Dear Jerry Colangelo,
When Mark Tatum pulled the Sixers classic red, white, and blue logo from its sealed envelope on May 21, revealing your coveted status as holder of the first pick in next month’s NBA draft, I’m sure you could almost hear the fan base’s collective exhalation. For many, this seemed to be the most critical component of the notorious “process” began by your predecessor, Sam Hinkie, upon his arrival three years ago. The finish line was near: a city so rich in basketball history and culture would once again have a competitive professional team. But Tatum’s announcement was much more than a landmark step in a grueling process, it was a sign of its definitive end. Now it’s time for a new process, your process, where it’s time to start seeing results.
Hinkie’s version of the process was one based in liquidation and acquisition of “assets,” a term rivaled in vagueness perhaps only by the reference to a prospect’s “ceiling” (another term that Philadelphia fans have and will continue to hear over the coming years). Sure this required some efforts and some maneuvering among others for deals. And while the memories of the horrific product that has been marched out over the past few years causes me to grimace as I write this, he actually did do a pretty good job. Along with his toddler-candy esque obsession for second-round picks, Hinkie managed to acquire first round picks from other franchises, including two additional selections later in this year’s draft and more to come in the future.
But his expertise seemingly ended there: in the assets themselves, right at the brink of the all-important conversion into actual, tangible talent. Your hiring and Hinkie’s subsequent 13-page resignation virtually cemented this fact. And now you, with a reputation overwhelming pure from the embarrassments of the past few seasons, are a kid in a Hinkie-built candy store, with shelves brimming with potential draft picks and cap space galore.
A man so widely known and respected for your basketball intelligence, combined with these resources, invites an emotion completely foreign to the city over the past decade: anticipation. No, not like anticipation from an Ish Smith-led winning streak, or from a shaky video of Joel Embiid dunking in practice. Legitimate excitement for a championship-caliber team in the near future. And as the days since the announcement of the first overall pick continue to mount, so too does the realization of just how crucial this summer is to the future of the franchise. Because with the unknown of the team’s draft position now crystallized, it is becoming equally clear just how uncertain many of your other prospects really are.
Take Joel Embiid, hailed by scouts for his rare blend of size and grace on the court, has still yet to play a competitive game with the Sixers. Sure, I’ve come early along with another couple dozen of Sixers fans, as Embiid went through his pre-game shooting workouts. I’ve seen his quickness in his execution of several post moves in succession, his soft hands, his fluid shooting stroke. And admittedly, it’s hard not to get excited, especially with this week’s announcement via Instagram that he is “#FinallyHealthy.” But the combination of a very large human with very bad feet and knees has historically failed to produce NBA success, and sometimes the ex-Kansas standout appears to waver his self-proclaimed laser focus in favor of headline-grabbing social media escapades (even now, he can’t resist a Twitter attempt at convincing free agent Kevin Durant to join him next season).
Take Dario Saric, a player who perhaps has a Durant-like skill set himself. At 6’10,” he lacks some quickness and athleticism, but is a lethal shooter from deep: shooting an impressive 40 percent from beyond the three point line, including a blistering 75 percent over his last 5 games in Turkey. His highlight tapes can cause even the most conservative basketball minds to raise their eyebrows in anticipation. But questions remain as to his commitment to a franchise that he has never suited up for. In a summer where a large majority of the Sixers’ future must be built, this hesitance from Saric could cripple them going forward.
And then there are the questions that surround the pieces that have actually stepped on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center. As it stands today, you commandeer a frontcourt-dominated basketball team, admittedly a result of bad luck in the last few drafts. It doesn’t take a basketball guru to look at the two teams in the NBA Finals, especially the defending champion Golden State Warriors, and see that the game is trending outwards from the paint to the three point arc. Will you trade Jahlil Okafor, whose attitude and effort have raised questions about his future in Philadelphia, for a draft pick that you could use on Jamal Murray or Kris Dunn? (I argue that Okafor’s talent and proven offensive game is simply too much to give up, and that his effort may simply be a result of immaturity and a reflection of the lack of talent that surrounds him.) Should you trade Nerlens Noel, who may be the Sixers most consistent player over the past few years? (Noel has athleticism and work ethic, but his total lack of offensive skill outside of three feet may limit him in the future.)
So sure, the Sixers seem to be right on the brink. But you and the Sixers now find yourselves in an exceedingly difficult position, one where you have to factor in the multitude of moving parts within your organization in addition to the fickle landscape of the NBA in general. And oh, by the way, your fans have invested too much emotionally and financially over the past few years for you to fail. So enjoy having the first round pick. Enjoy finding the franchise player we have waited for since Allen Iverson. Enjoy the opportunity of building a team where a success will result in the awakening of a fan base with a passion that you probably have never experienced.
Just don’t mess this up for us.