NBA Playoffs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers

Are these 76ers the reincarnated Durant-Harden-Westbrook Thunder?


Nobody’s ever drafted better than the Thunder between 2007 and 2009. That’s not something I’m really willing to argue about with anybody. They drafted three guys who, nine years later, are by any measure in the top seven or eight players in the league, and after this year will presumably count three MVPs among them. Kevin Durant, may be the best of the bunch, although James Harden is making a convincing argument. And they got Serge Ibaka to boot.

Nobody ever did it better, think of it how you will. The great Todd Whitehead wrote this piece that put some teeth on the idea — which is totally a proverb that is used pretty often — even if one thing it shows is that drafting Jordan and Pippen will take you a long ways in and of itself. Todd’s analysis shows that the Thunder own three of the top eight seasons contributed by players drafted by a team in the last 50 years, but they actually underrate how well the Thunder did because of how much better at least Westbrook and Harden have been since the days they all played together.

And there are so many interesting things to say about those Thunder teams. An epic romance could be written about the different destinies of the three amigos: one, a ronin, fighting a lonely battle to keep his team respectable despite his burning need to consume every offensive possession; one subverting his extraordinary talents to play second banana on one of the greatest teams of all time; one, leading an offensive revolution with that teams’ greatest challenger, the apotheosis of a new brand of basketball. Which was best? What if they’d kept all three? What if they’d kept Harden and Durant instead of Westbrook? And so on and so forth. But this article isn’t about the Thunder. It’s about the 76ers.

Surprise!

Read More: 5 keys to the Warriors-Pelicans series

On Tuesday, the Process took its next step. It wasn’t exactly a surprise.  After winning 28 games last year, and finishing second to last in the East, they exploded out of the gates and won 52, good for the 3rd seed in the conference and, in fact, for the fifth best record in the league. They did that even though Embiid missed almost 20 games while their No. 1 pick — the No. 1 pick — Markelle Fultz barely played.

Still, a series win is a series win, and there’s no reason to think they’re done yet. Best of all possible worlds for Philly, though, is that even if they are, even if they get bounced really fast in the second round, there’s no reason they won’t be even better next year. Hope is a beautiful thing to have, and they are very right to have it.

But what happens next? Die hard Process fans have always believed that they’d get good enough, some day, that big name free agents would start flocking and that this would be the end point of what they were building — a kind of pincer movement, grabbing talent from the rest of the league even as they added to it from within. I have my doubts about this. That was supposed to happen this last offseason, actually, but all they managed to do is sign J.J. Redick to a one-year, 23 million dollar deal.

Of course, they hadn’t won 50+ games yet, last offseason. But while a lot of moves since 2010 have looked like the Heat team that really inaugurated the “Superteam” era, most of the big name free agent movement in recent years has been more like Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma, or even Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to New York — big name stars, well past their primes, looking for one last stab at relevance. (Note: probably does not apply to Paul George himself).

Besides that, what you see are moves like Kevin Durant going from one of the best teams in the West to the best team in the West and Chris Paul forcing his way to the Rockets to play with James Harden. There’s very little evidence that top free agents are interested in up and coming teams, or in being part of a developing contender — they seem, mostly, to want to pile on. Obviously, if the 76ers make the NBA Finals, maybe they redefine themselves completely, but we’ll have to see.

Having come this far, in this column, I’m not even really sure that there are lessons in what happened to OKC that Philly can take as they try to move even farther forward. Sometimes things just don’t work out. But basically, I think there’s no chance that Philly assembles more talent than those OKC teams did, no matter how much infrastructure they put into planning for it. Their job, if they’re able, if they want their story to end better, is going to be to try to put together the right talent.

After all, it’s probable that even the Warriors, pre-KD, didn’t have nearly the frontline talent those Thunder teams did and they were about 30 seconds from back to back NBA championships. One iteration of that group was the best team I ever saw, but it had just one player as good as KD, Russ and Harden. What it was that doomed the Thunder is maybe some incompatibility, maybe letting Harden go, maybe poor play-calling, maybe who knows, but there’s no question they could have had more complementary talents than they had, if not better ones.

After all this waiting, it’ll be hard for the 76ers to wait any longer, and I’m happy for them for what they don’t have to wait for any more — for this part, at least, the wait is over. But that doesn’t mean it’s full throttle from this point on. For that, the 76ers can take another note from the Warriors. I thought they were crazy, years ago, not trading Klay Thompson for Kevin Love, but of course they turned out to be right. If there is a flood of free agents lining up for them this offseason, they’ll have to be careful who they pick and choose, and if there isn’t, even more so.

With that kind of patience, and that kind of luck, who knows what the 76ers could be, but they’ll need a lot of both, still, from here, even with all they’ve already shown.



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