With all of Philadelphia's major sports teams struggling in recent years, the 76ers seem to be in the worst position of them all. Currently the owners of the worst record in the NBA (8-50), they will finish with one of the league's worst regular season records for the fourth consecutive year.
Helped by disastrous campaigns by the Minnesota Timberwolves (16-66) and New York Knicks (17-65) last season, the 76ers (18-64) finished with only the third worst record.
However, since making the playoffs as the eight seed during the 2011-12 season, every year since then has gotten progressively worse. Dating back to last season, the 76ers suffered through a 28-game losing streak (a record among all major American sports) before defeating the Los Angeles Lakers on December 1, 2015.
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Being in the NBA's cellar for so long, it'd be expected that perhaps one of the 76ers' top draft picks may help.
In the 2014 Draft, the 76ers had the No.3 overall pick, selecting Cameroon native Joel Embiid out of the University of Kansas. Unfortunately, Embiid was recovering from a broken navicular bone, sidelining the 7'0, 250 pound center for the entire 2014-15 season. After suffering a few setbacks in his recovery, Embiid has still yet to play in a game for the 76ers.
In the 2015 Draft – once again with the No.3 pick – the 76ers selected Duke center Jahlil Okafor. Seen by many as a complete player at the college level, Okafor was viewed as a potential cornerstone in the City of Brotherly Love. This season, Okafor has shown glimpses of his potential, averaging 17.3 points and 7.1 rebounds through 51 games (46 starts).
Despite his obvious talent, the 20-year-old Okafor has generated his own share of controversy. In addition to being ticketed for speeding, Okafor has been caught on video engaging in various off-the-court scuffles. Those incidents earned Okafor a two-game suspension in late 2015 as questions of his maturity and temperament dominated sports headlines.
While the 76ers' diamonds in the rough are causes for concern, second-year center Nerlens Noel has been one of the team's bright spots. To maximize his superior defensive skills, Noel switched from power forward to center earlier this month, allowing Okafor to play at the four. It's a small, possibly meaningless tweak for a losing team but Noel likes the direction of the team at this point.
"I am definitely excited,” Noel tells GiveMeSport about this season. “We are heading in the right direction, just continuing to develop players, we are still young, it is going to take time to get to where we want to be, so it is just patience."
The Malden, Massachusetts, native is averaging 10.8 points and 8.1 rebounds this season, showing improvement from his rookie campaign last year. Originally drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans as the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, Noel's draft rights were traded to the 76ers in exchange for Jrue Holliday and the rights to Pierre Jackson.
Much like the aforementioned Embiid, Noel missed his first year after being drafted as he recovered from a torn ACL. But since his rookie year, Noel has not only maintained a strong defensive presence and unique athleticism, his jump shot has improved, too.
Working in the offseason to improve his perimeter game alongside former Boston Celtics' coach John Carroll, Noel showed drastic improvements – some of which were evident after just an hour of practice, according to Philly.com.
Despite the 76ers' lopsided recorded, Noel feels he has been able to make the most of the situation.
"I think it is going well, there has been a lot of variables but I think this season is an opportunity to progressively just get better and better,” said Noel.
Since the era of Allen Iverson ended, the 76ers have been trying to find their next megastar. The list of players who were brought in as potential saviors is long and full of disappointment. Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, Jrue Holliday, Andrew Bynum, Thaddeus Young, Michael Carter-Williams, etc.
Looking back will not help the team now and looking toward the future is he 76ers' best bet. They are currently tied with Portland Trailblazers as the third youngest team (24.3 years old) in the league, per NBA.com. Time is on their side and despite the current growing pains, the talent is there.
Noel has improved, Okafor is one of the game's top rising stars, and the team still has draft rights to Croation big man Dario Šarić. Throw in the wild card known as Joel Embiid, the 76ers could soon boast an elite core of talented big men who can shoot.
With legends like Dirk Nowitzki, superstars like Kevin Durant and the budding stars like Kristaps Porzingis, the NBA can be dominated by seven-foot tall shooters.
As the season winds down, the 76ers are obviously not playoff-bound. With 24 games left, the team will be more focused on playing spoiler against contenders than anything else. However, finishing out the second half on good terms can help the 76ers build a foundation for success in the coming years.
"Closing up with consistency,” said Noel about the 76ers' finishing the season on a high note. “That is going to be a key fact for us. We have to continue to step out onto the court every night and play like a team that belongs, playing every night in a competitive nature."