33
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Would the 76ers, already thick with center prospects, actually draft another one? Chad Ford says yes.

Joel Embiid is way better than you think

December, 10, 2014
12/10/14
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Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
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Joel Embiid has not played a game in the NBA, but Amin Elhassan and David Thorpe think Embiid is a can't-miss superstar.

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Tale of two cities: To tank or not?

December, 10, 2014
12/10/14
11:45
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Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Even as the Sixers maintain they aren't tanking, even they agree that whatever's happening in Philadelphia is not fun. Head coach Brett Brown recently said on "SportsCenter" that "the challenges are all over the place."

Reigning rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams recently blogged about his job on The Players' Tribune: "If you’re competitive enough to make it to the NBA, losing is absolutely brutal. If it’s a night game, you get home around midnight and your mind is racing. It’s almost impossible to sleep. You keep visualizing every game-changing play, trying to figure out what you could’ve done better. You beat yourself up. You try not to look at your texts. If SportsCenter comes on, it only makes you mad."

About all anyone can do is hope more teams don't follow suit. Whatever we love about sports, this isn't it.

But through all the handwringing, the question that emerges is: What was the 76ers' alternative? And is that better?

To answer that question, we have to consider the plight of Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans.

On June 27, 2013, the Sixers and Hornets did not so much swap players as they swapped statuses. The Sixers gave the Pelicans All-Star Jrue Holiday in return for a rehabbing Nerlens Noel, a lottery pick that would eventually become Dario Saric, and Pierre Jackson. Just like that, the Pelicans went from awful to middling, and the Sixers went from middling to awful. The Pelicans became the Sixers and the Sixers became the Pelicans.

While the Sixers are a highly publicized abject lesson in the grotesqueness of blatant tanking, it’s not often said that the current state of the Pelicans validates Sixers GM Sam Hinkie’s fateful choice. There’s excitement about New Orleans, but it all revolves around 21-year-old supernova Anthony Davis. The organization’s attempts to win now on his behalf have so far gone nowhere. In opting against tanking, the Pelicans are now mired in the dreaded NBA middle, a spot where you’re not good, but also not bad enough to get franchise-changing draft picks, as Magic Johnson recently pointed out. It’s too early to call it, but the beginning of Davis’ exciting career is starting to feel like a sequel of Kevin Garnett and the Timberwolves.

[+] EnlargePelicans
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDespite Anthony Davis playing at an MVP level, the Pelicans are still just a .500 club in the West.
Consider Davis' recent game against the Warriors. The Brow drew gasps from the Oracle crowd with play after mind-bending play. He scored 30 points while missing only five shots. He claimed 15 boards and three swats, and snagged two steals. The Pelicans lost by 27.

A dejected Davis said after the game, “You know, it’s frustrating, but we gotta stay together.” The staying together part won’t be a problem from Davis' end. His rookie contract runs through 2017, and he’s overwhelmingly likely to re-sign with the Pelicans for many years after that. Max-level players don't take the qualifying offer that enables unrestricted free agency. Such a decision is just too much cost combined with too much risk. In the next half decade, Davis’ eyebrows are more likely to separate than he and the Pelicans.

He’s incredible, but when he has the rock, he might as well be Sisyphus. New Orleans is choked with bad contracts and shaky shooters. Now, its daunting mission will be to escape the LeBron trap, the situation Cleveland found itself in when young LeBron James had the Cavs winning too many games before they could draft him some running mates.

In trying to win, the Pelicans lost. Their only reason for hope is Davis and players to be added after the cap leaps higher in 2016. The Pels are actually a good advertisement for being the Sixers. Their 21-year-old meal ticket was a reward for quitting, and their fatal flaws stem from trying too hard.

To be clear, New Orleans made mistakes along the way that have nothing to do with trying too hard. Why the Pelicans gave up Robin Lopez, I have no idea. Their signing of Tyreke Evans and re-signing of Eric Gordon were understandable, if ill-fated moves.

While New Orleans certainly could have done a better job building around the Brow, consider the perverse incentives: Its best shot at pairing him with another superstar going forward would have been to make his team as bad as possible. The Pelicans opted for effort and it’s welded them to a future of non-contention.

In contrast, the Sixers have possibilities -- mysterious possibilities, but possibilities. They have the reigning rookie of the year in Carter-Williams. They have the Euroleague player of the month of November in Saric, whenever he chooses to cross the ocean. They have two big men who probably would have gone first overall in their respective drafts if not for injury (Noel, Joel Embiid). They have highlight sensation K.J. McDaniels. Best of all, they’re bad enough to get another extremely high draft choice in 2015, plus they have the Heat's first-round pick in 2015 and likely the biggest collection of second-round picks in NBA history. The present is despair, but the future is rich in potential.

Since all the aforementioned players make draft-pick wages, the Sixers can afford to add their version of a solid contributor like Jrue Holiday at their leisure. When a couple of these picks have finally panned out into, say, All-Stars, Hinkie can spend on his perfectly solid veteran. It’s a fantastic deal. All Philadelphia had to do was engage in a protracted, humiliating act of self sabotage.

That’s where the NBA, and not the Sixers, ultimately have to answer for this. This is their strange incentive structure. It's the NBA that rewards self sabotage and punishes teams that would dare to try. It’s hard to call the Sixers or the Pelicans as misguided as the rules they operate under.

#HateHard: How do you lose to the 76ers?

December, 9, 2014
12/09/14
3:10
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Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
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They had ONE job to do! But somehow the Wolves and Pistons managed to do the unthinkable: lose to the Sixers.

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How to give a pep talk down 35 points

December, 2, 2014
12/02/14
6:38
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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What do you say in a timeout when you're down 35? 76ers coach Brett Brown explains.

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The end of the 76ers' rainbow

December, 1, 2014
12/01/14
1:37
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Mired in the losses that come with young players this season, 76ers coach Brett Brown closes his eyes and pictures 2019.

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How to talk to a winless coach

November, 21, 2014
11/21/14
3:27
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Sixers coach Brett Brown has advice.

Brett Brown on Kentucky vs. 76ers

November, 21, 2014
11/21/14
3:24
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Suns guard Eric Bledsoe says Kentucky would wax the 76ers. Philly's coach, Brett Brown, is pleased his team gets to face Bledsoe on the court on Friday.

No, Kentucky would not beat the 76ers

November, 20, 2014
11/20/14
6:10
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Ethan Sherwood Strauss explains why.

Blame Hinkie, not media, for tanking talk

November, 13, 2014
11/13/14
5:50
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Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Michael Carter-WilliamsMitchell Leff/Getty ImagesAn article written by Michael Carter-Williams is interesting, but it misses a big point about tanking.
Michael Carter-Williams, the reigning rookie of the year, has penned an interesting piece on the perception of his Philadelphia 76ers as a tanking team. It’s up on the Players’ Tribune, a site that’s carving out a niche as a place for player-generated PR. Williams’ "Don’t Talk to Me About Tanking" article is well-written and seems sincere.

There’s just one problem: His argument about the Sixers' tanking "narrative" is a total straw man.

First, the money quotes. Williams describes how absurd it would be for a professional athlete to intentionally lose, saying, “First of all, there’s a lottery system. As players, we all know the math. The last-place team only has a 25 percent chance of winning the lottery. Grown men are going to go out and purposely mail it in for a one-in-four shot at drafting somebody who might someday take their job? Nope.”

MCW also places blame on the media for running with the notion that Philadelphia was intentionally losing: “Even before the season started, TankingForWiggins.com was a real thing. Once the narrative picks up, it’s over. We wished we could come out and say how ridiculous it was for people to think the players were tanking when there were guys on the team playing for their livelihood, but that only would've made it worse. The media creates this narrative and repeats it over and over.”

I liked reading about what Williams puts into the game and how much he cares. But Philadelphia’s tank job isn't a media invention; it’s a Sam Hinkie invention.

Nobody reasonable is arguing that the Sixers players are out there shaving points. They’re arguing that Hinkie, the general manager Williams conveniently neglects to mention, is sabotaging the team in the short term to accrue better players, via draft picks, for the long term.

I don’t think you need to dig deep in the weeds to make this argument. A quick glance at Philadelphia’s roster at the end of last season does better work than rhetoric.

While arguing against the existence of tanking, Williams ironically makes the case for why the practice should be disincentivized. In describing the pain of living through the Sixers spectacle, he conveys exactly what management puts players and coaches through when the goal is to lose as much as possible.

I saw the degrading process up close in 2012, when the Warriors needed to lose a slew of games to retain a protected draft pick. But management showed no such interest in those wins, and indeed, players were traded and held out of games for a variety of half-baked maladies. The losses accrued, the Warriors kept their pick and rebuilt their team. It worked out in the end, but the road wasn't pretty and it left its resentments.

When you look at the incentive of franchise-changing draft picks, it’s difficult to fault the Warriors or Sixers in their respective situations. Team executives are doing their jobs, which, thanks to bizarre rules designed to reward awfulness, means preventing athletes and coaches from doing their jobs. That’s an uncomfortable situation on the ground level. There’s something uniquely depressing about a man trying to prove competence in an atmosphere that craves failure.

Certain rosters are always going to be bad, but they should at least be able to prove themselves in an environment that encourages them to try their best. If Carter-Williams wants to blame the media for how his elaborate hoax of a team was covered, that’s fine. But his team was terrible, by design. It’s not on the media to tank reality. It is on the league to help teams compete.

Sam Hinkie's Philadelphia vacation

October, 28, 2014
10/28/14
10:00
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By Tom Sunnergren
Special to ESPN.com
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Joel Embiid, Sam HinkieGetty ImagesDrafting an injured Joel Embiid reinforced Sixers GM Sam Hinkie's approach to long-term rebuilding.
There’s a fine line between patience and sadism. Sam Hinkie is toeing it.

Consider the 2014 NBA draft: Two years after Andrew Bynum landed in and ultimately left Philadelphia, 12 months after the franchise drafted another injured center who has yet to make his regular-season debut, 71 days after the conclusion of a season that was tanked so brazenly it jump-started a national conversation about incentivized losing, and minutes after a substantial contingent of Sixers fans at the Barclay Center started an impassioned “Wiggins” chant, the Philadelphia general manager, surely aware of all this dismal history and its residue, did something that’s sensible only in hindsight. He ignored it.

With the Nos. 3 and 10 selections in a loaded draft, Hinkie acquired a player who almost certainly won’t get on the floor in 2014-15, a second who is under contract to play professional basketball in Turkey for at least two more seasons and an additional first-round pick that won’t come until 2017. Help was not on the way. Not immediately, at least.

Back in Philadelphia the day after the draft, Hinkie was interrogated by Sixers beat writers about his decision to push back contention another season by selecting Joel Embiid -- the guy with Hakeem’s potential and Yao’s navicular bone -- and Dario Saric. The tone was incredulous: How could you make Sixers fans go through a season like the one they just endured and give them nothing in return? Don’t you owe them more? His answer was revealing and is worth reading in full.

“I would say I’ve been borderline shocked in the last few months at a bunch of things. One is just how smart our fans are and how much they understand … the price you have to pay to go to where you want to go. I’ve been shocked at how interested our fans have been, generally, in an organization that would focus on a goal that is lofty and hard to reach, and a path that could easily be difficult, in an effort to get back to somewhere that they all want us to get to. That we want to get to. To get back to being a finalist again. To get back to winning a title again. It has been remarkable to me to watch the level of intrigue and the level of patience and understanding.”

Philadelphia basketball fans are smiling as they stare down the barrel of another season that, by conventional metrics -- like, say, wins -- will almost certainly be excruciating. The reason Sixers boosters have developed this rosy attitude is odd and oddly encouraging. The franchise has done something difficult and important: They have successfully convinced a group of modern Americans to wait for pleasure.

A few years ago, a team of researchers in the Netherlands set out to get a clearer sense of how taking a vacation affects happiness. The team rounded up 1,530 adults and, over the course of 32 weeks, recorded their levels of contentment before, during and after a getaway. Like those of most academic works that can be easily repurposed as structuring metaphors for sports columns, the results were unexpected. Going on a trip makes people happy, they found, but not nearly as happy as planning one. Thinking about fun things, in other words, is more satisfying than actually living them. Anticipation trumps experience.

[+] EnlargeNerlens Noel
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/GettyAfter sitting out last season, Nerlens Noel might start delivering sooner than later.
It’s in this way that the 76ers organization built a 19-63 basketball team a stellar approval rating. The organization deftly sold fans the idea that, just over the horizon, was a vacation. It sold them on potential.

What’s made a pitch like this not just successful but even possible is the increasing sophistication of modern sports fans, a phenomenon where Philadelphia is the unlikely epicenter. We’re in an age of evidence-based athletics -- biometrics replacing the eye test, analytics supplanting conventional wisdom, individualized nutrition plans nudging aside fast-food indulgences -- and the trend has been publicized by an army of print and online journalists who write about competition not lyrically, but from the vantage of a clear-eyed business analyst. We’ve been subjected to a thorough unpacking of the new science of sports. And just across the parking lot from the Sixers, the Philadelphia Eagles represent the gridiron actualization of this trend. An organization that was a shambles was rebuilt into an instant contender through a meticulous application of these very ideas.

This way of thinking dissolves the apparent radicalness of the Sixers project into sober practicality. If you accept the premise that the point of professional sports is winning championships -- which most of us, for better or worse, do -- then there’s nothing even remotely controversial about the way the franchise has conducted itself since Hinkie took over as general manager in May 2013. They have made a series of wise, disciplined and explicable steps toward winning, and winning often.

The roster is terrible at present but is loaded with possibility. Nerlens Noel, the fierce defender who slid to the Sixers in the 2013 draft, posted eight rebounds, five steals and five blocks in the preseason finale. Michael Carter-Williams, a 6-foot-6 point guard with gazelle speed, is the defending rookie of the year. Embiid was the consensus best prospect in the 2014 draft until a foot injury -- which the Sixers believe he will fully recover from -- eroded his standing. Saric was regarded as a high-lottery pick before he signed a multiyear contract overseas.

That’s a stable of young talent that rivals any in the league. And with the Sixers poised to struggle again in 2014-15, there’s more to come -- especially now that a coalition of small-market owners voted down a proposal to alter the lottery structure to diminish the favor it gives to the worst teams.

Coupled with the Sixers' embrace of sports science, and the rigorous way it analyzes players, it’s become clear to suddenly savvy Philadelphians that this team is headed in the right direction, and will get there eventually if not quickly. What’s most impressive about this franchise isn't just that fact, but how thoroughly they've convinced us of it.

Sixers too good at losing for NBA's liking?

July, 30, 2014
7/30/14
3:26
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Is the NBA cracking down on the Philadelphia 76ers' brash flaunting of awfulness? As the 2010-11 Miami Heat learned, a team can be only so subversive before the league starts changing rules on them. Miami felt the brunt of new CBA rules aimed to hinder "super teams" like the league-warping one they'd just created.

Now the Sixers are feeling the NBA pinch at their super terrible teams. In a report by Brian Windhorst, a recent league plan to overhaul the draft has rankled Philadelphia officials.

“The rough draft of this plan was met with opposition by 76ers management, which is in the midst of a multiseason rebuilding project that is dependent on a high pick next year," Windhorst writes. "The 76ers, sources said, are hoping to get the NBA to delay the plan's implementation for at least a year because it would act as a de facto punishment while just playing by the rules that have been in place.”

Sometimes, even while playing by the rules in place, you can break unwritten rules, deviating from social norms to the point where the majority fights back. This looks to be what’s happening here. Owners created a system where, should their teams fall hard, they land softly on a pile of valuable high draft picks. The system of giving handouts to bad teams was all well and good so long as a team didn’t overtly strategize around getting those handouts.

The Sixers took the rules to their logical extension, and made the system's absurdity obvious. They blew up a playoff-contending team to draft someone too injured to play that season (Nerlens Noel), then followed it up the next draft with picks of Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, players who might not see the court this season. All of these moves are understandable, if not savvy. In a vacuum, none of these moves looks especially brash. But as a collection of decisions, they reveal a bold scheme, one in which being bad is as much the point as it is a natural consequence of rebuilding.

Obviously, Philadelphia didn't plan on being bad forever. It just figured that there's little to be gained in the middle ground between "bad" and "great." And so long as the league is heaping massive rewards on terrible teams, the Sixers might as well keep being terrible until they have the assets to reach greatness.

Now that the league is looking to more evenly balance the lottery odds among the teams with the lowest win totals, the Sixers' strategy might be compromised. They've been playing the long game, which leaves them vulnerable if the league suddenly changes course.

It's hard to blame the Sixers for their strategy, but they may have been too obvious and intentional in its employment. Their 26-game losing streak by a roster replete with unrecognizables might have sounded the alarm for change. The Sixers tanked to such a planned degree that they represented a rebellious shift from the old way of losing hard for Duncan, Durant or whichever prodigy. They were too confident and competent about being incompetent.

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