By: Justin Lynch
The 76ers and the Trail Blazers will both be terrible, but which one is tanking the right way?
NBA teams are constantly undergoing roster makeovers and with the salary cap jump and shorter contracts, rosters will be even more fluid. Every team that wants to compete for the title needs to have a star, and the goal is that a team will be able to surround that star with enough high-caliber players that the team can win a title in what likely will be a short window of time.
No team knows this better than the Portland Trail Blazers, a borderline title contender in 2014-15, who saw their window slammed shut when LaMarcus Aldridge signed with San Antonio. However, the mass exodus of Rip City started well before Aldridge confirmed his departure. Robin Lopez, Wes Matthews, and Arron Afflalo (combined 150 games started last year) all fled for greener pastures. To top it all off, Nic Batum was traded to Charlotte for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh.
The Blazers did not go quietly, though. They signed Al-Farouq Aminu to a 4-year/$30 million contract and Ed Davis to a 3-year/$20 million deal. They traded for Mason Plumlee, Moe Harkless, and the Henderson/Vonleh combo mentioned earlier. More importantly, however, they locked up Damian Lillard on a 5-year max contract, likely to pay in the $120 million range (note: salary details aren’t official until salary cap for 2016 is set, Blazers will make Lillard their designated franchise player and pay him as much as the CBA allows). Now, it’s tough to disagree with the notion that the Blazers had one of the worst offseasons in the NBA, figuring they will be a bottom feeder this season, but I like how to Blazers have started their rebuild.
Another bottom feeder, the 76ers, were pretty quiet this offseason. Of course, they spent their first-rounder (3rd overall) on Jahlil Okafor, but they did little in free agency. And by little, I mean nothing (until the Kendall Marshall signing in September). They did, however, make a couple trades. First, they fleeced the Kings in a trade that some are calling among the worst ever. Next, they shipped Jason Thompson (part of Kings trade) to the Warriors for Gerald Wallace (who has since been waived).
Now, we all know the 76ers are tanking to get top picks so that they can acquire a star. And, yes, what their doing works in theory, and I have no issue with it. However, they have very little to show for it right now. Their best four players are all 6’10” or taller and two of them won’t be playing in the NBA until 2016-17 at the earliest (Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, though Saric may not come over because the CBA would allow Saric to negotiate his own contract if he waits an extra year, if not, he’s on rookie salary). After their top four, the 76ers have very, very little. Nik Stauskas, Carl Landry, and Tony Wroten can play in the league (I think, not sure), but the rest of the team probably belongs in the D-league.
Just listen to the rest of their roster:
Furkan Aldemir, Jakarr Sampson, Hollis Thompson, Travis Anderson, Ish Smith, Isaiah Canaan, Scottie Wilbekin, Henry Sims, J. P. Tokoto, Richaun Holmes, Robert Covington, Jerami Grant, Pierre Jackson
That roster is so obscure you probably didn’t even realize Travis Anderson is a name I made up.
Now, both of the teams I just outlined have a shot to finish last in their respective conferences. It is unlikely the Blazers are that bad, but it’s conceivable that the Blazers could fall below the Lakers, Kings, and Nuggets. This is even more a possibility when you consider the team that finished with the NBA’s worst record in 2014-15: the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Since we’ve been stuck on rosters, let’s look at the major players on the Wolves last year: Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Garnett, Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad, Zach Lavine, Gorgui Dieng, and Mo Williams. Yes, that team finished with a worse record than the 76ers.
If a team with that much talent is only winning 16 games, why are the 76ers throwing a team of D-leaguers out there to win 18 games? I know the East is significantly worse than the West, but I don’t think the 76ers run the risk of making any playoff pushes by at least trying to gain some NBA talent. This is exactly the reason I like what the Blazers did this offseason.
The Blazers realized that they were going to lose a lot of talent in free agency, and they recognized that they were entering a new chapter in their franchise. So, what did they do? They saw that they had a franchise point guard in Damian Lillard and extended him to the full extent of the CBA. They also acquired young, NBA talent. They got guys with potential and did not spend money on veterans who would increase their win total in the short term. They stockpiled assets. But not just any assets, assets that could develop into real players for them in the future.
Al Farouq-Aminu, 24, is a long, 6’9” tweener on offense, but can guard three positions defensively. He shot a measly 27.4% from three this season, not enough to make defenses really guard him. However, he shot a promising 33.3% from the right corner three. If Aminu can develop into a 35% shooter from three and force teams to pay attention to him on offense, he can become a guy who more than lives up to his $30 million payday. And, besides, if you’re going to give $30 million to a guy who averaged less than 20 minutes/game, he might as well be able to do this:
Noah Vonleh had plenty of hype after spending one year in Bloomington, but only found himself on the court for 25 games in his rookie campaign. Vonleh’s biggest strengths coming out of the draft were his smooth jumper and his monster wingspan (7’4”). However, he took only 13 shots from behind the arc last season (making five, 38.5%). His rookie season was too small of a sample size to make any definitive judgements on his NBA future, but for the Blazers to get a former top-10 pick and someone who they can develop, I like the move.
Also, it might be a stretch to think right now, but with his reach and athleticism (37” max vert at combine), Vonleh could develop into a small-ball five. He will certainly need to bulk up if he wants to be able to bang with the bigs of the West for short stretches of time, but in a league that is getting smaller and faster, Vonleh could provide a different look for the Trail Blazers.
Mason Plumlee comes over after spending most of his time backing up Brook Lopez (and then starting when Lopez inevitably got injured). Plumlee averaged 9 points, 6 boards, and nearly 1 of each steals, assists, and blocks per game. He did this in just 21 minutes/game and on 57% shooting, boasting an 18 PER. Plumlee operates close the basket when he’s not on the perimeter as a part of the pick-n-roll. He is quick off of his feet and is more athletic than you might think. He isn’t someone who is going to create for himself in the post, but he excels at finding openings while diving to basket in a pick-n-roll, and has a knack for finishing around the basket.
Plumlee, however, has no outside game, taking almost all of his shots (427 of 489 last season) from within five feet. He shoots around 60% from inside five feet, but that number drops to 42% when he gets into the 5-9 feet range. Defensively, there is more to be desired. His opponents shot 55.5% at the rim against him, a mark just 1.4% better than the immortal Enes Kanter. Also, players shot, on average, 3% better when Plumlee was matched up on him.
Plumlee will bring the Trail Blazers a more reliable pick-n-roll player than Meyers Leonard or Noah Vonleh, but Plumlee is expected to play big minutes, and a lineup featuring him and Lillard for long stretches could be disastrous defensively, even if Aminu is on the court to offset their weaknesses. Regardless, Plumlee is a low-risk investment and another young talent the Trail Blazers believe they can continue to mold into a regular rotation player on what they hope will someday be a contender.
Moe Harkless is a guy flying way too far under the radar. The Magic sent Harkless to Rip City for a 2020 second rounder. Harkless is entering his fourth NBA season, though he is just 22 years old, and it is a make-or-break season for the 6’9” swingman in the final year of his rookie deal. At the very least, Harkless is long (7’0” wingspan) and athletic (37” vertical).
However, Magic coach Jacque Vaughn benched Harkless for much of the season. Harkless minutes dropped from the mid-20’s in his first two seasons to just 15 minutes/game last year, causing his numbers to drop across the board. He shot just 18% from three, down from 38% the year before (not to mention to 38% was on 100 more attempts).
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Harkless’ game is on the defensive end. Harkless’ opponents shot, on average, 10% worse from three when Harkless was matched up against them. Harkless’ length and athleticism allow him to be a menace on the perimeter, and he affected shots at a high rate while he was on the court.
Though he is a question mark offensively and shaky from the free throw line, it is likely that we see an improvement in his three point shooting this season. He might not get back to the 38% from year two, but it is reasonable to expect him to shoot in the low-30’s from deep. Harkless took almost zero midrange jump shots last season, proving that he is a smart player who will not force up low-efficiency shots that he is not comfortable taking. He needs to become more consistent on both ends of the floor, but on a rebuilding team with little pressure to succeed and likely a good amount of playing time, Harkless should be able to get his career back on track.
The Blazers moves this offseason provided them with the building blocks that could become role players if they were to land another star alongside Lillard. The 76ers, on the other hand, have been staying away from guys like this, for the most part. The Sixers took a step in the right direction signing Kendall Marshall, but here is a list of guys they should be able to get for cheap, that they should try to go after. These guys won’t help the Sixers win immediately, but they are guys who could help the Sixers down the line, and you never know, some of these guys might develop into starters on good teams.
Ledo is scorer, and he’s confident. He never played in college due to eligibility issues, but he showed real promise down the stretch last season in New York. Ledo is a 6’7” ball-dominant two-guard who has lots of potential offensively. He shot 41.7% from three in his 12 games last season, though he did not do much else. He is just also just 23 years old. His biggest problem is that he plays zero defense. But not everyone in the NBA plays hard on the defensive end, and he has enough talent to make it in the NBA. The question is whether or not he will develop his talent. Philly would be a great place for him to get minutes and further his game. I see a lot of Nick Young in him.
Daniels is 24 years old and has been on three teams in his four years in the pros. His biggest asset is his three point shooting, something that should help him stick around in the league. He shot 47% from three last season, though the sample size was small, as he only played 11 games. Defensively, Daniels is average, but, like Ledo, you’re not getting Daniels to lock up the other team’s best player. Daniels could provide some shooting off the bench for the Sixers, but more importantly he could provide the spacing that a good three point shooter brings, which will allow Nerlens more room to operate and allow Nerlens to get used to playing with shooters around him. If the Sixers plan is truly to tank to get stars and then utilize those stars within an efficient, new-age system, Nerlens Noel will have to get better at passing inside-out. Putting a knockdown shooter out there with him is the best way to get Nerlens to see the whole floor. NBA bigs can be stifled fairly easily if they are not able to pass out of the post, and right now, Nerlens has no one he can pass to, so surrounding him with talent (or at least shooters) on the perimeter is imperative for his development as a multi-dimensional offensive player.
I’m 100% on the James Young Bandwagon. Young is entering his second season in Boston this year and he is just 20 years old. Again, his biggest attribute is his outside shooting, though he is more athletic than people give him credit. Young lit up the D-league to the tune of 21 points/game on 46% shooting (44% from three). However, Young has been tentative at the NBA-level in the little action he has had and he needs a situation where he can grow without the threat of being sent back to Maine. The Celtics are high on Young, but they also have a crowded backcourt. They drafted Terry Rozier and R. J. Hunter (who plays the same position as Young), and they extended Jae Crowder. They still have Bradley, Smart, and Thomas eating up most of the minutes in the backcourt. Young is a really strong prospect, but it might not work out in Boston (as much as it pains me to say). Philly might have to give up more than they want for Young, but Young would certainly be a good get for the Sixers.
These aren’t the only guys out there for the Sixers. James Michael Mcadoo, P. J. Hairston, Ray McCallum, Archie Goodwin, and Sergey Karasev are all guys that have higher ceilings than the current players on the Sixers, but won’t cause Philly’s win totals to balloon any time soon.
Overall, the Sixers might need to take a page out of the Blazers rebuilding playbook. The Sixers will be patient in their quest for a star, and I agree with their strategy, but if/when that star comes along, the Sixers need to be ready to surround him with solid, role players. The Sixers have almost no one on their current roster who is that type of player, and it would behove of them to start thinking about their side dishes while they wait on the entree of their team. Grabbing Stauskas and Marshall are steps in the right direction, but Philly could fill their team with these types of players and really be able to develop some of these guys into role players on their eventual contending teams. At the very least, they could showcase players with higher talent levels in order to bolster their trade value. Either way, the mish mosh of talent (or lack thereof) in both Philly and Portland should spell trouble for this year, but at least they both recognize that they need to bottom out and go for a star, and there’s something to be said for that.