The Philadelphia 76ers are entering a franchise-defining offseason in 2014.
After trading away All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday during the 2013 draft, the squad was destined for mediocrity this past season. General manager Sam Hinkie accordingly detonated the core of his roster, leaving only swingman Thaddeus Young in place from the previous regime, to start from square one.
Before deciding to make a major splash in free agency, however, Hinkie and Co. would be wise to learn from the mistakes of other recent sped-up rebuilds.
Because ultimately, if the New Orleans Pelicans taught us anything last summer, the potential short-term rewards wouldn’t be worth the long-term drawbacks.
The Dangers of Going All-In Too Early
New Orleans, the Sixers’ trade partners in that Holiday trade, may soon become the poster child for why not to speed up a rebuild prematurely.
After lucking into the No. 1 overall pick in 2012 and landing a franchise cornerstone in the making (Anthony Davis), Pelicans owner Tom Benson reportedly lost patience with the rebuilding process, according to Grantland’s Zach Lowe.
New Orleans general manager Dell Demps thus didn’t rest on his laurels after acquiring Holiday from the 76ers last June; he went out into the free-agent market and remained aggressive, inking Tyreke Evans to a four-year, $44 million deal.
Those flashy moves effectively locked the Pelicans into a core of Davis, Holiday, Evans, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson over the next few seasons. Combined, those five players are set to earn roughly $50.7 million in 2014-15 or approximately 80 percent of New Orleans’ available cap space (assuming a cap of $63.2 million).
Many teams would kill to have an established core like that—hello, Los Angeles Lakers, how are you doing?—but it severely restricts the Pelicans’ ability to improve externally in the short term. They’re set to only have roughly $5 million in cap room this summer, per Spotrac.
Will the Pelicans be as beleaguered with injuries next season as they were in 2013-14? One can only hope not. Combined, the Davis-Holiday-Evans-Gordon-Anderson quintet missed 151 of a possible 410 contests this past year, which helps explain why New Orleans finished the season 14 games under .500.
But even without a litany of injuries, the Pelicans’ ceiling doesn’t look overwhelmingly bright in the near future. They’ll need to extricate themselves from Gordon’s massive contract before dreaming of becoming a legitimate challenger in the wildly competitive Western Conference.
Will the Sixers fall victim to the same trap? Philadelphia fans should hope not.
The Sixers’ Offseason Outlook
For Philadelphia, the 2014 offseason is all about one thing: the NBA draft.
The No. 3 pick guarantees the squad a shot at a potential franchise cornerstone, be it Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Dante Exum. At the No. 10 spot, the Sixers will have a realistic chance of landing a second long-term starter. And Hinkie having five second-round picks in a draft this deep is damn near unfair to the rest of the league.
Between the draft and the long-awaited NBA debut of Nerlens Noel, who missed the entire 2013-14 season after being selected sixth overall last June, the Sixers recognize that player development remains the No. 1 priority of the organization at this point.
Unexpected success (a la the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns) wouldn’t be detrimental by any means, but they’re well aware that they have a ways to go before Philadelphia becomes an enticing landing spot for marquee free agents.
Back in March, Sixers coach Brett Brown suggested as much to reporters:
It’s all aligned to we are not going to be pursuing free agents for a while. We are about development. Once the alignment with development collides with a bunch of other things in the program, then you can start talking about free agents.
No free agent is going to want to come to Philadelphia at this stage. Why would a good free agent want to come in and be a part of a rebuild?
In other words: Cross Philadelphia off the list of potential Kevin Love destinations.
Back in mid-March, Brown told reporters that “truly rebuild[ing]” would be a three-to- five-year process.” You’re not going to take down LeBron James and win a title with a bunch of first- and second-year players, which is exactly what will constitute the Sixers’ core come July 1.
However, despite Brown’s constant refrains to reporters, the Sixers are well-equipped to be major players in this summer’s free-agent market if so desired.
Philly’s Free-Agency Options
Here’s a look at Philadelphia’s projected 2014-15 commitments, with the salaries for its two lottery picks based on the rookie scale:
Having that much cap space frees up a multitude of options for Hinkie. He could drive up the price on a restricted free agent such as Chandler Parsons (with whom he’s plenty familiar dating back to his time in Houston), Gordon Hayward or Greg Monroe.
He could engage the Minnesota Timberwolves or New York Knicks in sign-and-trade talks for Kevin Love and Carmelo Anthony respectively. He could simply go out and target the biggest fish on the unrestricted free-agent market, which could be none other than a four-time league Most Valuable Player, LeBron James.
From the sound of things, however, Hinkie has little interest in pursuing any of those routes.
On the night of the draft lottery, he told reporters:
It takes a while to sort of build it back up. And then the question is, do you want to lay a foundation that lasts, or do you want to take shortcuts? I’m not particularly interested in shortcuts, and our ownership group isn‘t particularly interested in shortcuts. I think we’ll do the best we can do.
Patience is the name of the game with the Sixers at this point in the rebuilding process. There’s no reason to go all-in on the playoffs this summer, particularly because they’d owe the Boston Celtics a first-round pick in 2015 if they do qualify for next year’s postseason.
Back in Hinkie‘s Houston days, the Rockets never went through an all-out teardown like Philadelphia is currently experiencing. They hovered around .500 for three straight seasons (2009-10 through 2011-12), accumulating assets along the way and failing in major free-agent pursuits along the way before finally striking gold in the fall of 2012 by trading for James Harden.
Less than one year later, the Rockets convinced Dwight Howard to bolt from the Lakers in free agency, giving them two top-15 players in the span of nine months.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Houston’s process is “right” and Philadelphia’s is “wrong,” however. They’re simply two different ways of skinning the same cat.
Instead of relying on free agency to lure a superstar, Hinkie put all his eggs into the draft basket. So far, the early returns look positive, with point guard Michael Carter-Williams winning the 2014 Rookie of the Year award. (It’s worth noting too that the Sixers likely never would have drafted MCW without first trading away Holiday.)
Thus, instead of attempting to expedite the rebuilding process by going after a top-tier free agent this summer, Hinkie and Co. simply must stay the course.
If anything, they should attempt to exploit their copious cap space by being on the receiving end of another team’s salary dump, similar to what the Utah Jazz did with the Golden State Warriors last summer.
Acquiring additional future draft picks in exchange for absorbing a short-term salary albatross (such as Chicago Bulls forward Carlos Boozer or Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins) would be a heist for Philadelphia, which has little interest in blasting into the playoffs next season.
Ironically, losing 60-plus games was the easy part for the Sixers’ front office. The tough slog begins this summer.
If the front office hopes to restore Philadelphia to its championship-contender days of the early ’80s, it must resist the temptation to make significant improvements via free agency this summer.
That time will come soon enough.
Just not this year.