Sixers can use Pacers as model

Posted: March 21, 2014

TWICE IN 4 DAYS recently, the 76ers played toe-to-toe with the Indiana Pacers, the team atop the Eastern Conference. It was a decided mismatch before the games started, with the Pacers looking to maintain their lead over Miami for the No. 1 seed. The Sixers, meanwhile, were getting national attention for another reason as they were setting a franchise record for consecutive losses and creeping closer to the all-time NBA record for futility.

As I watched these mostly rented Sixers battle with the far more talented Pacers, I started thinking back to years not so long ago when these two franchises were in the same place. While the Sixers seemed to have been mired in mediocrity since just after the magical Finals run of 2001, I sort of remembered Indiana always being in just about the same place.

Sure enough, the research proved it. From the 2005-06 season to the 2011-12 season, the 76ers had a combined record of 257-301. During that same period the Pacers went 259-299, a difference of two games. In Monday's meeting in Indiana, the Pacers secured their 50th win of the season - against just 17 losses - while the Sixers dropped their franchise-record 21st consecutive game to fall to 15-52. (Both teams have lost once since then.)

What happened? How could two franchises that were so similar for seven seasons be on such different avenues just 2 years later?

A look at the lineups explains it. Indiana has absolutely killed it in the draft in recent years. Paul George has turned into one of the league's elites after being taken 10th in the 2010 draft. The Pacers also grabbed Lance Stephenson with the 40th overall pick that year. All Stephenson has done is become a near-All-Star player. Another player on the court for the Pacers on Monday was Evan Turner - taken in the same draft that year by the Sixers at No. 2.

Running the point was George Hill, whom the Pacers acquired in a draft-night trade in 2011, and manning the center spot was Roy Hibbert, taken 17th overall in the 2008 draft (one spot after the Sixers took Marreese Speights).

The glue to the team might be David West, obtained as a free agent in 2011. He was paid $10 million his first two seasons before signing another contract last year that will pay him $12 million annually for three seasons. Not a bad deal for a two-time All-Star and team leader.

The Sixers, of course, went in a completely different direction the past couple of seasons.

Two short years ago, the 76ers had this city buzzing as they embarked on an unexpected playoff run that got them to within one game of competing against the Miami Heat for the Eastern Conference championship. Now riding a 22-game losing streak and saddled with a record that includes just 15 wins in 68 games, it makes the 2012 playoff run seem older than most of the players on the current roster.

That was the year the Sixers took out the shorthanded Chicago Bulls in the first round in six games after Derrick Rose crumpled to the floor in Game 1 with a torn ACL and Joakim Noah turned an ankle in Game 3. They then went seven games with the Celtics, the final one a tough Boston win after the Sixers had been within three with just over 4 minutes to go.

It appeared as if the organization had a coach it could hold on to for many years in Doug Collins. It had a roster filled with excitable youngsters, some solid veterans who could either help the process or provide some cap space down the road.

But management and Collins thought that group had reached its peak and, in order to really climb the Eastern Conference ladder, major changes needed to be made. The Andrew Bynum deal was it, and hardly anyone disagreed with the move at the time.

But that is directly why the Sixers are at the depths in which they now find themselves.

Sent away for Bynum were Andre Iguodala, Maurice Harkless, Nikola Vucevic and draft picks. Hope arrived, but reality soon set in as Bynum never suited up and was not re-signed. In came new general manager Sam Hinkie and coach Brett Brown and the stripping started.

And soon comes the most important time of the rebuilding process - the draft, as the Pacers proved. There can be no misses. There has to be a lot of luck and just about every move has to be the right one.

"This [rebuild] is very different," said Brown. "Probably Oklahoma City is the cleanest example [of rebuilding successfully], and they had the fortune of getting one of the all-time greats in [Kevin Durant]. Mostly, it comes from the draft. You would argue that Indiana, with Hibbert at 18 and 10 with George, would contradict that a little bit [and 40th with Stevenson], yeah, that would contradict it. There are different ways to do this. The most obvious, I believe, is to do it through the draft and then you get into the development and free agents and all of that.

"No doubt [it's the hardest part of the NBA]. And you see over the years the programs that have historically been able to uncover really good players [succeed], and then after the base is set you can start plugging holes. Initially you have to go with the best players and watch them develop because the other layer of any evaluation is, 'Where are they going to be in 5 years?' 'Do people's body's change?' 'Are they injury-prone?' 'Are they compliant to work ethic?' All those kinds of things. Some of it is who knows? I suppose educated, crystal-ball stuff. There are many layers to assessing who you draft, with a responsibility - at this stage for us - to get it right."

Not a little bit right, but completely right. The Sixers have to get the best player in this year's draft with their first pick. They have to get as lucky as Indiana did with Paul George when it made its second pick in the first round, via New Orleans. A gold strike with a second-rounder, something close to Stephenson, would be needed. And getting a midlevel free agent or two who play themselves into big contracts while here probably would round it out.

Seems like a lot of work, huh? It is. Because the Bynum deal, which I agreed with at the time, was the risk this organization had to take.

Now, in order to be relevant again, it has to get it all right the next couple of years. Just like the Pacers did.

On Twitter: @BobCooney76


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