The Philadelphia 76ers haven’t been putting a great roster on the floor over the last two seasons. It’s been by design and it’s a risky proposition. It’s an idea that I’ve had, along with plenty of Wolves’ fans, when it comes to the rebuilding style of this Minnesota franchise. Strip down the roster, rid it of almost all of the veterans available, and just let the young guys get their reps, as many as possible.
It’s something I’ve gone back and forth with as the season progresses. We’ve seen components of such an idea when Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, and Ricky Rubio missed time as Mo Williams was dealing with some nagging injuries as well. We’ve seen the Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, Thaddeus Young, and Gorgui Dieng lineup out there and full of failure on a possession by possession basis. You can talk yourself into this being a valuable learning experience for all of the young guys involved, but you can also see how the process and the results can be stilted.
Over the last two games, we’ve seen the Wolves get the pairing of Pekovic and Martin back into the rotation. The result has been a more organized brand of basketball that doesn’t lack a sense of hope while possessing a tunnel vision on the spectacularly calm moments of Wiggins doing cool stuff out there. You see the value of veterans mixed in with young players, removing many of the frustrations we’ve experienced watching that overmatched basketball team from November 19th or so to earlier this week. That’s where I start appreciating the plan of the Wolves because I’m not sure they have the infrastructure to pull off what the 76ers are doing.
When you look at the Sixers’ roster this season, they certainly have a type. I mean that in a complimentary way too. They have eight perimeter players (backcourt and wings) between 6’6″ and 6’9″ that are absolute freaks of nature when it comes to athletic ability. The offensive skill sets of these players are limited — extremely limited, even. It’s part of the reason the Sixers rank so in offensive rating (91.4, 30th in the NBA), field goal percentage (41.0%, 30th), 3-point percentage (29.8%, 30th), free throw percentage (69.8%, 30th), assist to turnover ratio (1.09, 30th), and turnover rate (18.8%, 30th). The offense is bad, and it’s sort of bad by design too.
Despite these horrendous placements in all of those offensive categories, the Sixers play at the sixth fastest pace in the NBA. Part of that can be the turnovers. It’s easy to ramp up the possessions when you’re handing the ball over to the other team so often. Sixers’ coach Brett Brown doesn’t mind playing at a quicker pace — partially by request from general manager Sam Hinkie — because when the skill set and talent catches up to the style of play, we’ll see a pretty great balance of what the Sixers want to be someday. Where this roster and style of play end up benefitting the Sixers is on the defensive side of the ball.
The Sixers have the youngest team in the NBA, but they’ve managed the 13th best defensive rating in the NBA. That’s astonishing when you think about how Brown has managed to get so many inexperienced players to harness their athletic ability and play within the construct of a system that promotes the physical attributes of this roster. The Sixers’ defense isn’t perfect by any means. They give up the 11th highest effective field goal percentage, the seventh highest free throw rate, and the highest offensive rebounding rate. They also force the highest turnover rate in the NBA, which goes nicely with their ability to defend the rim. They give up the sixth lowest field goal percentage at the rim this season.
Prior to this season, only 49 teams in 68 years had averaged 6.0 blocks and 9.5 steals per game. If the Sixers’ current averages of 9.9 steals and 6.2 blocks hold up, they’ll be the 50th team in league history to reach those numbers for a season. Now, steals and blocks don’t necessarily means you’re a good defensive team. Subpar defenders like Allen Iverson, Monta Ellis, and others have been high steals players. And remember that Darko Milicic was once top 5 in blocks. But the Sixers are slowly learning how to utilize their physical gifts and play a team style of basketball.
Nerlens Noel is the anchor, while guys like K.J. McDaniels, Jerami Grant, Robert Covington, Jakarr Sampson, and Michael Carter-Williams are asked to create havoc on the perimeter and funnel shot attempts toward the outstretched arms and flat-top of Noel.
In looking at where the Wolves are this season and what their roster looks like in Year 1 of the latest rebuild, it makes me wonder if the Wolvesshould adopt a similar roster and philosophy or if a mixture of veterans is what’s best. I’m not sure there is a correct answer either. Once it was obvious the Wolves were trading Kevin Love no matter what this past summer, I was calling for Flip Saunders to burn it all down and rebuild from the ground up. I don’t mind tanking under the current rules, as long as you stick to your plan and draft wisely.
You can argue whether or not the Sixers have drafted wisely, but if Joel Embiid ends up being half as good as people think he’ll be (assuming health), the Sixers will have a bonafide franchise player to put all of these young guys around. As for the Wolves, they still have money committed to Pekovic, Martin, and Chase Budinger. They’ll use Rubio as the leader and facilitator in so many facets of the organization until Wiggins is truly ready to take over and be the guy. In the meanwhile, players like Shabazz Muhammad, Anthony Bennett, Zach LaVine, and maybe even Glenn Robinson III (MAYBE) will be pining for opportunities against existing veterans on the roster.
In talking with Flip early this season and people around the organization and league, I’ve come around on the idea of veterans peppered throughout this rebuilding process. Perhaps it costs the Wolves some ping pong balls in the lottery (except if all the vets get injured like this season), but it creates competition for minutes and opportunities. I’m all for young guys having to earn their minutes because if you don’t have a sound structure and plan to execute in your development process, then just giving guys minutes without having to fight for them can end up being a disaster.
I’ve seen three Sixers’ games in person this season and I’ve been impressed with the execution of the process each time. The results are hit and miss, but the process looks fantastic to me. I’ve been around the Wolves a decent amount too, despite no longer being in Minnesota, and I’ve come away with mixed feelings.
I think the Wolves’ individual plan of developing players is sound. The work guys like Ryan Saunders, Mike Penberthy, and David Adelman do with the young guys is yielding individual results and you can already see growth with guys like Wiggins and Muhammad. LaVine and Bennett have been a little slower in showing progress, if at all, but this stuff can take more than a couple of months. It’s the team development plan that I just don’t see as fruitful in today’s NBA. Granted, the Wolves need Rubio on the court to make things look good. They’ve been playing without a facilitating point guard for months, and this style of play really needs someone like Rubio out there to keep everything organized.
It’s why I think if they’re going to play the style of basketball, particularly on offense, that Saunders is employing then veterans are a must to keep things clicking in a progressive manner. Perhaps a coaching change in the next year or two could change my mind on this. If they were to bring in Fred Hoiberg and he turned out to have a style of play that actually works at the NBA level, I can get behind young guys growing in this system. Flip has made a concerted effort to get more athletic with this roster and it’s a good idea. He also needs more than a couple of months before we start truly judging how the rebuilding process has gone.
We’ve seen nothing but chaos since he took over for David Kahn, and that biohazard wasteland takes a long time to clean up. Flip may ultimately be part of the problem in the front office, but I don’t think we’ve had a proper amount of time to judge that. I’ve enjoyed the roster moves he’s made in each of his two summers, understanding the plan of attack for building the roster.
The Wolves can’t currently replicate the Sixers’ rebuilding plan, nor should they. Once we see how the cards begin to fall and whether or not a trade market opens for their veterans, then we can see where the path of rebuilding should possibly go. I’m both impressed by the Sixers’ conviction in their plan and also a bit relieved the Wolves didn’t automatically go to that.
You can see the good and the bad of both, but mostly you need to make sure you’re allowed to stick to your process. I’m interested to see what the Wolves’ process will end up being a year from now.