Now comes tricky part for Sixers

Posted: April 21, 2014

One year into his term as general manager of the 76ers, Sam Hinkie has shown that he can put together a bad basketball team. In fact, after the trade deadline moves this season completed the uglification process, the Sixers were phenomenally bad.

Until the schedule ended with an unlikely two-game winning streak, Hinkie's post-trade roster played to a pace that would have yielded fewer than seven wins over a full 82-game schedule. It was very probably the least talented team in the history of the NBA, which is really saying something when you consider it included a player expected to be selected rookie of the year.

Hinkie didn't leave much to chance and the mission was accomplished. The man can build a bad team.

The question that begins to take shape as the lost season segues into a summer of promise is whether he can also assemble a good team and, eventually, a great one. That will be a bit trickier.

The framework of the rebuilding is obvious. Unless they are struck by unlucky statistical lightning, the Sixers will have two first-round picks among the top 10 selections from what is considered by most a deep draft class. For the coming season, they will also have a shot-altering center in Nerlens Noel, who might have been the first pick in last year's draft if not for the knee injury that kept him off the court this season. They will have point guard Michael Carter-Williams with one season of experience in his pocket. And they will have whatever serviceable bench components emerged from the whirling carousel of applicants in 2013-14.

A year or two down the road, when the young cast being assembled has begun to mature, the Sixers will be in good financial shape to use available cap space to lure free agents who might help complete the process.

It is a fine plan. All it will take is for Hinkie to choose the right players. If he can do that as well as he chose the wrong ones this season, things should turn out well. But even the smartest executives, even the most analytical of thinkers, need something that can't be found on film or on the stat sheet. They need some luck.

That will start May 20, when the NBA holds the lottery to determine the order of the first 14 picks for the June 26 draft. By virtue of finishing with the second-worst record in the league, the Sixers will pick no lower than fifth. They have a 57 percent chance of getting one of the top three picks.

The Sixers also hold the first-round pick of the New Orleans Pelicans, by virtue of last year's Jrue Holiday-for-Noel trade, providing it is not among the first five picks. The Pelicans finished with the 10th-worst record in the league, but the lottery system still provides them with a 4 percent chance of snagging one of those top three picks. It's not much of a chance, but that could put a damper on things for the Sixers.

"That night, when you find out where you pick is [going to be] a nerve-wracking night for me," said coach Brett Brown. "It's a really important night for the club. We'll continue to move forward no matter what happens. But I'd be lying if I said it any other way; there will be some anxiety for me."

How long would the plan be delayed, heaven forbid, if the Sixers end up with the fifth pick (a 12.3 percent chance) and nothing else aside from a future first-round selection from a New Orleans team that just got a lot better? Well, it wouldn't be a night to ease Brown's anxiety.

In all probability, however, which is what the mathematics of the lottery is about, the Sixers and Pelicans will both get about what they deserve. And, for the sake of argument, let's say they get exactly what they deserve and the Sixers come away with the second and the 10th picks.

It will matter very much whom they take with that top pick - one of the highly touted big swingmen or power forwards, if you had to guess. But after that the long-term success of the rebuilding comes down to this: Is Noel plus Carter-Williams plus the Pelicans' pick greater than Holiday plus whomever else they would have drafted at No. 11 a year ago?

That's the equation and it might not be solved for another five years. If Noel's knee, or the rest of his slight frame, doesn't hold up, that tips the equation. If Carter-Williams doesn't improve his shot and control his propensity for turnovers, it tips further. Carter-Williams benefited from the elevated pace at which the Sixers played in compiling his rookie statistics. He also shot 33 percent from the floor on field-goal attempts taken three feet or more from the basket.

Kevin Durant was a No. 2 pick. So was Michael Beasley. Paul George was a No. 10 pick. So was Jimmer Fredette. Forget the hype surrounding the current crop of 19-year-olds. There are no guarantees what they will become.

"Everybody is talking about an incredible draft this year. I think it's just the opposite," said Lakers legend Jerry West, now a consultant and part-owner with Golden State. "I think it's a poor one, myself."

That might just be a cranky, 75-year-old talking, but the true nature of this draft class is another factor in the equation that won't be quantifiable for quite a while.

Hinkie and the Sixers are doing their calculations and hoping for the best. But it doesn't take an advanced degree in basketball wizardry to know that, even for smart guys, getting truly bad in the NBA is a lot easier than becoming truly good.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports


www.inquirer.com/

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