The 76ers opened their NBA season with a loss, the first of many they will have to deal with over the next six months. They fell to the injury-riddled Indiana Pacers 103-91 on Wednesday night and the Sixers sent out a rag-tag group of starters for the opener — most of them should probably be playing for the 87ers instead of the 76ers. And if Game 1 is any indication, the 2014-15 Sixers will not only be bad, they will also be boring.
This is all part of the Grand Plan, of course, something of which Sixers fans are aware. The idea is to lose as much as possible to gain as many high draft picks as possible and become a contender sometime in the 21st century. Hopefully, we’ll still be around to see it.
There is some merit to the Grand Plan, which is being masterminded by Sixers president Sam Hinkie, because the worst thing you can be in the NBA is mediocre. If you’re really good, you have a chance to compete for a championship. If you’re really bad, you have a chance to draft an elite player and that gives you a chance to compete for a championship. But if you’re mediocre you’ll get a mediocre draft pick, which pretty much guarantees that you’ll stay mediocre.
So, even though everyone in the country – or at least the part of the country that cares about the NBA – knows the Sixers are tanking and even though they’ve been harshly criticized for it, the Sixers are blithely sticking to the Grand Plan, confident that they will have the last laugh.
But will they? We have our doubts, because the Sixers are betting their future on a bunch of young guys who haven’t really developed yet and maybe never will. That’s the way of the NBA world nowadays, as the really good players play one year of college and then jump into the NBA pool. Those shooting stars have plenty of talent, but they’re also just 19- and 20-year-old kids and there’s no way to predict how these boys will fare when they have to play against men.
In the past, NBA teams would have a better grip on things simply because the players entering the draft played four years of college and had a chance to mature physically and to learn the game from real teachers – the hectic NBA schedule doesn’t allow for much practice time, but college coaches and players spend a lot more time practicing than they do playing.
Of course, even that four-year assurance didn’t guarantee that the top college players would make it in the NBA. Young fans probably don’t know who LaRue Martin is, but in 1972 the Portland Trail Blazers drafted him No. 1 overall instead of Bob McAdoo, and Martin ended up being a big-time bust while McAdoo ended up in the Hall of Fame. Still, most of the top picks in that era ended up being good and even great players, and some of the all-timers taken No. 1 around the same time the Blazers took Martin include Magic Johnson, David Thompson, Bill Walton, Doug Collins, Bob Lanier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elvin Hayes.
And four years of college ball doesn’t guarantee success today, either — let’s not forget that the latest Sixers’ draft debacle, former Ohio State star Evan Turner, stayed in school for four years and we all know how that worked out.
Still, the odds are in your favor when you know more about the player to whom you’re going to give millions of dollars, not to mention the fate of your franchise. And we just don’t know much about the players on whom the Sixers are risking everything, and we’re mostly talking about their two big men, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid.
Noel played just one season at Kentucky and averaged 10.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, which are hardly superstar statistics. Plus he only played in 24 games before tearing a ligament in his left knee, which mean he didn’t play against the toughest competition Kentucky played that season, in the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
And Embiid, this year’s top pick, is a 20-year-old native of Cameroon who didn’t start playing basketball until he was 15. He, too, played just one year of college, averaging 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds for Kansas. He, too, had his one season cut short, with a stress fracture in his back, and played in a total of 28 games, but not the Big 12 or NCAA tournaments.
So, the Sixers are gambling their future on two injured players, one who’s been playing the sport for just five years, and they have just 24 and 28 college games to evaluate them on. And it’s a gamble they have to win or this team will be really bad for a really long time.