The Philadelphia 76ers are off to an absolutely abysmal start to the 2015-16 season, going 1-20 over their first 21 games. Though they were close to breaking the record for the worst losing streak ever to begin an NBA season, their team-building philosophy is actually looking promising, despite (or, perhaps because of) their terrible on-court play. The Sixers, if all goes as planned, could actually end up with FOUR first-round picks in the 2016 NBA Draft, a ludicrous number of assets. Combine those 2016 picks with loads of young talent already on the roster, especially their big men, and the 76ers could end up following the Oklahoma City Thunder’s route of rising to NBA prominence.
Big-name teams like the L.A. Lakers and Miami Heat became talented by signing free agents; Shaq signing with the Lakers, and the Big 3 of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh taking their talents to the Heat. The Thunder took a different philosophy: stockpiling draft picks. With the #2 pick in 2007, the #4 and #24 picks in 2008, and the #3 pick in 2009, the Thunder acquired Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden, the four cornerstones of their rise to NBA superpower status. No big-money free agent signings, just draft picks.
This seems to be the route the Sixers are taking. They are drowning in raw, promising young talent and draft picks, providing them with tons of assets to either keep or deal away for other players. In the 2014 and 2015 drafts, they ended up with talented big-men Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor. In 2014, they also acquired the rights to Croatian superstar Dario Saric, who won the 2014 FIBA Euroleague Men’s Young Player of the Year Award, and projects as a solid PF/SF in the NBA. In addition to these four potential future studs, the Sixers could end up with four first-round draft picks this year.
The Sixers dealt away all of their good older players, started to take on teams’ large, overpaying, cumbersome contracts in trades, and acquired draft picks for their troubles. They stockpiled these picks and have positioned themselves for a rebuild of epic proportions. Between now and 2021, the Sixers have the rights to ten first round picks and twelve second round picks, four and six more than normal, respectively. 2016, however, will be the team’s most important draft. The Sixers have the Lakers’, Heat’s, and Thunder’s 2016 picks, in addition to their own. All three of these acquired picks have “protections” though, which means that if the pick ends up in a certain number range, the original team will keep the pick for this draft.
The NBA Lottery, a system that randomly assigns each of the fourteen teams who didn’t make the playoffs a first round draft slot based on probability percentages, spices this process up. The worst team in the league has a 25% chance of ending up with the first overall pick, second worst a 19.9% chance of getting the top pick, etc. Just because a team finishes the season outside of the protected pick zone doesn’t mean the Sixers definitely get the pick; the lottery could move that team up or down the draft order and into the protected zone. For example, if a trade includes a top-five protected pick, and the original team finishes as the eighth worst in the league, the lottery could still possibly move that team up to the fifth slot or higher and allow the pick’s original owner to keep the selection.
The Sixers are in good shape for at least three of their four picks. Their terrible season, if continued, would pretty much guarantee a top five pick of their own at the very, very least, likely in the top three. The Thunder’s traded pick is lottery protected, but OKC is one of the best teams in the Western Conference and will almost certainly avoid the bottom fifteen. The Heat pick is top ten protected, but the Heat are 12-6 and are looking like a playoff team, not a lottery team. The only pick that looks like they might lose is the Lakers’, which is top three protected, and Los Angeles is having a season similarly as poor as the Sixers’. They are 3-17, placing them in the second worst slot, and are in position to possibly keep their pick.
It’s still fairly early in the NBA season, so it’s tough to predict where the Sixers’ picks will end up. Based upon current standings, though, let’s assume their own pick ends up being #1 overall, they lose the Lakers’ pick (since it is top-three protected and the Lakers are currently the second worst team), but receive the Thunder’s #24 and the Heat’s #28. In that scenario, the Sixers could probably package the #24, #28, and one of their big-men to move up and have two top-ten picks. If they get the Lakers’ pick as well, watch out. Add two (maybe three, depending on the fate of the Lakers’ pick) top caliber players, probably a point guard and 1-2 wing scorers based on their current needs, to that already loaded frontcourt? This Sixers team could be very fun to watch over the next few years.