Sunday, June 25, 2017

Started From the Bottom, Now They’re Here…

A few years ago, the Philadelphia 76ers was stuck with above average talent and in the middle of paying them all to the point to having no cap space to get better. With new ownership, they took a big swing with making a deal for a young dominant big man, Andrew Bynum. For those of you who do not know how that worked out, Bynum, never played a single game for the 76ers. Even so, Andrew Bynum's acquisition showed how excited this town can be about basketball. His presence brought hope, it brought excitement, and it brought fans to fill the stadium. Philadelphia will always be a football town but it is truly a sports town when their teams are putting an exciting product out there.

Andrew Bynum after being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers.
(Photo Courtesy: Howard Smith - US PRESSWIRE)

Although the Bynum experiment never panned out, it showed ownership that this town will rally around a winner but the team was stuck in mediocrity. They had some nice pieces but not the superstar needed to be a legit championship contender and those pieces were passed their rookie contracts, meaning it was going to be difficult to pay a star to come in to play with them. Normally teams get stuck hoping one or more of these players will continue to improve or that the team as a whole will find a diamond in the rough in the draft to push them over the top. At this time, ownership was searching out a new GM and a new coach to turn things around and do some damage control on the failed Bynum trade. Enter Sam Hinkie.

Sam Hinkie came from a Houston Rockets organization, under their GM Daryl Morey, who spent seasons acquiring assets in hopes to take advantage when an opportunity came to make a deal for a superstar. The team would compete, year after year, as a borderline playoff team, but they continued to trade for draft picks, make those picks, and hold onto them, waiting for their time to strike. The Houston Rockets had a roster consisting of Chase Budinger, Marcus Camby, Samuel Dalembert, Goran Dragic, Jonny Flynn, Jordan Hill, Courtney Lee, Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin, Marcus Morris, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson and Luis Scola. At the time, Lowry and Dragic were not quite the players they became, and this looks eerily similar to what the 76ers were looking at when Sam Hinkie joined the team.

In the 2012 off-season, Houston traded veterans for picks and movable contracts, let guys walk that they didn’t want to overpay, and brought in role players under back-loaded contracts. Their primary target was Dwight Howard, which was unsuccessful at the time, but James Harden, from Oklahoma City, became their next target when the Thunder declined to pay him a max deal due to concern of paying over the luxury tax with their roster at the time. Houston pounced on this opportunity with all of their assets, eventually signed Dwight Howard the following off-season and it showed some relevance to the process of acquiring assets and waiting for the time to strike.

Owner Josh Harris (left) shaking hands with newly hired GM, Sam Hinkie (right).
(Photo Courtesy: David Dow
 - Getty Images Sport)

After being hired by Philadelphia, Sam Hinkie wasted no time entering the headlines by entering the NBA draft without a head coach hired. When draft time arrived, they traded the 76ers closest thing to superstar in Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for the 6th overall pick, which turned into Nerlens Noel, the consensus best player in the draft who only slipped due to a devastating leg injury he had at the University of Kentucky, and selected Michael Carter-Williams with the 11th pick to replace Jrue. Over the years, Hinkie welcomed the concept of tanking for better draft picks, had a coach who was on board, ownership that was on board, and eventually a fan base who was on board.

Sam traded away their top players for draft picks, flipped role players for an excess of 2nd round picks, drafted best available players even though they had players filling those positions already, injuries that would cause significant time missed or commitments to play overseas for a few years. The “process” was in full swing from day one and he was not shy about explaining it to ownership, the players, the press and most importantly the fans. “The Process” and “Assets” became overused words when associated with the Philadelphia 76ers. Brett Brown was hired for his player development experience with the San Antonio Spurts and they were set to utilize that skill to its fullest. Bringing players in that no other team wanted, showing promise in those players, and dealing them became common place.

With the team purposely losing, the Philadelphia 76ers, a once proud franchise, became the laughing stock of the NBA. So much so that the league, allegedly, had to get involved by having Jerry Colangelo, long-time GM of the NBA and current head of USA Basketball, step-in at an advisory role, leading to the firing of Sam Hinkie and hiring of his son, Bryan Colangelo, as the new General Manager. With a roster consisting of arguably the three best players being centers (Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel), Bryan had his work cut out for him to bring this team back to relevance. Since the tanking was still in full effect prior to the Colangelo hiring, the 76ers ended up winning the draft lottery in the following off-season leading to them selecting the absolute best player in the draft, Ben Simmons out of LSU.

Drafting Simmons, who is considered by some to be the best prospect since LeBron James, along with the expected long awaited debut of Joel Embiid and the arrival of Dario Saric, was the first time since the Hinkie hiring that there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel for this franchise. Some excitement surrounded this team again with a General Manager, who obviously wanted to win, attempting to bring in some veteran help (the offer to Manu Ginobili and signings of Gerald Henderson and Jerryd Bayless) while also develop their young core. This team was set to make a little noise during the rookie season of these three cornerstone players when disaster struck with an injury to Ben Simmons in the pre-season. Stuck in limbo with Embiid already on a minute restriction due to his multiple leg injuries, the team was set to compete but not nearly at the level that was thought with Simmons involved.

Glimmers of hope surrounded the season, with the emergence, though he only played in 31 games, of Joel Embiid as a potential superstar in this league. He led this team to victories through his energy and the excitement he brought with him that the crowd would feed off of. Embiid and Dario Saric brought new life to this organization, and with the veteran help brought by Gerald Henderson and an injured Jerryd Bayless, the supporting cast of players seemed to play harder and with more passion than was seen over the past few seasons. Even though the team finished with the 4th worst record in the NBA, a new life was shown from the team that had other teams taking notice of how well they played together and noticing that if Embiid can stay healthy and adding a talent like Ben Simmons, this team can become a serious contender in a few years.

The Philadelphia 76ers, full of all of this potential, entered this past NBA Draft lottery with endless possibilities. They had a top three protected from the Los Angeles Lakers, who had the 3rd worst record in the NBA, their own first round pick and an option to swap with the Sacramento Kings if their pick fell before their own. As the draft lottery picks were shown, it was shown that the Sacramento Kings had jumped into the top 3, which was amazing news for the 76ers, as this guaranteed they would at least have a top 3 pick. The 76ers had fallen back one pick, to the #5 selection, meaning they would be swapping with the Sacramento Kings, as they held out hope that the #4 selection went to the Lakers, which would come to Philadelphia. This unfortunately did not happen, as the Phoenix Suns lost out on their top 3 selection, the Kings had the 3rd pick which was swapped with the 76ers, Lakers at #2 and the Boston Celtics, the #1 seed in the East, received the #1 pick from a previous trade with Brooklyn.

Leading up to the NBA draft, multiple opinions of who to select with the 3rd overall pick were out there, but the truth of the matter was, the best player in the draft, Markelle Fultz of the University of Washington, also fit the greatest need for the Sixers. Although Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid are all cornerstone type players, they all lack the ability to score in various ways like a true guard/wing player can in the NBA and Fultz has that ability. In a surprising turn of events, a week before the draft, it was announced that the 76ers and Celtics were working a deal to swap picks with the 76ers adding an additional pick to move up. After the trade was made, and the selection of Markelle Fultz became a reality, here we are today, looking at a 76ers franchise with four potential cornerstone type pieces, nice young developing role players and an enormous amount of salary cap space.

From left to right: Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and Joel Embiid.
(Photo Courtesy: Joel Embiid - Twitter)
The future looks bright for the Philadelphia 76ers as they hold out hope that Joel Embiid can finally play a full healthy season, Ben Simmons can work out as a point guard, Markelle Fultz can fit in with the already established core of the team and that they can find sign some veteran free agents to short term contracts to help this team win. Centered on the infectious personality and high end skill level of Joel Embiid, the potential superstardom of Ben Simmons, the hard nosed and hard working motor of Dario Saric and the confident scoring ability of Markelle Fultz, this team has the potential to do something special and the fans are showing that they recognize this by selling out 14,000 season tickets. Thanks to the contributions of Sam Hinkie, Bryan Colangelo, Brett Brown and a little bit of luck, this organization has brought some reality to the old saying, “If you build it, they will come.”

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