The Philadelphia 76ers' hiring of Jerry Colangelo may not have signalled the end of The Process but it certainly didn’t do it any favors. While reading the often byzantine politics of NBA front offices from the outside is difficult, it’s hard to believe that an executive as influential and accomplished as Colangelo came to the organization to be a sounding board for a young GM whose brash methods have rubbed most of the league the wrong way. Sam Hinkie has acquired a lot of assets in his race to the bottom but he may not be the one who ends up using them.
For as bad as the 76ers have been for the last three seasons, there’s plenty of reason for optimism about their future. Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor are both talented young big men who will have long and productive careers in the NBA, while Joel Embiid will presumably be healthy enough to play basketball at some point, and Dario Saric is considered one of the best young players in Europe. Combine those four with what could be as many as four first-round picks in the 2016 draft (including two at the top of the lottery) and Philadelphia will have as much as young talent as any team in the league.
The problem begins when you start to translate the skill-sets of all those guys to an actual basketball team. Noel, Okafor and Embiid are all traditional centers while Saric is a small-ball PF - that’s four guys for two positions with only one of them even remotely capable of stretching the floor. Hinkie has been drafting players as much for their value as assets as their ability to fit together under the assumption that big men are the most valuable assets in the NBA and that you can always flip them for smaller players at a later date. One of the most forward thinking GM’s in the league might have been caught in an older paradigm of player value that destroys his plan from the inside-out.
Ask yourself this - how much trade value do Okafor and Noel have at the moment, even if you exclude Jahlil’s decision to turn himself into an amateur hour MMA fighter on weekends. Okafor has struggled in comparison to more perimeter-oriented big men in his rookie class like Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, while Noel has seen most of his progress from his rookie season rolled back. His per-minute production in almost every statistical category - rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and FG% - has dropped from last season while his scoring average has barely inched upwards.
It’s just very hard to play two traditional big men together in the modern NBA and the pairing of Noel and Okafor may be making each of them worse. There’s no room for Okafor to work in the low post when Noel’s man can hang in the paint and dare him to shoot from the perimeter while Noel is being forced to defend more on the perimeter and further away from the basket because Okafor is firmly planted around the rim on defense. They would both be better served by playing in a four-out system with a stretch PF like Robert Covington (who would have been a SF a generation ago) who can open up the floor.
Now imagine what happens when you add a healthy Embiid into the mix. The game becomes easier for young players when they play in space and none of the three young big men would have room to operate around the basket if they were playing with each other. Embiid could be a two-way anchor for a team on the block while Okafor could anchor one of the best offenses in the league from the post and Noel could be an anchor for a spread pick-and-roll team that asked its big man to switch on screens on defense and roll to the rim on offense. The problem is that a ship only needs one anchor - one that drops three is probably going to sink.
The easy answer is to flip one (or even two) of their big men for other players but it’s hard to negotiate from a position of such transparent weakness. That doesn’t even get into two more considerations - Noel, Okafor and Embiid would suppress each other’s statistics and make each other look worse than what they are really are (which is already happening with just two of them this season) while trading wings for bigs is going out of fashion in a league where the Golden State Warriors are on the vanguard of the small-ball revolution by playing five perimeter players at a time.
Here’s where the situation gets even more complicated. Saric is a 6’10 225 combo forward without elite lateral quickness who is shooting above 35% from 3 for the first time his career this season so he’s almost certain to be most effective playing as a small-ball 4 in the modern NBA. Playing him at the 3 to accommodate some combination of Noel, Okafor and Embiid at the 4 and 5 would impact his ability to make the transition to the NBA and make the 76ers even bigger, slower and less capable of spreading the floor in a league that is getting smaller, faster and more capable of shooting 3’s by the year.
From there, what happens if they wind up winning the lottery this season and are in position to draft presumptive No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons? Simmons is a 6’10 240 combo forward who hasn’t attempted one 3-pointer this season. He’s racking up massive stats at LSU because he’s playing as a small-ball PF next to three wing shooters who open up the paint for him and force defenses into an impossible bind when it comes to either packing the paint against Simmons or leaving shooters open on the perimeter. There would be no such bind in Philadelphia.
Drafting Simmons, bringing in over Saric and getting Embiid back healthy would presumably be a best-case scenario for the 76ers next season but it would create as many problems as it solves. They would have five young frontcourt players who would be dying for time on the floor, time with the ball in their hands and space to operate in the paint and they wouldn’t be able to keep them all happy and productive. They would go from having not enough talent to having too much in the blink of an eye with end result making each one of their prized young players worse and diminishing them as assets, which is supposed to be the whole point of The Process.
Now compare the situation to what happened in Oklahoma City, which was the original genesis of the plan to be as bad as possible for a few years in a row in order to rack up high lottery picks. The Thunder drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in consecutive years and it worked seamlessly (at least until Harden realized he could be a superstar too) because they were all perimeter players who could guard multiple positions and spread the floor. That dynamic creates way more line-up versatility than the 76ers all big man all the time draft approach offers.
The problem isn’t just in Philadelphia either. Will the Charlotte Hornets be able to get the most out of Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky when they are committed to Al Jefferson and they have an intriguing group of wings that features two guys - Nic Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist - who could play as 4’s at least part of the time? Will the Los Angeles Lakers have to give up on Julius Randle if they draft Simmons and did Randle’s presence upfront dissuade them from drafting Okafor?
Drafting traditional big men in the lottery boxes you in in terms of the type of team you can build. You can fit a wing player into any system but a big man has to be built around and it’s almost impossible to build around two big men in the pace-and-space era of NBA basketball. At least one of them has to be a volume three-point shooter who can guard on the perimeter - in other words, they have to be a big man who plays like a guard. There’s nothing wrong with drafting a guy who could be an elite big man but once you draft him high in the lottery you have to be willing to commit to him. The 76ers have yet to commit to any and the rule of thumb for C’s may one day be like QB’s in the NFL - if you have two, you really have none.