Philadelphia 76ers Will Vacate NBA Basement This Season

Mar 11, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown argues a call with referee Lauren Holtkamp (7) during the fourth quarter of the game against the Brooklyn Nets at the Wells Fargo Center. The Philadelphia 76ers won 95-89. Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

It comes as no surprise that the ESPN experts have declared the Philadelphia 76ers basement dwellers once more. What must the 76ers do to escape last place?

Of course the obvious answer is to win more games, right? But what is the story in that? Let’s review why a bad team in the NBA suddenly became very bad. After we address that, we can look for trends, changes in the team that would lead to a conclusion that this team is on a positive trend. Finally, we can examine the roster moves so far and what those moves mean in terms of position and production.

Let’s get to it.

The Philadelphia 76ers have not been a good team for a very long time.  You can find plenty of articles about the state of the organization, and why the team’s outlook of grim and hopeless paved the way for the hiring of president Sam Hinkie.

So many conclude that Sam Hinkie’s goal was to erode the team to the point where the Philadelphia 76ers would eventually get the top selection of the NBA draft.  Ultimately the motivation was more complex than that.  Hinkie simply lowered the priority of “win now”, and elevated the priority of refocusing the teams efforts on the NBA draft.

Feb 10, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie prior to a game against the Sacramento Kings at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Feels Drafty In Here

Frequency, quantity, and hopefully, quality of the NBA draft would fix the team.   But that would impact the team’s competitiveness in two ways.  In the first way, more draft picks than the standard two per team would drive the age of the team younger and towards less experience. That lack of experience would hurt the team, creating more and more difficulty to finding victories.

The second negative impact is that the team roster was built to facilitate getting more draft picks. That meant lots of salary cap space, only paying for players at a discount, and opening the roster to undrafted free agents. Consider the most important position to head coach Brett Brown, the point guard, and the gyrations of the team to fill the void.  Would the season have been different if Tony Wroten and Robert Covington were healthy all season?  Likely.  But in the void, T.J. McConnell started – an undrafted free agent rookie – and did well enough for the team.

National media will never invest indepth analysis into a team until that team warrants it.  Once bad, media will not cover the story until that team improves.  Similarly, good teams get greater exposure when they begin to struggle.

In Philadelphia basketball, that translates into perception of a last place team until something changes that perception.

May 1, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Anderson Varejao (18, right) talks to Portland Trail Blazers guard Gerald Henderson (9) during the third quarter in game one of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Trail Blazers 118-106. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Times Are A’Changing

The Philadelphia 76ers are climbing now. At least, this roster is built to begin the climb.  It’s a long way back to .500, and a much steeper climb from that point, but the journey has begun. Virtually all fans of the Philadelphia 76ers knew this time would come.

How rapid will the improvement be?  Do you find yourself hoping for respectability or 2017 NBA Draft position?  If you buy in on the team’s ranking, even if the team doubles its wins from a year ago could land the team a second consecutive top draft pick.

The 2015-2016 is a poor model to serve as a template for the Philadelphia 76ers talent, even for a Sam Hinkie team.  The team was constructed with a plethora of injuries to open the season, no true point guard, and a loosely constructed roster which had to learn how to play together.

Snake bitten.

The 2016-2017 roster will have a true point guard, in fact several.  The roster has been assembled to compliment the scheme. And for the first time in three years, the team will have a full 15 players healthy all season.   Twenty wins is the starting point.

The missing ingredient to the 2015-2016 is passion.  Not a brash exclamation point after a super dunk, but the “eye of the tiger” to a player who rises to the competitor’s challenge.  When the team signed Gerald Henderson, one of the fans will now take the court.

Apr 13, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Gerald Henderson (9) shoots in warm ups before the game at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

Henderson Brings Philly Passion

Players in any professional sport must find a source of constant motivation.  But some professional athletes manage to tap into the fans to inspire them.  In Philadelphia, we know them well: Allen Iverson, Brian Dawkins, Bobby Clarke, and Chase Utley to name a few.

Can Gerald Henderson join them?

Success in Philly begins by understanding that passion that is bottled up in the stands.  Henderson already gets that.

“No other teams could offer the feelings I have towards the organization.The Philadelphia fans, I played in front of them growing up and been one my whole life, especially being in high school and watching AI [Allen Iverson] grow up.That’s like my childhood. I think I got an Instagram post of AI playing against Kobe [Bryant]. I’m like, this is my childhood in a snapshot, really.” – Gerald Henderson discussing playing for the 76ers

Henderson is crucial to this 76ers team this season. He will play with rookies Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, two potential NBA greats. But to find that greatness, to lead this city’s basketball team to long-term success, he needs to help both to use the support of the fans.

But it will take more than passion to win in the NBA. Ben Simmons brings the next missing element – leading by example.

Jul 9, 2016; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Ben Simmons (25) yells from the court during an NBA Summer League game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Thomas & Mack Center. Los Angeles won the game 70-69. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Raising Expectations

The point of the basketball team is the court general. He calls the plays, sets the pace, and is the closest person to the head coach on the team. However, that player sets the expectations of each player on the court.

Much of a basketball team is spent reacting to what they see happening.  The Philadelphia 76ers were reacting last season.  That ends this season.

Ben Simmons expects players to move without the ball, and will get them the pass as they get to their shooting spot.  He will expect the team to play hard.  He will fight and scrap and get the most out of the players in the lineup.

Most of all, he will raise the expectations of the team.

Where passion supplies a much greater energy, Simmons will serve as the lens for that energy. His passing precision, basketball IQ, and athleticism will give the Philadelphia 76ers an unexpected advantage.

But this team will need one final element, one last piece to improve.  The team will need an enforcer, and Joel Embiid is all that and more.

Jan 30, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid practices before a game against the Golden State Warriors at Wells Fargo Center. The Golden State Warriors won 108-105. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Enforcer

The only unknown aspect about Joel Embiid is the level of his NBA play after over two years on the sidelines. While we’ve been entertained by his humor on social media, we’ve found hope for better times by occasional workout video reminders of his potential.

Lost in the shuffle is the man’s competitive spirit. In an article from June 2016, we explored his competitive nature and found it to be a huge strength.  Joel Embiid likes to win.  But moreso, he hates to fail. For two years, he has been trolled and reminded that he has not played in a single NBA game.

That ends this season.

Subtle though it may seem, Joel Embiid is very much family to this Philadelphia 76ers organization. For two years he has been cared for, nurtured back to health. In some aspect, Sam Hinkie’s dismissal was attributable to selecting Joel Embiid with the third pick of the 2014 NBA draft, a fact that was not lost to Embiid.

To say that Joel Embiid is a little peeved right now may be overstating the point, but this is not some jovial carefree young man either. He’s been gnawing at the bit for two years. Embiid has watched those who helped him out suffer dismissal.  He’s been taunted about his lack of play.

He’s ready.

He will be more than a poster child of these Philadelphia 76ers. The team will need a player to impose his will on the opponent. Someone who can dominate on offense and defense.  Joel Embiid is that player who will step up and be the team’s enforcer.

Apr 10, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown goes over a play with his team during the third quarter of the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Wells Fargo Center. The Milwaukee Bucks won 109-108 in OT. Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Earn Wins

The Minnesota Timberwolves rose from a league worst 16 win season in 2014-2015 to a 29 win season in 2015-2016. The Timberwolves did so from getting better play from shooting guard Andrew Wiggins, a solid rookie season from center Karl Anthony-Towns, and a solid season out of point guard Ricky Rubio.

While Gerald Henderson is not Andrew Wiggins, he could explode offensively for the 76ers this season.  While the team may face some limits on his playing time, Joel Embiid is ready to play in the NBA this season.  And while Ben Simmons is a rookie, you can rightfully expect him to have a solid season, particularly on assists.

Minnesota enjoyed a deep bench last year.  Fortunately, the Philadelphia 76ers bench will be equally as strong.  Many of last year’s starting players will fill a rotational role off the bench.

No, the Philadelphia 76ers will not boast a top five player statistically this year, but the team will be much more successful than last year.  Considering the 10 win season, I’m not risking much with that statement.

But the team has more than new faces.  This is a team with the right ingredients for today’s NBA. Passion. IQ. Courage. Teamwork.  No player on this roster should feel slighted. This team needs contributions from everyone.

So no, the Philadelphia 76ers will not end up in the NBA basement in 2017.  Much like other rebuilding teams, improvement will happen.

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