Waiting for Wiggins

The Sixers spent a year waiting to bring Andrew Wiggins to Philly. Now they may miss their shot. AP Photo/Kathy Willens

"The mantra here has been very clear, which is to compete for championships. History, for the most part, especially recently, especially in the current environment, with the current rules and the current collective bargaining agreement, history has been reasonably clear that superstar players matter." -- Sam Hinkie

Andrew Wiggins loomed over the Philadelphia 76ers’ broken season like a ghost.

Through the astonishing 3-0 start, the deadline fire sale, the 26 straight losses, the Michael Carter-Williams experience -- through it all, from a thousand miles away, the Kansas wing was the most electric presence in the Wells Fargo Center. He filled every room he wasn’t in, the way an unborn child permeates and rearranges its parents’ lives long before its arrival. The city was expecting.

As the fan base understood it, Wiggins was the promise implicit in the draft-night trade, a year ago this week, of point guard Jrue Holiday. In return for the All-Star, the team received a center who hasn’t yet played and what became the No. 10 overall selection in Thursday’s draft. For a marginal talent, this was a tremendous haul. But it wasn’t the point of the deal. Not the entirety of it, anyway. Through this deliberate, self-inflicted wound, the Sixers also stumbled, tripped themselves really, into the inside track in the race for the generational talent, franchise savior and prize of the 2014 class -- or so Wiggins was billed at the time. It was about getting a superstar.

Philadelphia fell for the Canadian the instant it grasped it would be awful enough to actually land him. It was love at first blight. The whole miserable season that followed was bearable, in this way. There was a light at the end of the tunnel. The losing, the losses, were purposeful. The purpose was Wiggins.

During the pre-draft process, the momentum behind a Wiggins/Philadelphia pairing swelled. It took on a feel of inevitability. Joel Embiid was widely mocked to the Cavs at No. 1, and given the Bucks’ infatuation with Jabari Parker, a consensus gradually formed that Wiggins would fall to the Sixers at No. 3, where the organization would have happily snapped him up. The forward’s camp even signaled a preference for Philly. Among the three cities at the top of the draft, his advisors determined it was the locale where he was most likely to thrive. The feeling was mutual.

On Thursday, however, a physician in Cleveland unearthed a crack in the plan. During a physical, the Cavs’ medical staff found a stress fracture in the navicular bone of Embiid’s right foot. With the grim prognosis the injury carries, especially for big men, the discovery and surgical correction of the break did to the prospect’s draft stock roughly what soda does to baby teeth. A previously sturdy thing disintegrated with bewildering speed. And, with the reorientation of draft boards the injury precipitated, the likelihood of Wiggins sliding to the Sixers at No. 3 reportedly dissolved right along with it.

But Philadelphia’s interest in the forward -- on the level of the organization as well as the fanbase -- has proved resilient. Even before the Embiid injury, there were reports the Sixers were willing to trade up to No. 1 to take Wiggins -- packaging their No. 3 pick with either Thaddeus Young or the the No. 10 selection to make the deal -- and those have persisted. Wiggins was, and remains, their top target.

Everybody loves Wiggins, but nobody loves him quite like the Sixers do. There’s a logic to this attraction that’s at once both sentimental and rational. Wiggins is, in many ways, a perfect fit in Philly. A marriage of left- and right-brained thinking.

It goes without saying, but it bears repeating, that the NBA is a superstars’ league. Championships, more often than not, are determined by the rare handful of genetic mutants who can dominate the game on both ends of the floor. LeBron James. Tim Duncan. Shaquille O’Neal. For a franchise that defines success in binary terms -- you either win the title or don’t -- and is absent a star, the only way to build a roster is to select the prospects who have the best chance of developing into this kind of force. By most reckonings, there are two players in this draft class with that possibility. One is Andrew Wiggins. The other just suffered the same injury that derailed the careers of Bill Walton and Yao Ming.

Granted, Wiggins isn’t a sure thing, but his odds of success seem higher in the hands of the crack staff the Sixers have assembled. Head coach Brett Brown cut his teeth as the Spurs’ director of player development at a time when Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were coming of age. His resume speaks for itself. And while the logic is circular, the presence of general manager Sam Hinkie, and the confidence and goodwill his first year at the helm of the Sixers has engendered, further amplifies Wiggins’ appeal. He is the player in the draft who’s arguably possessed of the most promise. Hinkie selecting him would be read as an endorsement, if not an outright guarantee, that he’ll fulfill it.

The pairing also makes sense for more concrete reasons. The Sixers’ up-tempo attack would accentuate the forward’s strengths -- defense and athleticism -- and camouflage his weaknesses while Brown and company ameliorate them. And although the Sixers are still too early in the rebuilding process to fixate on finer points like roles, Wiggins solidifies a wing position in Philadelphia that’s farcically thin.

Even the forward’s flaws -- his reticence to take over games, his shaky handle, his occasional impassivity; basically, his rawness -- look more like features than bugs through the prism of the Sixers’ near-term goals. Given the gulf between Philly and contention, it’s likely comfortable letting Wiggins go through his growing pains along with the rest of the young roster. If he struggles mightily as a rookie, it’s hard to escape the sense the Sixers would happily choose in the lottery again a year from now. This is an organization that’s still, firmly, in asset collection mode. There’s an urgency to win, but not right now.

But none of this quite gets to the nub of Wiggins’ allure, which is rooted in emotion as much as X's and O's. Production aside, the teen is capable of a kind of stardom that’s simply beyond the capabilities of the other top prospects. Or so it feels. Of the three players who comprise what was regarded as the top tier of the class of 2014, he’s the one who shines the brightest; who carries the holiday in his eye. Parker, for all his polish, is too limited athletically to ever become a two-way presence. Though Embiid shares his college teammate’s Sistine Chapel-sized ceiling, even if his foot recovers, he projects as a more muted sort of force. While Wiggins could take over games in the maximally entertaining way of a LeBron James, a Kobe Bryant, or a Kevin Durant, the center -- Hakeem comparisons aside -- is a rim-protector who never broke 20 points in his brief college career. This matters. Philadelphia, remember, is a city that lionized Allen Iverson and held Andre Iguodala at arm’s length. It’s hungry for a sort of star that only Wiggins can become.

And it’s been hungry for some time now. This is a staggering fact to confront, given the long stretch of mediocrity the organization has endured, but in the NBA’s long history, only the Lakers and Celtics have made more Finals appearances than the Sixers. This is the team that Wilt Chamberlain once suited up for. Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, Iverson -- each spent prime years playing in Philadelphia. There’s a proud history here that’s been forgotten, brushed aside, buried under losses and indifference; relegated to NBA Classic and the halls of an old museum in Springfield, Massachusetts. It’s a tradition that’s become past-tensed.

The Sixers last won an NBA title in 1983. In the past 24 seasons, the franchise has won more than 50 games once. Philadelphia became acquainted with Andrew Wiggins a year ago, but it’s been waiting for him decades.

Tom Sunnergren writes for Hoop76, part of the TrueHoop Network.