The Philadelphia 76ers are likely no better than a ten win team. But truly how many players do they need to make a difference? Just one very good one.
Its that time of year when all Philadelphia 76ers must come to grips with the reality that year three has come and gone, and the team is still sinking, still rebuilding, still using the next NBA draft to generate excitement for the future of this franchise. While we are not alone in that looking ahead to look past a disappointing season, there is this gnawing fear that the Philadelphia 76ers are no closer than before. Somehow, the mirage of a rebuild has vanished, and as analysts and sports bloggers fiercely point out that the team is still last in a thirty team league.
But how bad is this team right now?
If you look at the current active roster, you’d wonder how we are even in games right now. Three of the team’s star players: Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, and Joel Embiid have been out – with Embiid out the entire season, Okafor out for the last six weeks of the season, and now Noel has been held out of multiple successive games. Even rookie reserve Richaun Holmes has been plagued with a strained Achilles tendon which has forced his absence as well. The team has had to deal with the recent accidental injuries to both Robert Covington and Jerami Grant as well. Those simultaneous injuries have forced the team to lean heavily on veterans Elton Brand and Carl Landy, forced the team to shift players to unfamiliar positions, and placed the team into a setting where the strategy to win is a faint hope that they can shoot trey’s accurately enough to make up the difference.
But if you look back to the period of a healthy roster, you recall that the arrival of point guard Ish Smith brought a period of success with the team. In fact, the team rode through a period of six wins and nine losses. No Joel Embiid, no Dario Saric, but enough of a boost in the lineup to win some games. And then, the team began to dabble in running Jahlil Okafor at power forward to see how the player and team responded. That began the slide. Okafor’s season ending injury amplified it, and then the successive injuries to Jerami Grant, Robert Covington, Richaun Holmes, and now Nerlens Noel has created an avalanche. An avalanche that can be traced back to the snowball effect of trying Jahlil Okafor at power forward.
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But if losing can start with a minor event in the way swapping Noel and Okafor seemed to affect the team, can the opposite be true? Can a surprising performance by a player right the Philadelphia 76ers train back onto the track? Can one player make a difference like that?
We’ve witnessed the effect. When the Philadelphia 76ers did not have true leadership at the point guard position, the team struggled as players attempted to compensate and failed to stay within their roles. If you’ve ever seen young boys play competitive soccer, you have seen what the effect of misunderstand their position can do to a team. Everyone gravitates to the ball. Everyone bunches up and the chaos that ensues is difficult to watch. But with the advent of Smith’s arrival, the team fell into their roles. If time wore down, Smith would take the shot. While his scoring remained volume driven, other players on the team began to get far better looks, developed far more accurate shooting, and allowed the team to discover some balance that had eluded prior to his arrival.
But as the season has drawn on, we’ve all come to the realization that Ish Smith is an adequate point guard, a player who knows what the role is at the point guard position, but one struggles at defense and who makes poor shots on occasion. The team sought an upgrade at the trade deadline, pursuing a young but talented reserve point guard from the Atlanta Hawks, Dennis Schroder. The Hawks declined.
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In this off-season, the Philadelphia 76ers are likely to land as many as four draft picks, or 13%, of the first round of the 2016 NBA draft. As we debate whether we need Brandon Ingram, Ben Simmons, Buddy Hield, Kris Dunn, Jamal Murray, or a host of other names, the expectation is for the draft to deliver as many day one starter as draft picks. With Joel Embiid and Dario Saric arriving, the reality is that we will likely land just one starter. But if he’s good enough, that will be just fine.
The insertion of Embiid into the line-up should give these Sixers the two-way post presence which the team struggled to find this season. Offensive production and rim protection. If the team needs more defense, Noel can line up alongside Embiid. If the team needs more offense, Okafor can line up alongside Embiid. Dario Saric will give the Sixers a better handle on the ball, and ramp up their fast break game – a staple of any Mike D’Antoni coached offense. Saric alone will take some of the pressure off the point guard, giving the one an “out” to find and deliver the ball to an open man or take the shot.
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With a stronger post position and move ball movement, the likes of Isaiah Canaan, Robert Covington, Nik Stauskas, and even Smith and fellow point guard T.J. McConnell, will find cleaner shots at the perimeter and mid range. Offense will improve, as it has all this season. But what about the defense? With Embiid at the five and Saric at four, you’ve got a good defense near the basket. Jerami Grant and Nerlens Noel rotating onto the court will simply emphasize that point. With a sold front court, Covington and Stauskas can focus on their man and lean more heavily into defending. Both have made progress on defense, and with head coach Brett Brown emphasizing it, they will be ready next season.
The Sixers simply need one player – whether groomed or introduced – to this roster to show up big at the end of close games. Whether its to shut down the opposition’s late run with snuffing defense or to outpace the opposition with a hot hand in the waning minutes, these Sixers do not yet have that one player who shows up and can carry them to the W. Not yet.
So as the draft lottery, the 2016 NBA lottery, free agency season, and the entire NBA off-season unfolds for the Philadelphia 76ers. Don’t lose sight of one very critical piece of the entire process. We don’t need a roster of all-stars. We don’t even need a starting lineup of all-stars. The goal this entire off-season should be to simply find that one very good player. He can make all the difference in the world to the Sixers next season.