The Philadelphia 76ers have tapered away after their surprising 3-0 start. They have gone 6-21 since, playing some historically bad defense on the way. However, this is not all that bad, in a sense - after all, this is a team that is tanking without deliberately losing. So as long as all of the losses are productive, they are acceptable in the short term. And losses can be productive if they develop the talent base in the process.
No Sixer started faster than Michael Carter-Williams. After wowing with a near quadruple-double on debut (22 points, 12 assists, 9 steals, 7 rebounds), Carter-Williams has remained hugely productive, averaging 17.8 points, 7.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 steals per game. The steals per game lead the league, the assists rank eighth in the league, the rebounds are third amongst all guards (behind only Lance Stephenson and Russell Westbrook), while the points are second on the team.
Carter-Williams has posted all this after previously producing one of the worst summer league performances ever seen. Given the opportunity to run the team and freelance then, MCW averaged 4.8 turnovers a game and shot only 27 percent from the floor. Yet when given the same opportunities in the NBA regular season, he has thus far thrived. It is strange, but most pleasing to see, especially from a lead guard who only just turned 22.
It is a surprise to see that Carter-Williams has been the best rookie in the league thus far this season, yet surely it is indisputable. In a universally acknowledged weak draft class, few other players are thriving early, save for Trey Burke of Utah (13.8 ppg, 5.1 apg) and Victor Oladipo of Orlando (12.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.6 apg). Having the best rookie in the league is quite the impressive yield from a late lottery pick, and with Nerlens Noel still to return, Philadelphia’s first year of rebuilding is off to a strong start.
None too subtlely, Philadelphia let all of its talent leave, or traded it away, in a deliberate attempt to reload. Mindful of how short of talent they were, they are dedicated to rebuilding their talent level from the ground up. Carter-Williams and Noel are cornerstones of this vision, particularly MCW, the lead guard and replacement for the previous best player, Jrue Holiday.
Carter-Williams and Noel are the pieces around which others are to fit – for all the productive play of veterans Evan Turner, Thad Young and a resurgent Spencer Hawes (whose resurgence is due in part to Carter-Williams’s pick and roll connection with him), they are trade pieces or complimentary talents, potentially part of the longer term vision but only for as long as they are more valuable as that then as assets. For now, Carter-Williams leads the charge, with Noel and the high 2014 first round pick yet to come.
This is fine for the moment. However, the task of reconciling and creating a complimentary roster is not an easy one, and Philadelphia are a long way from achieving it at the moment. The makeshift 76ers are an oddly constructed bunch - this is a team on which the starting centre leads the team in three-point makes, and he and the starting power forward are the two leaders in three-point percentage. It is a team with some talent, both young and veteran, but also with almost every question left to answer. Indeed, Carter-Williams is partly responsible for the most profound weaknesses going forward, his own weak jumpshooting and poor perimeter defense (belied by the steals totals, his off-the-ball awareness and close-outs are poor, and he sags off too his man too often) being symptomatic of the team-wide issues. It is not a problem at this time, given the lack of intent to win, yet flanking a point guard who cannot shoot consistently is a potential problem going forward.
Carter-Williams's strong start highlights some of these problems for the future. It is easy enough to consider Evan Turner a likely trade candidate, or alternatively a candidate to leave in free agency – both ball-dominant players offering little spacing and far less off-the-ball game, it is difficult to see the two ever co-existing optimally, and Turner’s status as both an incumbent veteran and somewhat disappointment combines with his contract status to make him the obvious sacrifice. Yet the problem goes further than just pairing those two.
Another bright spot this season is fellow guard Tony Wroten, picked up dirt cheap from the Grizzlies (for the cost of only a second rounder) and averaging 13.9 points and 3.4 assists as one of the league's best sixth men. But despite head coach Brett Brown's stated intent, it seems unlikely that Wroten can co-exist with Carter-Williams either. Wroten is productive as a fairly one-dimensional but highly effective slasher to the basket, both in the half court and in transition. His mid-range game is non-existent, his jumpshot poor, his defense guilty of the same lapses as Carter-Williams’, and his mistake quotient high. Wroten brings duplicative strengths and weaknesses to the team-leading MCW, thus making them more of a point guard duo than a backcourt pairing. If Wroten is to have a future in Philadelphia – and he ought – then this pairing needs to work. If it cannot, perhaps his much increased trade value ought be capitalised upon.
By giving free reign to the young players, and playing a high-octane, statistically-friendly (if not exactly successful) style, the Sixers have given themselves both pieces for the future and trade pieces for the present. However, even the pieces which they have identified for the future are subject to change.