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The Sixers Have a Big Problem, but They’ll Wait It Out

The organization is optimistic on media day, even as some players openly express concerns

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Getty Images

“This is not dissimilar to a construction site, a skyscraper, or a real estate project,” Philadelphia 76ers GM Bryan Colangelo said of the team’s plans at media day on Monday. “There’s been a lot of work being done to the infrastructure here for several months. … We’re on the verge of establishing things above grade, things that hopefully move this organization forward.”

Things like culture and trust — the intangible elements that help drive business and sports. The Sixers are years away from either of them being a competitive advantage, but the assets that the team inherited from Sam Hinkie have placed Colangelo in a position where he can start building a stable structure in Philadelphia. But before he can reap what Hinkie has sowed, he must first deal with what Hinkie hath wrought. There are only 96 available minutes at center and power forward, and that isn’t enough to accommodate all the talent they’ve collected over the past four drafts. “I don’t see a way of it working,” Nerlens Noel said of the Sixers’ logjam at center. “You have three talented centers that can play 30-plus minutes a night. … And it’s just not going to work to anybody’s advantage having that on the same team. That’s how I’m looking at it. I’m not opposed to anything, but things need to be situated.” Noel is a restricted free agent next summer, so if the team limits his minutes, he could lose out on potential earnings when the projected cap is $102 million. Centers as versatile and athletic as him are hot commodities, so you can’t blame him for being upset.

But Noel has no say in the matter, and Colangelo is ready wait it out. “Where we are is an enviable position. I don’t feel like we’re up against a deadline,” Colangelo said. That sentiment supports what I’ve heard this offseason from multiple sources: The Sixers haven’t received a formal deal that has met their demands, and they are content to stay put until one appears. Teams aren’t necessarily trying to rip them off, but the Sixers don’t want to “lose” a deal by selling low on a talented player like Jahlil Okafor or Noel just to clear the traffic jam at the position. Still, Colangelo won’t gain any leverage by holding on to all his bigs, either; teams know he’s going to have to let go eventually.

I understand the logic of waiting it out: Joel Embiid has a scary injury history, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric are unproven, and Richaun Holmes — whom Colangelo went out of his way to mention as someone who “emerged as another player we’re excited about” — has only shown flashes. But even without Noel or Okafor, the Sixers’ core has more upside than most young frontcourts in the league. I can’t think of single team in all of sports that has deployed a set of rookies with more talent than Simmons, Embiid, and Saric, all of whom have All-Star potential and could contend for Rookie of the Year. If the young players develop, and the Sixers play their cards right, they could be contenders throughout the 2020s. Trading Noel or Okafor might be in their best interest, even if it’s not for what’s fair value on paper. Organizations can’t build a foundation when they have disgruntled players stalling the culture-developing process. Trading one of their bigs at half price will look like a bad deal on the surface, but the sense of finality and security the team would receive in return would be more than worth it.

Regardless of whether the Sixers keep losing, Saric says he wants to bring his winning mentality to the team. “I will try to put it in this team every game,” Saric said during his media day presser. “Especially because we are young, if we are focused for every game we can find that winning mentality within ourselves.” Saric’s trophy mantel is filled with awards from playing overseas; his résumé includes multiple championships and MVPs, among other accolades. It’s a Tim Tebowesque cliché, but Saric is a “winner.” Whether it’s timely blocks or clutch shots, Saric has a knack for making the right play at the right time.

But in the NBA, expectations are consistently dashed, and rookies are quickly humbled; Saric’s talk of bringing a winning experience to the team came with something of a caveat. Saric said that it’s easier to find a winning mentality in Europe because there are “so many trophies” within a single season. Since being drafted by the Sixers in 2014, Saric has played 75 games in the Turkish League and 51 in the Euroleague, winning the 2015 Turkish Cup with Anadolu Efes. The NBA, conversely, has a grueling 82-game schedule, with few days off and a singular goal.

It can be hard on a player to lose after winning all through their life. Just ask Jahlil Okafor, an elite high school recruit, who won multiple high school titles, gold medals with Team USA, and an NCAA championship with Duke. Losing was a shock to his system. “Entering the league, you know it’s a long season, but when you’re actually in it, it wears on you,” Okafor said. “It was hard for me to get used to losing. We lost the [first] 17 games. That’s just really frustrating.” Saric will have to get used to it and learn from it, just like Okafor.

Experiencing adversity can build resilience. Players can learn more from losing than they can from winning. Trading Noel or Okafor won’t magically put more numbers in the Sixers’ win column, but it can create a healthier developmental environment for players, and for the coaches to freely experiment with different lineups. Losing on a team that’s collectively building toward an achievable goal is better than losing on a team without chemistry. Their roster is a construction site, but not every player is wearing their hard hat.