History shows Sixers rebuilding plan probably on target


The Sixers will be bad again. They’re aware of that. Not a lot of folks around the NBA like it, and they’re aware of that, too.

But for Sixers coach Brett Brown, that’s just not the focus.

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“I understand how some people may question it,” Brown said this week. “We have gone about trying to assess having our best chance to be annually competitive and annually special and we’ve chosen a path. It doesn’t ensure we are right. I think it does ensure, in our eyes, that it gives us our best chance. How others view it, that’s fair enough. That’s their call. But we’re quite comfortable, from ownership to general manager to coach to the people who are involved in those decisions, that there is a very singular focus that we have.”

The focus became apparent even before Brown arrived as the team’s new coach last summer, way back on draft night when Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie shuttled point guard Jrue Holiday off to New Orleans for the No. 6 pick in the draft, used to take injured big man Nerlens Noel. Grantland's Zach Lowe reported that they could take a similar approach with Michael Carter-Williams, the reigning Rookie of the Year. But, back then, that Holiday move made it clear: The Sixers would be young and bad, and would do so without apology.

Despite league-wide grumbling and protestations, the numbers back up what the Sixers are doing. It’s likely that within five years of when their rebuilding plan began last summer, this will be a 50-win team and a contender in the Eastern Conference.

In the last 20 seasons in the NBA, there have been 40 teams that won 20 games or fewer in a year (adjusted for shortened seasons). The Sixers won 19 last year and probably won’t win more this season. But the issue for Philadelphia is whether those teams that bottomed out that way got things turned around within five years.

Of the 40 teams with 20 wins, two — the Bobcats and Grizzlies — were expansion teams, so we’ll knock those off the list. Seven others came within the past five seasons and, thus, still have time to change their fortunes.

But if you look at the 30 remaining teams that bottomed out with win totals of 20 or fewer, their record of bouncing back within five years is impressive. In all, 13 of those 30 teams posted a 50-win season in their next five years, 43.3 percent (and two others just missed out with 49 wins). Six of those teams — the Heat, Thunder, Cavaliers, Spurs, Nets (twice) and Sixers — wound up in the Finals.

Of 35 eligible 20-win teams in the last 20 years, 18 earned a playoff spot within three years.

Obviously, bottoming out has its benefits and in that context, what the Sixers are doing makes sense. Bear in mind, most teams that won 20 games or fewer in the last two decades did so entirely by accident, and got things turned around largely through the luck of the draft — Dallas got Dirk Nowitzki after two wretched seasons in the late 1990s, for example, and the Nuggets (Carmelo Anthony) and Cavaliers (LeBron James) turned things around quickly after miserable seasons thanks to an outstanding 2003 draft.

The downside of being bad is doing so during a period of weak drafts — the Warriors, for example, won 21 or fewer games for five consecutive years from 1997-2002, and didn’t improve much out of it. It was only last season that they cracked the 50-win mark.

The Sixers’ approach, of course, is different. They’re intentionally putting together young, bad teams in order to effect an extended period of losing. This is an untested approach. If there is a corollary out there, it would be Seattle/Oklahoma City, which suffered through a 20-win 2007-08 campaign, but emerged with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Jeff Green — a pretty nice combination of stars and assets. It was just two years after their 20-win debacle that the Thunder notched 50 wins, and four years later, they were in the Finals.

Hinkie has seemed determined to follow that path, and that has bothered many around the NBA. Last March, before he became head coach and general manager of the Pistons, Stan Van Gundy called the Sixers’s approach, “embarrassing,” and said, “I don’t care, Adam Silver can say there’s no tanking or whatever going on, if you’re putting that roster on the floor, you’re doing everything you can possibly do to try to lose.”

In a phone interview this week, 19-year NBA veteran and NBA TV analyst Grant Hill told Sporting News, “I think the idea of … purposely losing to get better just doesn’t seem right. Seems like there is bad karma. I understand a lot of times you have to bottom out and build through the draft. But there are no guarantees in draft picks, there are no guarantees in anything.

"I think you lose fans, people question the front office and what their motives are. People don’t have patience. Obviously, you can deal with a team struggling and going through some lean years as a fan if you feel that the organization is trying to get better. But you can scratch your head and say, ‘OK, what exactly are they doing?’”

We know the Sixers have a collection of young talent, like rookie big man Nerlens Noel, and guards Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten. We know there is more talent in the pipeline, like draftees Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. Brown has to figure out how to get those guys to improve in the short-term in order to make sure they’re ready for the long-term.

“Trying to coach myself with a very, very long lens is important,” Brown said. “I see daylight here with this program. I think the pieces of this that we have talked about ad nauseum — with culture, sports science and development — you just can never go away from that. Michael’s 3-point shot, Nerlens’ progression at the foul line, Tony Wroten’s assist-to-turnover ratio. All of those things are the development things that are our measurements this year. That’s our report card, and it’s done with a long lens. I get excited to think that Saric and Joel Embiid aren’t that far away. Cap space, we have got a lot of cap flexibility. I see daylight.”

But that daylight figures to darken, as the league has prepared to alter the structure of the draft lottery to level the odds of landing the top pick. League owners will vote on rule changes that will weaken the chances of the teams with the worst records to move up in the draft, with the idea of curtailing the intentional assembly of bad rosters in hopes of bringing in top picks. In other words, the league is going to change the rules on which the Sixers have built their rebuilding plan while they’re still in the middle of that plan.

Even with those changes, the Sixers have a core of young talent, and after the lottery adjustments, they’ll still be in position to add more. But that might not be the franchise’s biggest problem. That figures to be their susceptibility to a losing mindset.  

“I went to college four years, played at Duke, winning environment, winning culture,” Hill said. “I got to Detroit and my first year, we won 28 or 29 games. Just that one year in Detroit, I started developing losing habits. That was just one year. When Doug Collins came in the next year, he changed that. It was painful, but yeah, it can happen. …  A winning culture is not going to purposely try to lose games. You worry about the long-term development and growth of these players, being in that kind of environment.”

Brown has thought about that, and acknowledges it as a poten

tial problem. Stemming the aftereffects of losing, he said, might just be the most important part of his job as the Sixers try to go from these lean years back into the ranks of the contenders.

“We just have to navigate during this period where the culture and the behavior are in place, the defensive rules are in place,” Brown said. “That’s all I do everyday to remind myself of that and try to coach that and fight for the things that I know we need to have when those guys start to become better players.”

The past 20 years show that those on the Sixers roster could, indeed, become better players — players who win 50 games in a foreseeable amount of time.