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April 06, 2020

ESPN ranks Sixers bottom half in NBA management, draft, and salary cap

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Joel-Embiid-Ben-Simmons-Sixers-76ers_021520 Brett Davis/USA Today Sports

Is Doc Rivers the right man to get the most out of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons?

Long before they had any business being looked at favorably, the Sixers have ranked within the top-10 of most forward-looking power rankings. But despite the absence of basketball at the moment, Philadelphia's basketball team has found a way to slide down the charts in a new ESPN round-up.

Kevin Pelton and Bobby Marks put together their future power rankings for ESPN on Monday, and the Sixers are currently sitting tied for 12th. Though that doesn't sound dire, it is a slide of five spots from their preseason rankings in October 2019, a reflection of the messy ongoing season that may have just gone up in smoke.

Now, with "The Process" nothing but a memory, Philadelphia confronts a new set of challenges -- namely, whether this core is capable of maximizing Simmons and fellow All-Star Joel Embiid, which hasn't been the case during a disappointing 2019-20 season to date. 

With a max extension for Simmons kicking in, the 76ers will start next season in the luxury tax before filling out their roster, and cap relief won't come until 2022-23 (when Al Horford's salary is partially guaranteed) at the earliest. Philadelphia is also out a first-round pick. So while this is still a top-10 roster in terms of current talent, the future appears surprisingly cloudy. [ESPN, Kevin Pelton]

Hard to argue with that logic. So how do they arrive at that number? It's a combination of five different factors — players, management, money, market, and draft. The Sixers still rank favorably in the players' department, tied for seventh with the Brooklyn Nets. While some of the teams ahead of them have title-winning stars (the Clippers and Lakers are tied for first), younger groups like the Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks have also surpassed Philly in ESPN's roster projections.

It's the rest of their situation that appears to be a problem. The Sixers rank 19th in management (between the Nets and Magic), 22nd in draft, and dead last in money. Tracking it back a little over a year, the leaguewide impression of the Sixers keeps dropping.

Future Power Rankings 

 MetricMarch 2019 October 2019 April 2020 
 Players 2nd2nd  T-7th
 Management 13th 14th T-19th
Money  27th 30th 30th
 Market T-12th T-13th T-12th
Draft  T-24th T-24th T-22nd
Overall  4th 7th 12th

The cap situation is what it is at this point, and ESPN's draft metric is mostly based on future projecting, so the takeaway is essentially that they have few picks at their disposal, and even ones they have aren't going to be high. To their credit, they have actually done a pretty good job later in the draft in recent years, finding bonafide rotation players like Landry Shamet, Matisse Thybulle, and Shake Milton in spite of an erratic management structure.

While the dip in management is notable and a reflection of failed attempts to build an elite team around Simmons and Embiid, it's the roster hit that is most noteworthy. With Jimmy Butler in the fold and following his departure in free agency, the talent of the young star duo was enough to maintain high optimism and the exact same ranking. But a clunkier roster has put the spotlight on what those two aren't doing rather than what they're currently capable of doing, with Simmons' jumper and Embiid's erratic focus levels part of why the team is where it is at the moment.

Admittedly, they are a hard duo to grapple with. They were better immediately upon entering the league than the vast majority of players in the league, let alone rookies, and the fight to leap from All-Star to MVP candidate is the toughest hurdle for any ascending player. That doesn't make frustration over their lack of progress invalid. You don't get to no-show as many games as they did this year and expect to stay in rarified air.

But they have taken this hit to perception despite being two multi-time All-Stars and elite defensive players in their mid-20s, and that's a bigger indictment of the front office and coaching staff that it has reached this point. The needs around the core duo have been the same for basically their entire careers, and Philadelphia has either paid above sticker price to tried to address those issues or ignored them altogether. Brown has worked with these guys for years now, and can't seem to break them out of whatever stubborn habits and issues they've had along the way.

To me, the most interesting question is if this eventually sets in with the stars themselves and causes them to look elsewhere in their pursuit of winning awards and titles. A lot has been made about the chemistry and long-term sustainability of Embiid and Simmons, rightfully so, but ultimately it is only going to matter whether each player views this situation as the best one for them. All the power rankings and behind-the-scenes reports in the world don't actually matter if the important parties tune it all out and stay about their business, cognizant of how much easier the quest for a title be with an All-Star level teammate beside them.

That isn't how the NBA tends to work, of course. Players are listening to agents, managers, family members, friends, girlfriends, spouses, and other variations of hangers-on that can sway them in one direction or another. Simmons happens to be backed by an agent notorious for making league-altering power moves for his clients when they feel its necessary, and though Embiid and Simmons are very obviously the two primary drivers of success for Philly, you can't help but wonder if they might pursue "a team of their own," as other young stars have done in the past.

The question at hand is who or what has to be replaced to solve these problems before they bubble to the surface. The honeymoon period has long been over for Embiid and Simmons publicly, which puts pressure on everyone in the organization to step up and improve the situation, lest they end up back in the same spot they were before the initial rebuild started.

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