If you have been listening to the rumors concerning their intentions for the NBA draft on Thursday night, the 76ers might seem to be masters of misdirection. But in at least one way they have been very clear on their direction.
And that direction is up the court as quickly as possible.
From Sam Hinkie's very first day on the job as general manager, and from the moment coach Brett Brown joined the process, the Sixers have been steadfast in their desire to build an up-tempo, open-court team. Hinkie wants to push the ball because his analytic nature tells him that when offensive players outnumber defensive ones, good things happen. Brown wants to push the ball because that is his personality and his concept of how the beauty of the game is best displayed.
Finding guards capable of getting out and running is no great trick. Finding forwards, both big and small, to do the same thing is a lot easier than it used to be. But finding a center who can join the parade, or even lead it at times, well, that's a special component. If he's the right guy, an enforcer on the defensive end, a force on offense, that's a center around whom championships can be built.
So, here we are with the Sixers looking at the possibility of drafting 7-foot Kansas center Joel Embiid, a player who, when healthy, is every bit as explosive and talented as that blueprint described above. And here we are with the Sixers already possessing 6-foot-11 Nerlens Noel, perhaps more of a power forward, but nevertheless the incumbent frontcourt presence on the roster even though he hasn't yet played an NBA minute.
Well, well, well. For the sake of argument, as you sift through the nonsense that has the Sixers going down seven different paths, consider the possibility that Noel, having been polished and restored to his former luster by a year of rehab work, will be among the bait thrown into the water by Hinkie in hopes of landing a monster draft haul.
For that scenario to be in play, the Sixers would have to draft Embiid, which means they would have to be satisfied that taking on a 250-pound man who just had surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right foot was a reasonable risk given the possible reward.
Hinkie has sussed out that equation. He is a thorough man, one who takes weeks to choose among intern candidates because picking the right person could someday change the course of the franchise. He really thinks that way.
So believe this: Hinkie has more than a casual relationship now with fractures of the navicular bone and the incidence of full healing following surgery. By the time he finished his research, Hinkie could have done the surgery.
If Embiid can recover, and if the Sixers can draft him, then keeping Noel makes little sense. Noel is a very good shot-blocker but has extremely limited offensive skills. He also runs the floor as if constructed from an Erector set.
After watching him work intensely on his offensive game with Brown, particularly after the first of the year, the Sixers have an excellent idea of his capabilities, better than any other team in the league. What they do on draft night will tell us what they learned.
All of that hinges on the determination made concerning Embiid, but we already know that the Sixers aren't primarily concerned with winning next season. If their most promising big man has to sit out for an extended period of time, that has happened before as well.
Noel is another coin in Hinkie's pocket for possible barter. He could use it in any number of ways; to improve the No. 10 pick, to package along with something else to get yet another first-rounder, to lift a player from another roster. All of that is possible. The same is true of dangling point guard Michael Carter-Williams, whose trade value will never be higher and whose rookie-of-the-year award was a testament to cheap points compiled on a bad team in a season without a better candidate. And the same is true of using Thaddeus Young, although it would be more difficult to get a value deal there.
What do the Sixers plan to do? Just read the stories. They plan to take Embiid. They plan to move up and take Andrew Wiggins. They plan to trade with the Lakers, get Steve Nash and draft Australian point guard Dante Exum. They want Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State, who is really tough, even though he can't make a shot. They are looking hard at Indiana's Noah Vonleh. Julius Randle is on the radar. Aaron Gordon is intriguing. Gary Harris is the man. I am the walrus.
The truth about Thursday night is in there somewhere, in some combination, in some 3D chess game being played inside the offices of the 76ers. The truth about the more distant future is that the Sixers want to run, don't need two 7-footers, and a healthy Joel Embiid can run a lot better than Nerlens Noel. Put that in your rumor mill and grind it.