When the Sixers are Good Again, Who Will Challenge Them?

BY PAUL MANCANO—It could be a while before the Philadelphia 76ers are back in contention for an NBA title. That elusive forth title seems further than ever now following the news that Joel Embiid will miss the entire 2015-16, and may never play in an NBA game.

However, The Process chugs on, churning out draft picks, promising youngsters, and Steve Zack (@szack0). There is hope. There were never promises of NBA rings, but if things go according to Hinkie’s grand scheme, the Sixers could be back in legitimate contention in, say, three to six years.

By that time, the entire landscape of the NBA will have changed. We’ve already witnessed the effect that next year’s cap supernova has had on free agency. A lockout could be on the horizon as well. It’s impossible to tell which players will be where, which teams will be good, and how many more millions of dollars Kobe can wring from the Lakers in the coming years.

But you come to this blog to get rampant speculation, so that’s what we’ll provide. Here are a few times who could stand in the Sixers’ way of glory in several years.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Disregard the .500 record and 6-seed in the playoffs—the Bucks are not a good team right now. Drop the 2014-15 Bucks into the Western Conference and they’re a 10-seed, just ahead of Phoenix and Utah. But there is good reason to believe they could be a good team in the near future. Jason Kidd’s got a young roster full of good-not-great positionless players—seriously, you could put Giannis Antetokounmpo at point at Michael Carter-Williams at power forward and no one would blink an eye—and that’s all the rage now, according to the Grantland articles that make me feel like a basketball dunce.

The scariest part about Milwaukee is they can break through the mediocrity barrier and propel themselves into the upper echelon of the league, due to the fact that they have a potential star on their roster: Jabari Parker. In case you haven’t seen the Gatorade ad that makes you pine for the days when a professional athlete had to actually do something before getting his own commercials (thanks Boz), Parker is on the mend after tearing his ACL last season. Jabari could be the star the Bucks need to hop atop the East in the coming years.

And now that free agents are actually choosing to live in Milwaukee—wait, can we explore this for a moment? Have you ever actually seen the “city” of Milwaukee, Wisconsin? I haven’t either, but a cursory Google search gave me this:Milwaukee_skyline

That’s right, professional athletes—some of the most confident, physically attractive young men in the country—are actually electing to spend the prime year of their lives there, where downtown looks like the city you were going to build out of LEGOs when you were 10 but gave up on after like an hour, trying to pick up plaid-wearing women with strong Midwestern accents in cramped bars where the bouncer is just the fat guy from high school that never got in shape. But hey, at least you’re an hour-and-a-half from Chicago and play 41 games on the road.

Sorry, Milwaukee. This is mostly just pent-up frustration from the MCW trade. (WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO WITH MY MCW JERSEY, HUH?? MY GODFATHER GAVE IT TO ME FOR CHRISTMAS. THANKS OBAMA/HINKIE.)

Now that they can convince good free agents to go there, they might have a chance to sustain some level of success without having to tank every six years.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

This offseason has been a hilarious disaster for the Lakers, who have played the role of a cocky, overzealous 20-something who stuffed his pockets with condoms before heading to the bar just to end up going home with Roy Hibbert. While it’s been fun to laugh at their failure to find pieces that could have immediately resurrected their downtrodden franchise, we forget that they still have some players that have the ability to do the same job, just at a slower rate.

For several months, Julius Randle was considered a top-three talent in one of the deepest draft classes in recent memory. He fell victim to some of the same pre-draft critiques Jahlil Okafor did recently—poor defense, flabby physique—and he tumbled to the seventh spot on draft night. Randle had even worse luck than Parker and broke his leg during his first ever NBA game. The ceiling remains sky high for him.

Joining Randle in the backcourt is Philadelphia’s One That Got Away, D’Angelo Russell. Because L.A. waaaaaay overestimated how successfully they could attract free agent big men, they took “DLoading” with the second overall Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakerspick. And try though we might, we cannot forget that we fell in love with Russell for a reason: he’s going to be a really, really good player—perhaps the best in the 2015 Draft when all is said and done.

While this duo may give up buckets like Al Harrington gives up Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Men, they are primed to be a stellar offensive tag-team. Add a budding Jordan Clarkson, and this team has a future. They’ve taken the first step to true contention: acquiring potential stars. True, they lack a (likely very juicy) first-round pick next year, but they should show enough promise to lure some big names in next year’s talent-stocked free agent class. The Lake Show will rise again.

CHARLOTTE HORNETS

Just kidding.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

How much does this suck? The Timberwolves are the mooching friend who didn’t bring anything to your barbeque but ate all the frosted brownies you’d had your eye on before you had a chance to get at them. He’s still kinda your friend, but c’mon dude, Christine made those, and she’s a ridiculously good cook.

Minnesota ended up with Andrew Wiggins then Karl-Anthony Towns, two Philadelphia fan favorites, by trying to be good. That’s right, Flip Saunders had such faith in his team’s ability to contend in 2014-15 that he traded away a first-round pick to get Thaddeus Young, whom they later flipped for a 39-year-old Kevin Garnett. KG should have been a salary dump by that point.

The T-Wolves deserve some credit for squeezing Wiggins out of Cleveland in the Kevin Love trade, but the Cavaliers were going to make that trade even if they had to give up LeBron. (Kidding, obviously. That would have been the definition of irony.)

Wiggins falls into the same category as Russell: he has as good a chance to make the Timberwolves as great as we imagined he’d make the Sixers. Confusing sentences aside, the reigning Rookie of the Year showed glimpses of star potential at the tender age of 19/20. Throw in Towns, whose combination of size, defensive prowess, and shooting ability made scouts weak in the knees, and the Timberwolves have all the upside. Plus, Zach LaVine—who’s an honorary member of the How The Hell Do We Pronounce Your Name Club (LaVEEN? LaVINE?) along is Jerian Grant—can dunk, and that’s worth something, right?

Fair or not, Minnesota seems to have found a solid foundation to build upon. Sometimes, the guy who just bought his first lottery ticket wins the lottery. Life sucks.

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