Top of the Key: The 76ers Suck – Hey, Cool

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brewsters-millions1We are halfway through the 2013-2014 season, so it’s time for a tanking checkup. The Sixers have come down from their heady start and plateaued as one of the worst teams in the NBA just as they were designed to be by tank-and-rebuild mastermind Sam Hinkie. I detailed the strategy at length here and the formula, for better or worse, remains the same: lose to win. Down is up. It’s like Brewster’s Millions with tall people – Hinkie doesn’t want the measly million dollars. He wants to burn through thirty mil in a season to get the big prize.

Clearly it’s a flawed system. Until the NBA revamps the draft lottery, teams must decide whether to make a three or four year run at going deep in the playoffs, or to field a subpar squad, pile up losses and rebuild through the draft. Only a few teams have the money and prestige necessary to lure top-tier free agents – Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Brooklyn and Dallas spring to mind – the rest of the league needs to get star power on cheap rookie deals and extensions.

A few things have developed in SixersWorld since the season tipped off:

1. Michael Carter-Williams is a certified talent. He is big, fast, smart and, most importantly, a straight baller. (Definition of “baller”: Passes the eye test; possesses that ineffable ability to get buckets; rebounds and loose balls seem to magically bounce his way; is the kind of guy you’d want to have on your team on the playground; see: Paul Pierce, Allen Iverson, Dennis Johnson, Kevin Love, Phil Jackson, Charles Barkley, Pat Riley, Manu Ginobli, et al).

tumblr_lsm36z1yUo1qm9rypo1_1280MCW’s shooting – the biggest knock on him coming out of college – is better than expected and should improve.  He will win Rookie of the Year honors, barring a herculean second half from Victor Oladipo. I don’t think Sam Hinkie, or anyone for that matter, dreamed he be this good this soon. It justifies the surprising Jrue Holiday draft-day trade and gives us a solid building block moving forward. Bonus: he seems like a really good kid.

2. Brett Brown looks like a franchise-changing coach. The players love him, and despite their record, he has all the signs of being the kind of coach we could grow with for years. I asked Matt Bonner what he thought of Brown (a former Spurs assistant under Popovich) and he said that they “miss him terribly.” A ringing endorsement.

The-Red-Mamba-in-the-flesh.-Photo-via-@RockOnFdnPaying an established, old-guard coach top dollar to try to quickly revamp a team is the way of the past; finding an unheralded mastermind in the basketball trenches and video-coordinator rooms is the way of the future. Think Scott Brooks, Erik Spoelstra and Frank Vogel instead of Mike D’Antoni, PJ Carlesimo or Mike Woodson.

3. The early word on Nerlens Noel is that he is totally recovered from ACL reconstruction and looks amazing in workouts. There is also spin coming from the Sixers camp that this extended time off has been a rare blessing, giving him the opportunity to completely reconstruct his jump shot from the ground up – something that’s nearly impossible to do during the rigors of an 82 game schedule.

He is a long and athletic stopper that will fit in nicely next to MCW and help shore up our woeful defense. He could play now, apparently, but the Sixers are holding him out “just in case”. And by “just in case” they mean “to ensure that we don’t win any more games than we already will.” I can’t wait to see him take the court.

nerlens noel on the moon4. Some other players hooping in purgatory for the Sixers, Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes, are playing really well. The question now, of course, is whether to hold onto these players or trade them. I wager that at least two out of the three will be traded by the February 20th deadline, possibly a package of Hawes and Turner.

Although it’s tempting to want to hold on to these players as building blocks for the future, the truth is their stats are inflated due to increased touches for a losing team; they won’t put up these numbers with reduced roles. Hinkie is a mathematician and a dealer, he knows to sell a stock when the value is high.

5. As the NCAA men’s basketball season has played out, conventional wisdom on the upcoming draft has shifted. It’s still undeniably loaded, but Andrew Wiggins, once thought to be the definitive top pick, has slipped. Actually, it’s not so much that he has slipped as he has been surpassed by the likes of Jabari Parker and his teammate Joel Embiid.

122013_RabbitHoleTake this as a testament to the power of YouTube; the previously posted and touted high school mix tape of Wiggins pulverizing opponents went so viral that scouts got a little bit overly buzzed. Seeing him against more able opponents has brought them (and the internet) down to earth. He’s still a future star, but let’s not make Wilt Chamberlain comparisons just yet.

There has also emerged a new, controversial view that neither Wiggins nor Parker nor Embiid nor Randle nor any of the other top prospects are of the Lebron/Durant/Once-In-A-Generation caliber – BUT the draft might be even deeper than anticipated. In other words, it’s not a draft where teams must pick in the top three in order to get a franchise-benefiting talent. There may be all-star level talent all the way through the back end of the first round. I’d say this is good news for the Sixers because it means the efficacy of Hinkie’s tankfest doesn’t necessarily hinge on procuring a top three pick.

Other mid-season observations about The Association:

- We get to watch two transcendental superstars in their respective primes. I’m of course talking about Lebron James and Kevin Durant. This hasn’t happened since the famous Bird and Magic clashes of the first halcyon age.

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- Basketball players are much larger than average humans who put their bodies through intense physical strain, again and again. No amount of shoe science or sports medicine can stop joints and muscles and bones from malfunctioning and breaking down. Injuries happen, they’ve always happened and they always will.

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- Offenses are radically changing. Mathematicians figured out that a three pointer is worth approximately 50% more than a regular basketball shot and, through mysterious back channels, have instructed teams to fire at will. If you flip to a Golden State/Houston game, you might go 5 or 6 minutes without seeing a two point shot attempt. More on this later.

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- The Spurs are still the Spurs. Tim Duncan and friends are still playing great basketball in a stacked Western Conference, ignoring the pleas of father time and ESPN to just go away. This should be everyone’s favorite team.

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- It’s fun to watch the Knicks and the Nets lose, but bad for basketball. We need quality hoops in the basketball capital of the world!

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