Sam Hinkie, the GM of the 76ers, worked the soil in Philadelphia for three seasons. In 2016 he resigned and was replaced by Bryan Colangelo, who is on the verge of reaping the harvest.
Many suspected that Colangelo, as president of the 76ers, would instantly spend the cap space that had been saved so meticulously by Hinkie, and turn the long-term investment into a quick gain on behalf of a franchise that hasn’t had a winning 82-game season in a dozen years. “We decided to take a slow approach, not jump out Day One and do something crazy,” Colangelo said. “The one thing that we were very cautious about was not disrupting what I would call a very solid plan.”
Colangelo watched as center Joel Embiid made his debut after being shelved by injuries for two seasons. Though Embiid missed 51 games last season, his 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game through January hinted at the star he may become.
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“He’s the closest thing we have right now to being that franchise-level player,” Colangelo said of Embiid. “If health prevails, he brings so much to the organization, not only on the court but off the court as well. He’s the full package -- he’s marketable, he’s popular, he knows how to connect with fans of all ages. But what he does as a leader on this basketball team starts with his work ethic, his determination, what he’s overcome, which is a testament to who he is and how strong-minded he is. His incredible talent and his ability to apply that talent with such little experience is amazing.”
While the 76ers were opening their 125,000-square-foot Training Complex last year, Colangelo was filling out his analytics and operations departments and making improvements of all kinds. “We hired a chef from a really popular restaurant in Philly who runs his own health program,” said Colangelo of the meals that are served to players at their new facility.
He was building upon the foundation he inherited, as opposed to tearing it down and starting all over again. Along the way, coach Brett Brown was continuing to develop his players by a realistic schedule, based on the long-term goal of the ultimate payoff. Eighteen seasons in charge of the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors and a pair of Executive of the Year awards had taught Colangelo, 52, what to do -- and what not to do.
Fultz, new veterans part of roster change
“We talked to Danny a lot over the last year,” said Colangelo of Celtics’ president Danny Ainge. “And if it wasn’t Danny, it was (assistant GM) Mike Zarren, who is one of those guys you really like. It’s easy to talk deals with him, throw ideas out. There’s not enough of that in the league these days.”
Following the results of the draft lottery last May, Colangelo’s first thought had been to acquire the No. 2 pick from the Lakers. Then the better opportunity emerged: The Sixers were able to trade up with Boston to No. 1 by surrendering their own No. 3 pick as well as either the potential lottery pick of the Lakers in 2018 (which will be sent to Boston only if it’s in the window of Nos. 2-5) or else the No. 1 pick in 2019 of the Kings or 76ers, whichever is more favorable (so long as it isn’t No. 1).
Philadelphia came out of the recent Draft with a new rookie backcourt made of up Nos. 1 picks -- Markelle Fultz as the 6-foot-4 point guard and Ben Simmons as the freakish 6-foot-10 shooting guard who, like Embiid, had been sidelined for his rookie season (in 2016-17). Their potential is augmented by a trio of lottery picks in 23-year-old forward Dario Saric (12.8 ppg as a rookie), 23-year-old improving guard Nik Stauskas (9.5 ppg) and 21-year old backup center Jahlil Okafor, the No. 3 pick in 2015.
Colangelo then spent some of Hinkie’s cap space – in the short term. He filled out the roster by paying $34 million in single-year deals for shooting guard J.J. Redick ($23 million) and big man Amir Johnson ($11 million).
Forecasting (the playoffs) would be definitely, I believe, unrealistic. But hoping for that? It’s on everybody’s mind.
“We went through free agency this year with discipline by not spending multi-year dollars,” Colangelo said. “That was hard but it was the right thing to do, and I think that we’re going to be very happy. That’s not to say that J.J. Redick or Amir Johnson will be a one-and-done guy. We’re going to see how we play and grow with this group.”
The potential of their young stars, in combination with Redick’s high standards for efficiency and effort, have fed hopes of a playoff appearance in Philadelphia for the first time since 2012.
“Any talk of playoffs is getting a little ahead of ourselves,” Colangelo said. “You clearly want that to be a goal that you discuss internally. But the reality is we’re so young, we’re so inexperienced right now. Brett’s brand of basketball and his approach to coaching are ideal for this type of group. I wouldn’t be surprised by any outcome because that’s how young we are.
“Forecasting (the playoffs) would be definitely, I believe, unrealistic. But hoping for that? It’s on everybody’s mind.”
Brown isn’t shying away from the possibility of an instant return this season.
“If we can get a full season out of Joel, I think tremendous things can happen,” Brown said. “I’ve got two young men that’ll be in our backcourt, they haven’t played a second of NBA basketball and they will be playing a lot together. I’m trying to not blink and just remember how we tried to grow the program when I got the job.
“It’s always through development. It’s always through defense. It’s always through an amazing fitness base. And now, all of a sudden, we have more pieces to get more wins.”
'Defend, pace and space'
Here’s another change that was refused by Colangelo: He declined to replace Brown, who was coming off a 10-win season when Colangelo took over in 2016. Brown’s record in four agonizing years of rebuilding is 75-253, and yet the glass is half-full in terms of him maximizing his young teams while developing the strengths that are shared by all championship teams.
“Brett’s done a tremendous job -- a near-impossible job -- to get it to this point, where they’re ready and prepared to take that next step,” Colangelo said. “Brett and I are doing everything we can to continue to nurture this movement, if you will, and cultivate it and continue to grow as a program. I kept getting the question last year: How many wins would mean a successful season? I didn’t want it to be judged by a number. I can officially say that I think we’ve made a lot of progress across the board.”
The 76ers were proud of their 18-game improvement to 28 wins last season. The idea is to contend for -- and win -- championships, and Brown’s insistence on defense has made a convert of Colangelo.
“It’s defend, pace and space,” Colangelo said of Brown’s order of priorities. “In my old life, I maybe would have said pace, space and defend. But because my coach is putting a priority on defense, I’m willing to change. It’s going to be an entertaining style. We’re going to get after people. We’re going to compete at all times.”
Brown has already developed a blue-collar defender in Robert Covington, 26, an undrafted small forward who contributed 12.9 ppg last season. (Covington could be in line for a creatively-negotiated extension in November.) The ultimate hope is that Embiid, Simmons and Fultz will develop a rapport this season and affirm their promising expectations -- in which case Colangelo will be able to access cap space to sign a max free agent next summer.
Cashing in cap space looms for Philly
Why should all of the stars congregate in the Western Conference when they can be part of a talented foundation in one of the NBA’s biggest markets -- with a less-competitive path to the NBA Finals?
“Everything we’ve done was with the long term in mind,” Colangelo said. “That long term was, let’s maximize our flexibility, and let’s get to the point when you are in best position to, let’s say, acquire a star player. That’s when you apply that flexibility.
“Right now we see a great young core of players that will hopefully maintain the type of health we have currently -- and then the ability not only to develop that core but to be in a position to add a max player next year. We think it’s very feasible.”
Hinkie’s idea was to build a championship organization from the ground up. Is Colangelo on his way to seeing that dream to its fulfillment? This season will provide the first, but not the final, answer.
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