For the first time in four years, the 76ers begin a season on Wednesday night in which results are actually supposed to matter again. What a concept.
The question on the table is exactly how far the team has actually traveled in that period of time, most of which was spent with general manager Sam Hinkie methodically searching out tomorrow at the price of today.
All right, if tomorrow has finally arrived - and that's debatable, too - what gain came from the pain?
There are a few obvious answers. Hinkie traded away his starting point guard to get big man Nerlens Noel with the first draft. The team tanked hard enough to pick up Joel Embiid, another big man, in the next draft and maneuvered to get Dario Saric later in the lottery. More tanking led to Jahlil Okafor, yet another center, in Hinkie's final draft, and the 10-72 coda to the Hinkie era allowed the team to select Ben Simmons with the top pick last April.
So, that's the easy way to look at 47-199 in three seasons: Noel, Embiid, Saric, Okafor, and Simmons. Every other player on the roster, every other asset large or small, could have been obtained with a more traditional approach.
It's not nothing. In fact, the haul is impressive. It just isn't a basketball team.
For the moment, let's assume the current spate of injuries resolve themselves, because that is a wild card no one can predict. That means assuming Okafor's sore right knee is only that and not an indication of chronic problems that will worsen with time. It also means assuming that Ben Simmons - even if he doesn't play a tick this season - will recover fully from the fracture in his right foot. If you want to throw in point guard Jerryd Bayless and his injured wrist, go ahead, but if your season hinges on a 28-year-old who has started only 81 games in a 510-game career, it's not going to be much of a season, anyway. And, the elephant in the gym, it means assuming that 7-foot-2, 300-pound Embiid will not become the Yao Ming of his generation because of recurring foot injuries.
That's a lot of assuming, and somewhere on that list is probably a trap door through which a player is going to fall, but let's play the game and see what happens.
Hinkie assumed those risks, of course. He calculated them, and analyzed them, and - for instance - saw the added value in getting Embiid, a number one talent, with a number three pick. That was Hinkie's method. Keep stacking up the firewood, get the best you can for the lowest price, and eventually you'll be able to build a fire, a really big one. Or not, and Hinkie readily accepted the "or not." Still, we'll go with the theory that the bargains he found in the dent and ding barrel will be healthy.
That leaves the other question: What exactly is Brett Brown supposed to do with this mess?
There has been a lot of talk that Brown is on something of a hot seat this season. The Colangelos, all of them, said it is time to start winning. Well, that's a nice sentiment, but the team isn't very good. It is a disjointed collection of misfit pieces, without reliable outside shooting, without a semblance of defensive order, and without a system that works for everyone.
Does some of that fall on the coach? In the NBA, it all falls on the coach. Bryan Colangelo, the one who inherited Hinkie's job, has a history of changing coaches, and changing them early in the season.
Judging Brown on wins will be a harsh measure because this season, while the team won't win 10 games as it did a season ago, it will struggle without Simmons to crest 25 victories. Judging him on finding a formula in which the players at his disposal mesh to form a unit might be equally harsh.
Having Embiid, Okafor, and Noel on a nightly basis is like playing Scrabble with a rack full of X's, Z's and Q's. They are all valuable pieces, but don't necessarily go together very well, particularly in a league in which the best teams have great vowels. Brown's one mission last season was finding a way to play just Okafor and Noel together and he essentially threw up his hands by the end.
The assumption, as we know, is that one of the big men will be traded away at some point, but that doesn't help in the short term because the organization needs to find out about Embiid's foot before it makes any move. Could that determination be made by the February trade deadline? Sure, but the Sixers will be dealing with trade partners who know they are desperate to move a guy.
Between now and February, there will be wonderful highlights of Embiid, if he stays on the floor, solid post play from Okafor, and effective rim-protecting defense from Noel. Those will be the teeth in the hippo. The gaps between will be the poor defense and the egregious outside shooting that allows opponents to load up on the X's and Z's in the middle.
After so much ugly, pretty is still a long way away for the Sixers. That doesn't seem right somehow, but it is true. The answer to how far they have come is that it isn't nearly far enough. Once that becomes apparent, the next question is who gets blamed.