The best laid plans of Sixers and Nets

Last night the Barclays Centre played host to a battle of Eastern Conference bottom feeders. At home was the 6-15 Brooklyn Nets, a run-of-the-mill bad NBA team filled with past-their-prime All Star-caliber players and unheralded young question marks. Visiting was the 1-21 Philadelphia 76ers, a paltry squad that was built to be blatantly overmatched by the entire league on a nightly basis—and in that regard, has probably exceeded internal expectations.

As is befitting of such a macabre billing, some straight up UGLY ASS basketball was showcased. Here’s a few of the atrocious sequences that occurred in the first quarter alone.

    10:54 Sixers foundational chip Nerlens Noel works lazily against his defender in the low post before launching a midrange jump shot that bounces off the backboard without so much as grazing the rim.

    9:43 Journeyman Nets PG Jarrett Jack sends an entry pass into the vicinity of both Brook Lopez and Bojan Bogdanovich. His teammates fight each other to corral the ball, giving Noel time to force a turnover by swatting it away.

    7:45 Philly’s potential franchise player/Rocky Balboa impersonator Jahlil Okafor aggressively attacks the rim (pun very much intended) before proceeding to wholly screw up his attempted dunk.

Unimpressive as these teams are in comparison to 90% of the NBA (everyone else minus the Los Angeles Lakers), their shared shortcomings made for a ‘competitive’ affair. Brooklyn built up an early lead, the Sixers fought back, and the Nets—as the standings would logically forecast—pulled away late and closed things out with a 100-91 win. The natural order of things would not be disrupted.

Presently the Nets and 76ers find themselves in similar rungs on the NBA ladder. Their trajectories, however, are perceived by most as essentially polar opposites of each other. These respective paths were charted back in the summer of 2013, in the wake of underwhelming campaigns from both franchises. A 49-win Brooklyn team had just lost its first-round playoff series to the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls, while Philly’s feisty 2011-12 squad regressed heavily that year and missed out on the postseason entirely. Neither of them was well-positioned to contend in the forseeable future, so they changed course accordingly.

But ‘accordingly’ had two very different manifestations. Brooklyn viewed itself as a team that was knocking on the door. If it could win almost 50 games in its 2012-13 iteration, why couldn’t it chase a championship with a few extra talented pieces? We all know what happened next. Impatient owner Mikhail Prokhorov gave GM Billy King the green light to go all in on the 2013-14 season, so he paid a king’s ransom (again, pun very much intended) to acquire aging Boston Celtics stars and hopefully recreate Ubuntu 2.0 in NYC’s largest borough. When that inevitably led to a second-round playoff exit, the Nets were back exactly where they were in the summer of 2013—except instead of having cap flexibility and its initial stable of draft picks to work with going forward, the franchise had neither. Brooklyn’s performance dipped quite a bit last season, and now, it may have fully hit rock bottom.

Meanwhile, the Sixers flew directly to rock bottom on an economy class ticket. Knowing full well that the team was closer to the NBA’s basement than its penthouse, Philly empowered GM Sam Hinkie to position the Sixers in the lowest bracket of the league so that it could accumulate prime assets and eventually trot out an elite roster laden with up-and-coming stars. That type of long-term strategizing obviously requires loads of time in order to come to fruition, but the team’s discouraging returns three years into “The Process” have cast serious doubts on the master plan. Although Philly has willingly had a rock bottom area code for some time now, it may have moved into its absolute lowest point this week when the squad dipped to 1-22—fresh off the heels of announcing that Jerry Colangelo would be coming in to assist the Sixers’ front office (not exactly a vote of organizational confidence for Hinkie). It’s well within the realm of possibility that the team could finish with the same number of losses as the number in its nickname (76).

For both franchises though, things have probably shaken out a bit more harshly than what should have been reasonably anticipated in the beginning. In a not-so-improbable world where Joel Embiid’s persistent injuries and Dario Saric’s Euroleague contract issues are resolved before the 2015-16 season, it’s unlikely that the Sixers are 1-22 right now. Similarly, Brooklyn could have been justified in expecting KG and Deron Williams to age more gracefully on the court and for that 2013-14 core to have stuck together a little longer (or for it to have made that first season more worthwhile!). But alas, this is where they each find themselves.

On paper, Brooklyn’s situation is especially grim. Whereas Philly is just a few small positive developments away from restoring faith in The Process, the Nets have no clear means of drastically improving anytime soon. Brooklyn is just two seasons removed from assembling the highest paid team in NBA history and currently boasts the league’s sixth most expensive roster. Even by playing things smartly in that department for the time being, its payroll won’t look very desirable until at least 2017 (although the ripple effects of the NBA’s new TV deal could remedy that a bit). More importantly, it still owes Boston 2016 and 2018 first round picks as well as the right to swap draft positions in 2017. The draft is generally the easiest way for cap-strapped teams to get better, but Brooklyn’s crippling Celtics trade makes it the rare exception to that notion. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Thaddeus Young, Thomas Robinson, and Bogdanovic are intriguing youngsters, but none of them move the needle much towards contention. If the Nets want to get there before the 2020s, they’ll have to nail some trades and probably get lucky with a second-round pick or two.

Speaking of making smart trades, that’s exactly what the Sixers have been doing! Some have criticized Hinkie’s willingness to trade promising young players like Michael Carter-Williams and K.J. McDaniels so early in their careers, but neither player figures to ever achieve stardom and there’s a good chance that a star could be available with the juicy protected pick that the Lakers owe Philly. As Zach Lowe points out in that tweet above, the Sixers’ stunted growth is mostly a byproduct of Hinkie’s reluctance to sign established veteran players. Keeping the cap sheet clean for better signings down the road is a central principle of The Process.

But how long can you justify saving for the future before the growing pains of the present start to become more crippling than the damage that comes from making a wrong move? A move like the misguided one Brooklyn made in trading for Pierce and Garnett. The 76ers appease their fans with the promise of long-term success, but right now the organization is subjecting those fans to a squad that might end up having the worst winning percentage in league history.

That distinction currently belongs to the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, a team that went through a similar talent purge in hopes of reloading via the much hyped, Anthony Davis-led 2012 Draft. As fate would have it though, the Bobcats were leapfrogged in the Lottery by the New Orleans Hornets, who happily swiped up Davis with the first pick (at least they were nice enough to eventually give Charlotte back its old Hornets nickname) and left Charlotte to take Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at the two slot. Philly had been positioning itself to do the same with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in the last couple of drafts, but, like Charlotte, it actually ended up with sub-optimal alternatives in Embiid (although you could argue Embiid would have gone first if he was healthy) and Okafor.

Had it avoided signing veteran free agents until it had accumulated enough premium lottery players, who knows where Charlotte would be today. What we do know is that the Hornets went out and signed Al Jefferson in 2013, which enabled the team’s surprise return to the playoffs that season. Even after a down year last year, Charlotte is one of the better teams in a much improved Eastern Conference. With Noel, Embiid, Saric, Okafor, a high 2016 draft pick, and a high potential 2016 Lakers pick already in the fold, Philly’s odds of kickstarting a juggernaut through the draft are much higher than Charlotte’s were in that infamous season. But such a plan is contingent on the glorious future not being derailed by the gloomy state of things in the interim, something that seems increasingly tough to promise in Philly these days.

It’ll be a while before we can fully evaluate the results of the Nets and Sixers’ respective plans, but what we do know is that both teams set out with very specific intentions, and both have encountered pretty serious setbacks. In the Nets’ case, the grand prize is already off the table. Brooklyn didn’t win the 2014 title and it got a very underwhelming return on its blockbuster pickups. If the team it does win a championship in the next decade, it’ll be in spite of the way it callously mortgaged its future in 2013, not because of it.

With things going so sour in Philly this season, it may get to a point where even an eventual championship may not justify The Process. Teams have won championships in all kinds of different ways, but none of them have needed to be as intentionally bad as Philly over a sustained period of time in order to do so. It’s more likely than anything that the Sixers end up as a regular old above average team, which is something that could have been achieved by retooling around good players like Jrue Holliday and the aforementioned Young, who they got rid of as the Hinkie era began.

The toughest part about The Process is that the Sixers can’t responsibly put their full efforts into winning until the right pieces are in place. It’s a Catch-22 where signing some solid veterans compromises the whole objective of bottoming out, but putting a team together on the cheap and letting it continue to stumble through vast winless stretches isn’t a great option either. Right now, Philly’s just seeking that perfect equilibrium where you can have the worst record in the league, but not one that’ll set the new standard for basketball futility.

Brooklyn may have screwed itself in a hundred different ways by going all in with the wrong pieces, but at least it’s got some small triumphs to look back on from that short-lived era. It crushed the playoff spirit of the Toronto Raptors for the second time in seven years and even turned last year’s matchup against the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks into a competitive first-round series! The Nets figure to struggle for the forseeable future, but unlike Philly, they have every incentive to get marginally better immediately; it’s not like they can tank, and handing Boston a more unattractive asset platter would be a nice accomplishment given everything they’ve been through. As much as things look bleak on their end, they can take comfort in trying to achieve the simple pleasure of winning games from a disadvantaged position.

Brooklyn forward Andrea Bargnani understands this (as he should, since he’s spent pretty much his entire 10-year career playing on punching bag teams). The Nets have already improbably swept their season series against the loaded Houston Rockets. Who knows how far they can take this thing? The result in April won’t be the championship Brooklyn set out for in 2013, but it’ll still be better than the discouraging debacle of a season that Philly is stumbling through right now.

When we look back on these teams a few years from now, whose recent history will seem more appealing? Although the Nets’ level of success probably topped out a year ago, maybe they’ll luck into landing an Al Jefferson-type of overlooked asset that allows the team to regularly compete for the postseason. The sky’s the limit for the logic-driven 76ers, but the team is also flying dangerously close to the sun (whatup Icarus!). Brooklyn has already had its stint as a semi-upper echelon team, will Philly ever get there?


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