The 76ers' long view at rock bottom

Michael Carter-Williams

Remember when the Boston Celtics were terrible in 2007? Then they traded their first-round pick (No. 5) and three players to Seattle for All-Star guard Ray Allen, and two weeks later sent another bunch of players and picks to Minnesota for former MVP Kevin Garnett. All of a sudden, Paul Pierce had some very good company. The Celtics won the NBA title less than a year later.

From 24 wins one season to 66 the next. Remember?  

Yeah, that's not going to happen with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Ever since the Celtics did the seemingly impossible, executing the biggest turnaround in NBA history, every team's fan base has been looking for the quick fix. And now the hope in Philly seems to be that because the Sixers have gotten so bad so fast, somehow their negative energy will reverse itself and they will slingshot back to the top -- as if rebuilding an NBA roster is like snapping a rubber band.

The Sixers have flawlessly executed the "get bad" part of the equation. They started the 2011-12 season with a 20-9 record and made the playoffs, looking like a young team on the rise. But last season they won only 34 games, and this season, despite owning two more wins than the 13-58 Milwaukee Bucks, they are by far the league's worst team. If they fall in Houston on Thursday night, the Sixers will tie the NBA record for consecutive losses, matching the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers, who dropped 26 in a row. And the way the Sixers are playing, it's easy to imagine them going winless over their final 11 games of the season.

Perhaps no NBA city deserves a big turnaround more than Philly. The Sixers last won a championship in 1983, and they haven't been relevant since Allen Iverson stepped over Los Angeles Lakers guard Tyronn Lue in the 2001 NBA Finals.

But the Slingshot Theory just isn't realistic. This is a three- to four-year rebuilding job, folks.

When Sam Hinkie took over as Sixers general manager in May, he had no interest in running a middle-of-the-pack team for the next few years. In the NBA, the 14th- or 17th-ranked club is actually in a worse position than the league's worst club. Even when the Sixers were making the playoffs in 2009 and 2011, they were light-years away -- really, a superstar player away -- from competing for a title. Former Sixers point guard Jrue Holiday, whom Hinkie traded last summer, is a really nice player. With him, the Sixers probably win seven to nine more games this season. But where does that put them? In the range of 22 to 24 wins? In other words: still irrelevant.

The Sixers needed to be dismantled, and Hinkie finished the job at this year's trading deadline.    

The good news is that when the rebuild is complete -- assuming Hinkie is a flawless evaluator of draft talent, as some have suggested he will need to be -- the Sixers have something in their favor that not every franchise can claim, and that's an ownership group willing to spend serious money to be good and stay good.

Building an NBA roster is like building a financial portfolio: assets beget assets. And the frustrating truth is that going from zero to one -- as in, zero stars to one star -- is the most difficult maneuver of all for a rebuilding franchise. Once you secure that first star player, the second becomes that much easier. And once you have two stars, the third usually shows up on your doorstep willing to play for less money than he could get elsewhere.

Technically, the Sixers can snag their first star in one of three ways: draft, trade or sign. But let's not kid ourselves: They're relying on the draft. No NBA star is going to sign in Philly to become the lone gun. Garnett wasn't interested in joining Pierce and the Celtics until they acquired Allen. And if you look at those Celtics, circa 2007, they had plenty of assets with which to wheel and deal.

The Sixers have no such carrot to dangle unless they want to completely gut a roster that's already pretty barren. They could use their four lottery picks -- Nerlens Noel (No. 6 in 2013), Michael Carter-Williams (No. 11 in 2013), their own pick this year and a top-five protected pick likely to be conveyed by the New Orleans Pelicans this year -- to try to land a franchise player, but there wouldn't be much else to keep such a team out of the middle of the standings. When the Sixers traded for center Andrew Bynum in 2012, they mortgaged their future for someone they hoped would become the cornerstone of the franchise. Of course, we know how that turned out. Because of injuries, Bynum never played a game, and he walked away as a free agent at season's end.

Picture the metal frame of a car, just the shell -- no seats or engine. That's essentially what the Sixers are right now. Hinkie needs an engine, a star, and the only way he can get one is through the draft. 

Consider how the Oklahoma City Thunder built their roster. They hit a home run by drafting Kevin Durant at No. 2 in 2007, and then another the following year when they grabbed Russell Westbrook at No. 4 overall. The year after that, they hit it out of the park again when they took James Harden at No. 3. The Thunder were not going to sign a superstar on the open market, so they needed exceptional drafting.

The rebuilding process for the Sixers will likely look like a hybrid of what happened in Boston and in Oklahoma City. At first it will be all about the draft, all about scooping up that first star player (Kansas' Andrew Wiggins?) and getting lucky on a few second-round picks, stockpiling young players with plenty of upside. And then, when the time is right, and the assets are there, Hinkie can get creative in the marketplace.

Philly fans may not want to hear, "Hurry up and wait." But there is no better place for their team to be right now than rock bottom.  

The Sixers were mediocre for far too long.

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