The Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks, two marquee NBA franchises, are in the midst of rebuilds, but they took far different paths to reach this point.
When these teams meet at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, we’ll get a small glimpse of which team has the brighter future.
Historically Bad and a Long-Term Vision
The Sixers have been bad on purpose, make no mistake about it. General manager Sam Hinkie, who at some point in the next few years (possibly sooner) will be labeled as a genius or a huge fool based on the success of his long-term plan, has put his team in a position to fail.
And fail they have. The Sixers are 1-18 and avoided the worst start in league history by defeating the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night. Hinkie’s plan has yielded some promising young talent, but there are still plenty of question marks surrounding Philly’s roster.
Jahlil Okafor, the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft, is a tremendous offensive player, but he recently got involved in an altercation before a road game in Boston and now will be accompanied by a security guard when he’s out and about, sources recently told ESPN.
Joel Embiid, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft, still hasn’t played in an NBA game because of injuries, and it’s unclear if he’ll ever see the court.
The Sixers also had the No. 10 pick in that draft and selected Elfrid Payton, whom they immediately traded him to the Orlando Magic for Dario Saric, who’s currently playing in Turkey. Saric has the talent to be a solid player, but there’s no set date for him to arrive in the United States. Payton already is making a positive impact, particularly on defense, and could have been Philly’s starting point guard for many years.
Philly has made several trades, too, both before and during the rebuild. The future benefit is there, but just about all of the future draft picks it’s acquired have lottery protections.
Philly could have as many as four or five first-round selections in 2016, including two potential top-10 picks: its own and the Lakers’ if it’s outside the top three. The Sixers also could have multiple first-rounders in 2017 and 2018.
The 76ers have enough assets, both in young players and draft picks, to be in a position to acquire a superstar when one becomes available via trade. If there’s another James Harden situation, the Sixers, if they choose, could be in on it.
Patience in the Big Apple, Finally
The Knicks have tried to compete for most of the last five years with signings and trades designed to win now. Instead, the Knicks have missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons after qualifying from 2010-11 through 2012-13.
This strategy has left them without many valuable assets. New York has made just three first-round picks in the last six drafts and only one of them, 2015 fourth overall selection Kristaps Porzingis, has the potential to be a foundational player.
The Knicks also don’t own their 2016 first-round pick because they traded it for Andrea Bargnani in a classic Knicks trade gone bad. The only way for them to acquire quality assets is by trading Carmelo Anthony, but how many teams will be willing to give up young players and/or good draft picks for an aging star whose offensive production is no longer elite? He’s also a below average defender and takes too many shots.
At least the Knicks are being patient with this rebuild. Phil Jackson is running the show, and even though he lacks experience in team building (he hired Derek Fisher to be the head coach, after all), he’s proven to be a decent talent evaluator based on recent draft picks and signings.
Although he doesn’t have a first-round pick to use until 2017, Jackson must continue to build through the draft because New York is not a top free-agent destination with its current roster. The Knicks had loads of salary cap space last summer and couldn’t convince any of the premier free agents to sign.
Which Team is Best Set Up For Success?
The 76ers have a brighter future because of their stable of draft picks, quality of young players already on the roster and coaching staff, with an underrated coach in Brett Brown.
That said, it’s one thing to lose when you have a plan and an attainable goal at the end of the process, and it’s quite another to be stockpiling draft picks and making all sorts of trades without a clear roster vision.
Granted, they’re in better rebuilding shape than the Knicks — and several other teams — but the advantage is not substantial, and Philly’s approach carries a lot of risk. What if Saric and Embiid don’t meet expectations or never play in the NBA? What if the additional first-round picks owed to the Sixers in 2016 don’t result in anything because of the protections placed on them?
Hinkie has taken many gambles in his time as Sixers GM. If he loses just a couple, Philadelphia’s pain could last as long as a decade. If he hits a few home runs, though, the Sixers will be in a position to contend for many seasons with a core of young, talented, cost-controlled players.
Thumbnail photo via Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports Images
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