With the departure of Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder can’t be considered legitimate title contenders. But the template they developed still exists. Borrowing heavily from the Spurs before them, the Thunder showed that stable leadership, savvy free-agent moves, an institutional knack for developing young players, and some incredible luck at the top of the draft can make any team, no matter the size of the market, a contender. As OKC faces a post-KD future, other franchises will try to follow in its footsteps. This week, we’ll be looking at who could be the next Thunder.
It’s presumptuous to crown a 10-win team a future powerhouse, but the Philadelphia 76ers are no longer doormats. Thanks to the strategy employed by now-deposed general manager Sam Hinkie, who was toppled in April by a conspiracy that seemed to originate in the hushed corridors of the NBA league offices, Philadelphia has the young talent, plentiful cap space, and incoming assets to ascend toward the league’s elite.
Ironically, during most of Hinkie’s tenure, the Sixers were used as a bogeyman tale for teams seeking to emulate the Oklahoma City Thunder’s aggregation of top-flight talent through prolonged wretchedness. Even if a franchise plunges into the depths of the standings, there is no guarantee of resurfacing with a fistful of pearls.
Back before the Thunder roster was cleaved apart by trades and free agency, general manager Sam Presti crushed three consecutive drafts, selecting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden. But scooping up four of the league’s top 25 players is like being zapped by lightning during a syzygy — it’s not a replicable plan. This folly seemed apparent in Philly, where the fickle topspin of lottery balls, the injured foot of Joel Embiid, and the misfire of selecting Jahlil Okafor over Kristaps Porzingis all colluded to deny the Sixers a cohesive, young cohort.
But after Philly grabbed Ben Simmons with the top pick in the 2016 draft, the Sixers’ rebuild found its keystone. Despite a glut of big men on the roster, the 19-year-old Australian’s talent is so visible that it burns through the fog. Simmons, a 6-foot-10 Range Rover with the ability to rifle pinpoint passes while accelerating up the floor — singularly clarifies the Sixers’ roster composition, offensive philosophy, and style of play. In his first two summer league games, he racked up 15 rebounds and 11 assists, with many of those dimes delivered via no-look passes at needle-threading angles. He hasn’t shown any ability to shoot (or much interest), but he has the speed, poise, and flair of a jumbo-size Jason Kidd.
Going forward, Philly will make its bones with Simmons outrunning bigs, out-muscling littles, lofting oops, and flicking assists to shooters camped around the arc. He can be the Delaware Valley’s answer to LeBron James or Draymond Green: an über-skilled forward who gives his team the gleam of futurism.
He needs help, though. Embiid is a gifted giant whose potential greatness comes with a tiny caveat: He has spent all of his first two seasons sidelined with a navicular fracture in his right foot. To his credit, he has tweeted through it. We haven’t seen him play in a competitive setting (like, say, half-court, two-on-two games to seven by ones, take everything back), and video snippets of his workouts are pored over like grainy alien-autopsy photos.
But if that bone can support a mammoth, leaping, running human, Embiid has the supreme talent to become a franchise-anchoring interior presence. With hulking size, a deft shooting touch, and the strength of 1,000 Shirley Temples, he may be a top-five center the moment he steps on the floor (minutes restrictions notwithstanding).
Yes, arguing that the Sixers are the NBA’s next great team is a theoretical exercise. Unlike with Minnesota — where Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine have, you know, actually mingled on the court together — believing in Philadelphia has the religiosity of faith in the unseen.
And since the team has used five lottery picks on big men over the last four drafts — Embiid, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor are centers; Simmons and Dario Saric, a 22-year-old Croatian, both seem suited to be creative 4s — the frontcourt is basketball’s version of phone booth stuffing. Giving everyone minutes isn’t possible, and with the whole convoy potentially available this season, coach Brett Brown publicly conceded that a trade could be imminent. (From this perspective, trading Noel before Embiid’s health is established would be incredibly risky — mobile, long, and brilliantly instinctive, Noel is already one of the best defensive centers in the league at 22 years old.) Outside of Simmons and Embiid, we don’t even know what the Sixers will look like in November, let alone in five years.
The other key to the Sixers’ metamorphosis from caterpillar to monarch is also abstract: They are owed several first-round picks that could be exceptionally valuable. One is a lightly protected 2017 Lakers pick, and even the new presence of marquee, superstar free agent Timofey Mozgov is unlikely to keep Los Angeles out of the lottery. Philly also has burrowed into the Sacramento Kings, similar to how Boston is feasting on Brooklyn like a Danny Ainge–faced tapeworm; the Sixers have the option of swapping first-rounders with the Kings in the next draft, and then are owed an unprotected pick in 2019. Even as Philly improves, it may have a pipeline to premium talent at the top of the draft — or a fistful of glittery trade chips to flip for an established star.
The biggest obstacle facing the Sixers could be self-sabotage. The demotion and "effective firing" of Hinkie (and corresponding arrival of Bryan Colangelo, who was hired by his father, then–chairman of basketball operations Jerry Colangelo — currently a special adviser to the team) was a farce. Building a championship contender is hard — the Thunder made the Finals once — and Philly’s architect was hamfistedly ousted at a crucial juncture.
Outside of nailing the recent draft, the Colangelo patriarchy hasn’t done much. It brought in Ish Smith (now in Detroit), Elton Brand (re-retired after a PR-stunt signing), Jerryd Bayless, Sergio Rodriguez, and Gerald Henderson. None are disastrous moves, but they are uncreative acquisitions that emphasize modest, immediate results (as opposed to the "reverence for disruption" outlined in a certain 13-page treatise). Hinkie labored over mixing bowls, diced butter, and piping bags to produce the confections that are bronzing in the Sixers’ oven; Bryan Colangelo might leave it a blackened hulk of carbon.
But still, if you’re looking for a bandwagon to leap aboard early, here it is:
The Simmons Vines are already circulating, and once Embiid starts sliding into your DMs, it’ll be too late. For Philly, the future can’t come fast enough.