Should fantasy managers trust the 76ers' process?

ByAndré Snellings via ESPN logo
Tuesday, March 6, 2018

One of the more interesting panels at the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC) was one titled "Trust the Process? Team building and rebuilding in the NBA":

Last panel: trust the process, NBA team building and rebuilding w @dg_riff @samhinkie @chrisbosh @HowardBeck Lawrence Frank and Steve Pagliuca #SSAC18

- Andre Snellings (@ProfessorDrz) February 24, 2018

The panel featured several front-office types plus Chris Bosh. Former Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie was a huge crowd favorite at SSAC based upon his history of using analytics heavily in making smart decisions, and he got a borderline standing ovation when he was introduced. Even though this happened ...

Sam Hinkie asked outright, "Did you ever say 'Trust The Process.'"? Hinkie: "No". Legend denied #SSAC18

- Andre Snellings (@ProfessorDrz) February 24, 2018

... Hinkie is/was still universally recognized as the inventor of "The Process," the blueprint by which the 76ers are rebuilding. And according to most observers and analysts, that process is working out well so far as the 76ers are currently full of young, potentially generational talent that looks strongly like it could be the kernel for a contending team in the very near future. However, one of the panelists, Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca, was clearly opposed to what he (and many in the public) consider to be a major tenet of "The Process": tanking to get high lottery picks to rebuild through the draft. To whit:

Pagliuca pushes back: can't just be all about draft, better to have triple-threat approach. Thinks could have been better doing it a different way than focusing on draft. Analogizes pizza: eat 1000 pounds of it and it's no longer good #SSAC18

- Andre Snellings (@ProfessorDrz) February 24, 2018

Pagliuca would later double down on that position, saying that The Process, as defined by losing as much as possible to get high draft picks, doesn't work well because of its poor risk/reward ratio. Whether this is true or not is a debate for another day, but it does lead to the question of the day here: How is The Process working in Philadelphia? What does it suggest, if anything, about the production of the 76ers for the rest of this season? And, for those in dynasty leagues or looking forward to next season, what might The Process tell us about what to expect next season?

Fantasy status of focal points of The Process in Philadelphia

As the person sitting next to me at the SSAC during this panel pointed out, The Process was designed to rebuild the team to win championship(s). By that measure, obviously, The Process is incomplete. However, one of the truisms of the NBA is that teams need superstars to contend for/win championships. That may or may not actually be completely true, but there's enough historical support for it that it's a reasonable stance to take. To that end, the 76ers' process has currently yielded two young players who certainly project to superstar status, if they aren't there yet.

Joel Embiid would have likely been the top pick in the 2014 NBA draft were he not injured, and Ben Simmons was the top pick in 2016 and is the front-runner to be the Rookie of the Year this season. The 76ers also have the top pick in the 2017 draft, Markelle Fultz, on the roster, but he's working through injury issues. As such, the championship-level future superstar core for the 76ers currently has only two members.

Fantasywise, this two-man superstar core has led the 76ers to utilize Embiid and Simmons in a way that maximizes both of their strengths, even if it may come at the expense of the production of the surrounding talent.

As such, the 76ers run an offense in which the top scoring option is their young center, Embiid, who has the talent to score at high volume and good efficiency both inside and out. Embiid has been allowed to lead the team in field goals attempted per game (17.1 FGA) by a significant margin, even though at 31.4 MPG he is playing only the fourth-most minutes per game on the squad. Embiid is trusted to volume shoot from both inside and out, allowing him to measure fourth on the team in 3-pointers attempted (172 through 51 games) even though he is shooting only 30.8 percent from behind the arc, last on the team among players with more than 25 attempts on the season.

Embiid also is trusted to be an offensive hub, ranking fourth on the team in assists per game (3.2 APG) despite the fact that he is the only player on the team averaging more than 3 APG who has an assist-to-turnover ratio of less than 1.0 (3.9 TO/game).

Similarly, Simmons has been allowed to take the second-most field goal attempts per game (13.0 FGA) despite a well-known lack of a jump shot and the worst free throw percentage (57.4 FT%) on the team among players with more than 15 free throw attempts on the season.

Thus, the fantasy ramifications this season of Embiid and Simmons being the centerpieces of The Process and learning on the fly have been major opportunities on offense and the chance to play through their weaknesses and grow into the roles that the team envisions for them moving forward.

This trust has resulted in both Embiid (13th in Player Rater by average) and Simmons (39th in Player Rater by average) turning in major-impact seasons even as they play through their shortcomings. The Process, then, has arguably accelerated the fantasy output of the Sixers' two young franchise-level talents beyond what it would be had they arrived on teams ready to win right away.

Fantasy status for the rest of the 76ers this season

While Simmons looks likely to be the Rookie of the Year and Embiid's actual nickname is "The Process," there are several other important (and generally young) players on the squad who have also been brought in during this rebuild. Of the other three players averaging more than 30.0 MPG, two are relative youngsters on long contracts while the third is a 30-something veteran.

The fit isn't perfect, because 7-foot Embiid and 6-10 Simmons ideally would be surrounded by talented guards, while the other two younger pieces ideally would play big forward themselves. Dario Saric is a 6-10, multitalented stretch 4 who is demonstrably capable of averaging 20 and 10 over extended periods, while Robert Covington is a 6-9 defensive wiz who has scoring talent himself. JJ Redick rounds out the primary five as one of the best long-range shooter/scorer wings in the NBA.

Of the three, Redick is the one who has to sacrifice his game the least. Actually, he's the one who's a perfect fit. The 76ers need shooters to stretch the floor, and Redick is outstanding at that. His 16.7 PPG ranks second on the team, and his 2.7 made treys per game rank 13th in the NBA. Covington (2.5 3-pointers/game) and Saric (2.0 3-pointers/game) have also made the trey a staple of their game, and newly brought-in Marco Belinelli (1.5 3-pointers/game) also helps fill the need for shooting.

Outside of size redundancy, Saric's inside-out game also fits well with Embiid and Simmons, though he does have to attenuate his overall production. Covington is the one who has sacrificed the most fantasy value to make the current squad work, seeing his scoring drop from 15.1 points on 12.2 FGA through his first 29 games to 10.0 points on 8.9 FGA in his last 31 games.

Fantasy status for 76ers, dynasty

The 76ers are currently sixth in the Eastern Conference by record, but third by scoring differential (+1.9 points/game) and only two games out of the third seed overall. They have a 5.5-game lead on the No. 9 seed Pistons, which makes them exceedingly likely to make the playoffs this season. In the upcoming NBA draft, the 76ers have the Los Angeles Lakers' likely lottery pick (if it lands No. 1 overall or 6-plus) in addition to their own. They also, presumably, will have Fultz ready to go for next season. This leads to one of two likely paths forward for the 76ers next season:

  1. Continue in the same vein: They add two more lottery talents (Fultz and the Lakers' pick, if they keep it) and a third midround rookie selection, sculpt those picks to fit in around their current young nucleus, and suit it up again next season.
  2. Look for vets to contend right now: Another NBA truism is that young teams very rarely win championships. And, with Hinkie no longer at the helm, it's possible that the current front office will decide to try to speed the rebuild by trading some young assets in order to bring in another star player, likely perimeter talent, to get the young squad up to contender status right away.

If the 76ers go with the former approach, in dynasty leagues, it likely means that they give Fultz a chance to move in as a heavy-volume piece in the backcourt. His current shooting woes make it questionable how well he fits next to Embiid and Simmons, but he has major talent and if he gets those minutes on this team he'd likely be a fantasy impact player next season.

One of Covington or Saric would move to the bench, unless Redick isn't re-signed, and all of the three likely see their stats attenuate as both Embiid and Simmons expand their production with experience in conjunction with Fultz and likely the lottery rookie taking a bite of the action.

In the latter approach, it's not inconceivable that any of the younger support pieces could be traded, along with any combo of the draft picks, to bring in vet impact player(s). If that happens, Redick would have a better chance of being re-signed and maintaining his role, and the fate of the young player(s) traded would depend on their situation.

Considering that each of Fultz, Saric and Covington is highly thought of as a young talent, they all could conceivably be in for larger fantasy roles if traded than if they remain.

Bottom line

In NBA terms, the 76ers' process seems to be progressing well. They seem to have two clear generational talents, several strong support pieces and a lot of potential young talent to be added or traded for next season.

Fantasywise, it means that only Embiid and Simmons are truly reliable fantasy talents while the support pieces have to fit in around them, and pretty much everyone else could be either minimized or traded as necessary to help get The Process to its desired end goal of a championship.