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January 09, 2019

Young Sixers core should view Washington Wizards as a cautionary tale

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Landry Shamet’s three-point shooting barrage was the highlight of the Sixers’ 132-115 win over the Wizards on Tuesday night. The rookie guard fell one three-pointer short of tying the rookie record for most threes made in a single game, leaving Roddy Beaubois and Yogi Ferrell at the top of the all-time leaderboard for at least another day.

It was, by a considerable margin, the only real point of immediate intrigue left by the end of the third quarter. The Wizards are an absolutely miserable team to watch, the sort of group that will turn the ball over and then slump their shoulders, moseying back in transition at 3/4 speed. Sixers games against them are hardly worth analyzing.

But I do think this Washington Wizards team is worth studying as an example of exactly where the Sixers want to avoid going, not because the talent is similar but because the pitfalls are there for any young team on the rise.

It was not so long ago that the Wizards were viewed as the team with the exciting young duo, ready to take over the East as soon as they were old enough to grasp the moment. Before Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson broke the NBA with their shooting, Bradley Beal and John Wall were at the center of the “best backcourt in the NBA” debate.

When the Wizards broke through with a pair of second-round appearances in 2013-14 and 2014-15, it looked like their sputtering during the regular season was about to become a thing of the past. Fingers were pointed at Randy Wittman for his unimaginative view of the game, but when the playoffs rolled around, Beal was allowed to spread his wings and fly, showing off his ability to hurt teams out of pick-and-rolls and flashing the potential to be a dominant offensive force at his peak.

But the glory days in Washington never came, for one reason or another. Who or what is to blame probably depends on who you ask. It’s a hodgepodge of problems that will sound familiar to Sixers fans, as these are all issues that have been debated as potential problems with their own guys.

• John Wall, even prior to being ruled out for the season following heel surgery, is not good enough to be the anchor of a contending team. He is a very good player who deserves to be paid a lot of money, but with the way NBA salaries work, his monster contract outstrips his impact and makes it very difficult for the Wizards to build a good enough team around him. 

• The Wizards have consistently given out large contracts to players that weren’t worth the price tag because they believed they had their franchise players already in place. Otto Porter is a solid role player, but he’s not a $26 million average salary player. Ian Mahinmi is (or at least was) a serviceable backup, but paying him $16 million a year was insane the moment the Wizards decided to do it.

• The best thing you could say about head coach Scott Brooks is that he isn’t Randy Wittman. The second-best thing you could say about Scott Brooks is that he was able to win a lot of games with three future Hall of Famers and MVP winners on the same team (in Oklahoma City) . His man management skills, held up as a point in his favor upon his hiring, were not enough to stop the clashing of personalities (and general surliness) of the crew in Washington.

• Ernie Grunfeld has been the President of Basketball Operations for the Wizards since 2003. Throughout his tenure, the Wizards have made countless moves to chase wins and contention in the short term that didn’t make sense over the long-term. One example: trading a first-round pick for Bojan Bogdanovic in the middle of the 2016-17 season, knowing all along the Wizards could not afford to keep him and Porter when free agency rolled along. He has parted with first-round picks for players like Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris, and consistently signed players midseason with little-to-no upside, once again to chase short-term wins.

Some of these problems — specifically the players sought out by Grunfeld and the contracts handed down to role players — are worth careful consideration for Philadelphia’s brain trust. Elton Brand is a very different man than Grunfeld, but the pitfalls are all there for him to fall into.

The good news for Sixers fans is that last year’s squad was better than any Wizards team of the Wall/Beal era in year one of the Embiid/Simmons partnership. Philadelphia’s top talent is better, period, and that increases the margin for error in every move the franchise makes. The two-way impact of Embiid and Simmons, to say nothing about the future potential of Embiid and Simmons, puts them in the upper echelon of the league early in their careers.

And to the credit of the front office that remains largely in place from the Bryan Colangelo regime, they have avoided a lot of pitfalls that derail promising young teams before they can get rolling. They focused exclusively on short-term deals for the veterans they brought in, they negotiated a great value contract for Robert Covington last season, and they even got some concessions from Joel Embiid on his max contract, protecting the team in the event of a catastrophic injury. And while the Wizards made nothing but short-term moves, Philadelphia has kept an eye on the future, with their trade for Zhaire Smith this summer showing that they understand the need to pursue upside even with stars in place.

(Circling back on Shamet, finding him at the end of the first round is another point in their favor.)

But it remains fair to question whether they have what it takes to build a championship team from here. Last offseason was billed as a chance to star hunt, and while the veterans they brought in (Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala) have been serviceable, other teams they're competing against have made more impactful additions. 

As one example, the Bucks signed Brook Lopez for one year and under $4 million on July 17, two days before the Sixers traded for Muscala, who is making more money to shoot four percentage points worse from three on 2.5 less attempts per game. Lopez also signed just one day after the Sixers brought back Amir Johnson on a $2.39 million veteran minimum deal, and there's no question which team is getting more value for their money there.

It is easy to dismiss individual moves like these as less important because the Sixers have significant high-end talent. But the teams the Sixers hope to compete with already have high-end talent, and they're pretty much all deeper than the Sixers. Toronto has Kawhi Leonard in his prime and a considerably deeper bench. Boston has Kyrie Irving and a tough, deep team that beat the Sixers in the playoffs shorthanded. Milwaukee has a player ahead of Embiid in the MVP race and a supporting cast built strictly around him, something the Sixers can't realistically do with the conflicting skill sets of Simmons and Embiid.

Cap space is drying up soon. Opportunities to add impact players are scarcer each year, as Philadelphia's draft picks worsen and their war chest of assets dwindles. Figuring out the balance of young vs. old and cheap vs. expensive will be a major test for the front office moving forward. Can the Sixers afford to chase big names again this summer, or would they be best served to go after reliable role players during the period usually reserved for stars?

Through 41 games, the Sixers have 27 wins and are on pace to surpass last season's win total. That much should be lauded because they've had to absorb a major piece in season and deal with depth issues that are years in the making. They are beating almost all the teams they should, and their only struggles have come against the league's best teams.

But with the Sixers playing the Wiz again Wednesday night, it's a good time to remember that there have been all sorts of talented young teams that never got over the hump or went off the rails too soon. At the end of the day, the Sixers' three best players are a guy with a lengthy injury history, a 6-foot-10 point guard who doesn't shoot, and a 29-year-old that has flamed out in spectacular fashion at each of his last two stops, a man who is on the verge of demanding $190 million this summer.

Whether you're a fan or a member of the front office, no one should be taking current and future success for granted because the talent is already in place. It takes the strength of an entire organization to climb the Finals summit, and the Sixers have a lot of ground still to cover.

Having Embiid and Simmons as the foundation gives Philadelphia as good a starting point as any team in the NBA. The moves they make to surround them will determine if they end up throwing a parade on Broad Street or turning into another cautionary tale, much like the team a few hours down the road.

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