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2015-16 Season Preview: Philadelphia 76ers

Nerlens Noel (USA Today Images)

Nerlens Noel (USA Today Images)

2014-15 Record: 18-64, No. 4 Atlantic Division, No. 14 Eastern Conference

Roster Returnees: Furkan Aldemir, Isaiah Canaan, Robert Covington, Joel Embiid,Jerami Grant, Nerlens Noel, JaKarr Sampson, Hollis Thompson, Tony Wroten

Roster Additions: Richaun Holmes (rookie, no. 37 overall), Pierre Jackson, Carl Landry, Kendall Marshall, Jahlil Okafor (rookie, no. 3), Nik Stauskas, JP Tokoto (rookie, no. 58), Gerald Wallace, Scottie Wilbekin (rookie, undrafted)

Roster Subtractions: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Glenn Robinson III, Jason Richardson, Thomas Robinson, Henry Sims, Ish Smith


2014-2015 Recap:

The Philadelphia 76ers finished the 2014-15 NBA season with 18 wins and the third worst record in the league. They also lost their first 17 games, coming perilously close to tying the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets for the worst start to a season in league history.

The Sixers biggest problem last season was their offense; examinations of traditional and advanced stats reveal that they consistently struggled to score points. Out of 30 teams they were 29th in points (92.0 per game), 30th in turnovers (17.7 per game), 24th in assists (20.5 per game), 30th in field goal percentage (40.8 percent), 29th in three point percentage (32.0 percent), 30th in true shooting percentage (49.4 percent), 30th in turnover percentage (16.0 percent), and 30th in offensive rating (95.5). In short, they were historically bad on offense.

Many of the 76ers offensive woes can be explained by a near-complete lack of NBA-level talent on the roster. Head Coach Brett Brown helmed a team stocked with potential, but lacking in established NBA talent. As a result, fringe NBA players such as Henry Sims, Ish Smith, and Thomas Robinson played significant roles at times and journeyman Luc Richard Mbah a Moute averaged a career high 28.6 minutes per game.

To make matters more difficult for Brown, several players missed time due to injury and General Manager Sam Hinkie tinkered with the team throughout the regular season. Notably, Hinkie traded prospects Michael Carter-Williams and K.J. McDaniels at mid-season, despite solid production from both players. The result: 25 players saw action for the Sixers, and only two players started more than 49 games. The volatility of the roster made it virtually impossible for the Sixers to win on a regular basis.

One of the only silver linings for Sixers fans last season was the play of 6-foot-11 center Nerlens Noel. After sitting out his first season with a torn ACL, Noel played in 71 games and led Philadelphia in blocks, steals, and rebounds. Noel’s season highlights included six games with five or more blocks and four games with five or more steals. His defensive presence gained national attention and Noel was named to the NBA all-rookie team in May.

Defense was also a relative positive for the Sixers as a whole. Philadelphia used youth, hustle, and length to disrupt passing lanes and generate steals, resulting in the second best opponent’s turnover percentage (15.2 percent) in the league. They also finished 13thin defensive rating (104.8) and 18th in effective field goal percentage defense (49.7 percent).

Beyond Noel, the 76ers saw promising performances from guard Tony Wroten and small forward Robert Covington. Wroten was averaging career highs in points, assists, and steals before tearing his ACL on January 23, 2015. Covington emerged as a possible rotation player, averaging 17.4 points per game and shooting 39 percent from three in 49 starts.

2015-16 Outlook:

Other than selecting Jahlil Okafor with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, the Sixers roster has not been significantly improved from last season. They still lack talent and will rely heavily on unproven youngsters. Inevitably, the Sixers are going to struggle to win games again this year.

And the team’s management could not care less.

For the past two years, the Sixers have intentionally made little effort to field a competitive roster as Hinkie has stockpiled draft picks and cheap prospects. The goal is clear: avoid the dreaded “35 win treadmill” by bottoming out for high lottery picks, while simultaneously using salary cap space to accumulate tradable assets. Eventually, the lottery picks and assets will be converted into bona fide NBA superstars. In theory, a low win total in 2016 contributes to the plan by netting the Sixers another high lottery pick.

Thus, Sixers’ management will judge this season on the continued development of their young athletes, rather than total wins. Specifically, they hope to determine if any of the players on the roster are true superstars capable of leading a championship contender. At the center of that search for a superstar are three young big men: Okafor, Noel, and Joel Embiid. Philadelphia’s season will be considered a success if any combination of those three makes significant strides toward perennial All-Stardom.

For Okafor, the specific goal will be to win NBA Rookie of the Year by demonstrating that his back to the basket offensive skills and passing ability translate well to the professional game. Ideally he will show signs that he can be the cornerstone that turns around their awful offense and complements Noel’s defensive prowess. The Sixers also hope that he can improve his poor pick and roll defense and free throw shooting.

For Noel, the goal will be continued improvement on defense. Noel is unlikely to become an offensive force, but the Sixers will be satisfied if he can complement Okafor’s offensive skill by developing into a game changer capable of anchoring the team’s defense against a wide range of lineups. In addition to acting as a primary rim protector, he needs to show enough defensive versatility to guard stretch 4s in the mold of other young defensive stalwarts Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert. This will allow the Sixers to play him at power forward while Okafor plays center.

Embiid’s goal for the season is to get healthy. The 21-year old was the third overall pick in the 2014 draft but has yet to see NBA action after sitting out last season with a broken foot. Embiid has been slow to recover from the injury and will also miss the entire 2015-16 season after undergoing surgery this summer.  When he does make it onto the court, scouting reports suggest that Embiid has substantial offensive potential and that his style of play may overlap with Okafor’s skill set. Ideally, the Sixers would have used this season to evaluate whether or not it was realistic to keep both players, but that assessment will have to wait until 2016.

Beyond nurturing the superstar potential of their big men, the Sixers next priority is to fill a glaring hole at point guard. Last season Wroten started at the point before injuring his ACL. Isaiah Canaan and Ish Smith filled in for the second half of the season, but neither player differentiated himself. Consequently, Wroten seems the most likely candidate to fill the role again this season, but questions remain about whether or not his game is suited to leading an offense. Wroten has exceptional quickness and can get to the rim at will, but suffers from poor decision making (3.8 turnovers per game last season) and free throw shooting (.654 for his career). Wroten did average 5.2 assists per game last season, so he has the passing skills to play point guard, but they must be coupled with more control of his high energy game and a willingness to abandon a “score first” mentality. If Wroten is not up to the task, Kendall Marshall may be a dark horse to fill the role after being used primarily as a shooting guard in Milwaukee last season.

Beyond that, the Sixers’ strategy will be to give significant minutes to younger players and hope that some of their prospects develop. The team will be satisfied if any combination of Covington, Marshall, Jerami Grant, JaKarr Sampson, Hollis Thompson, etc. turn into quality role players.

Key Matchups:

The 76ers open on the road against the Boston Celtics on October 28, and at home against the Utah Jazz on October 30. They have no games scheduled for ESPN/ABC or TNT, but will appear on NBA TV on Nov. 9 against the Chicago Bulls and Nov. 29 at the Memphis Grizzlies. The Sixers square off with the Blazers in Philadelphia on Jan. 16 and in Portland on March 26.

New Uniforms:

On June 18 the Sixers unveiled three new uniforms for the 2015-2016 season. The overhauled duds integrate several design elements from classic Sixers teams, including stars on either side of the jersey and shorts reminiscent of the Dr. J era, and a “PHILA” word mark across the front in honor of the Wilt Chamberlain era.

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