Jun 27, 2013, 11:10 PM EDT
First of all, and this will certainly be far from the last gushing eulogy I write for his time on the Sixers, let me just say one more time for the record: I LOVE Jrue Holiday. He was, without a doubt, the best thing about watching the Sixers the last four years, from his days toiling for minutes under Eddie Jordan to his first triple-double to coming alive in the Boston series in ’12 to him repping Philly at the All-Star team last season. He was a joy to watch on the court, an absolute sweetheart off the court, and I would have loved to watch him develop over the next five to ten years, as he filled out the holes in his game and hopefully grew from a fringe All-Star into a legitimate franchise player.
I will miss him terribly, and I will probably sob myself to sleep in my #11 Holiday jersey I purchased before Game Four of the Miami series two years ago. But I can’t really fault Sam Hinkie’s logic in making him available. By trading Jrue, he sends the clearest message possible to the league, to the fanbase, and to the team itself: The Sixers aren’t that good, and have to get considerably worse before hopefully getting a whole lot better. And everyone–absolutely everyone–is expendable.
Jrue Holiday was the closest thing we had to an untouchable player on the roster, an All-Star point guard with room to grow and an imminently reasonable contract. But if we’re attempting to be reasonable here, Jrue wasn’t Kyrie Irving, or even John Wall, nor was he likely to reach those guys’ level. He’s achieved a ton for a 22-year-old, but as superficially excellent as his stats were last year, his numbers came rather inefficiently–his lack of free-throw shooting and high turnover rate meant that his PER was a good-but-far-from-elite 16.7, and according to advanced stats, he was worth just 3.3 Win Shares last year, fewer than even Spencer Hawes or Dorell Wright. He also occasionally lacked discipline on defense, and was prone to the sporadic playmaking mental lapse in late-game situations.
Of course, nearly all Jrue’s flaws could have been correctable, and at just 22 with a notoriously conservative head coach, it wouldn’t be reasonable for him to expect him to do any better just yet. But does he have the ability, the athleticism, the supernatural talent to be the guy that the Sixers build around? Probably not. Preferably, Jrue would have been a second or third option on a contending team. Trading him will very likely haunt the Sixers in the short term, but it wouldn’t be shocking if he stayed his whole career at that kind of borderline all-star level, always top ten at his position but never top five. That’s a great player to have, but it’s not one who you hoard at all costs.
So once we write off Jrue, we have to turn to the new guys we now have in his stead: Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams. Noel, a power forward from Kentucky, was pegged before the year as the likely #1 overall pick, and though he didn’t get a tremendous amount done in his Freshman year at UK –about 11 points and ten boards a game, going 17-7 in his 24 games–he put up very good peripherals and defensive numbers, shooting nearly 60% from the floor averaging not only an incredible 4.4 blocks a game, but 2.1 steals a game as well, a rare-to-find combination in a big man. Consequently, analytics guys love Noel’s potential–ESPN’s Kevin Pelton ranked him #1 in projected WARP among rookies next year, and he only turned 19 in April.
Pretty cool, right? So why was he taken at #6 by the Pelicans, and not first overall? Well, he tore his ACL in February in a gruesome in-game incident that will knock him out of game action until at least December, if not longer. (When last reported, Noel was targeting a Christmas return.) This is no small thing for NBA teams drafting in the top five, since even if he does come back promptly, there’s no telling if his athleticism will still be 100% in tact, and as any team (and particularly the Sixers with their recent experience) will tell you, when you start messing with big men’s knees, there’s no telling what kind of long-term fallout will result.
What’s more, Noel is still very raw offensively. He won’t be able to score in the pick-and-pop like so many Sixers men of years past have been, and even in the low post with his 7’4″ wingspan, scoring against elite NBA defenses will be a challenge for young Nerlens, especially at first. Defensively, he should be able to contribute pretty immediately, but even his Kentucky big man predecessor Anthony Davis wasn’t particularly prodigious in his scoring his rookie year, and he was far more offensively versatile than Noel. He’s gonna take a while for sure.
Meanwhile, there’s Michael Carter-Williams, who, pending some moves in free agency, will likely waltz in unopposed as the Sixers’ starting point guard. Carter-Williams is also a favorite among the analytics set, ranking ninth in Pelton’s rankings, and had a much more obviously productive college career at Syracuse, averaging 12 points, seven boards and five assists (as well as almost three steals a game), while leading the Orange and their crappy offensive attack to the final four. With MCW and Noel, the Sixers will now have two long, range-y, defensively minded athletes at their respective positions, and high IQ guys to boot.
However, as you might have guessed from him being available to the Sixers at #11, there’s a catch with all this, and it’s this: Shooting has been a bit of an issue for Carter-Williams. Last year, MCW shot a painful 39% from the field, including 29% from deep.He also turned the ball over 3.5 times a game, which, when combined with the bad shooting, is undoubtedly going to cause problems in Philadelphia’s already low-efficiency attack. Still, unlike our other tall ball-handler with a successful college career, MCW is seen as a pure point, and he has the athleticism to compete and grow at the NBA level, rather than hitting the pro ceiling the way the Extraterrestrial did.
If it seems like neither of these guys are going to come in and contribute a ton to the Sixers winning right away…well, they probably won’t. But therein lies the grand plan of our new GM Sam Hinkie. As we suspected he would, Hinkie has taken a look at the Liberty Ballers’ roster and concluded–rightly–that it’s nowhere near contention. He has thus decided that rather than try to augment the existing pieces on the roster and push to make the playoffs again next year, the Sixers are in a full-on rebuild, going even younger and stripping the club of all inessential pieces–which, in this case, would appear to be everyone.
Basically, the plan is this: Rebuild around youth, and lose a lot. By shedding the Sixers’ most productive offensive player and adding two guys that aren’t going to be contributing a ton next year (one of whom might not even be playing at all), they’re basically guaranteeing a losing season, and a dramatic one–by the time Hinkie is done, the Sixers might most closely resemble last year’s Orlando Magic in terms of roster strength. But that’s where the plan really kicks in: Not only will the Sixers likely have a high pick in next year’s draft–said by many to be one of the strongest in recent memory, and capped by Canadian phenom Andrew Wiggins, on pace to be the most coveted prospect since LeBron–but they’ll have a pick of secondary value from the Hornets as well, which is reportedly top-five protected, but might still be a lottery pick in a stacked draft.
Needless to say, this also gives us a pretty clear plan of what the team’s off-season strategy from here will be. I wouldn’t call this the death knell on a Bynum signing necessarily–if the Sixers are confident in his recovery and feel they can get him for below market value, I believe they still will, though that’s such a big if it almost doesn’t matter–but you can basically throw out any visions you might have of the team going after an Al Jefferson or J.J. Redick or any other veteran to “put us over the top.” And in the meantime, expect more roster-shredding trades to come–by opening night, I would be surprised if Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young were all still on the roster; it wouldn’t be hugely shocking if none of them were.
Bottom line: This was the Sixers’ best chance to jump-start the rebuilding process, to immediately put us on a five-year path rather than waiting another year or two (or five) to tap out this core and hit rock bottom, and damned if Hinkie didn’t grab it with both hands. It’s going to be a rough year of Sixer basketball, and Hinkie is going to catch hell from a lot of Philly fans who (understandably) don’t want to part with the one unreservedly good thing the Sixers have had going for them the last few years. But even though I’m devastated to see Jrue go, and though the next season will undoubtedly be a soul-crushing slog at times, it is nice to feel that our front office has a long-term plan, and is willing to stick with it, even through tough times such as this.
And in the meantime, MCW and Noel aren’t two bad pieces to start building around. I know I’ll be on YouTube for pretty much the next 24 hours, gorging on highlights and convincing myself that we just drafted the next Penny Hardaway and Tim Duncan. It won’t be quite like that, but it’s a start, and for the first time in a long time, I really do like where our basketball team is going.
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