Pelton mail: The Sixers' young stars and the future of tanking

The Philadelphia 76ers will attempt to make the playoffs with an extremely inexperienced talent corps, led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Bill Streicher/USA TODAY

This week's mailbag features your questions on young playoff teams, offensive- and defensive-minded teams and more.

You can tweet your questions using the hashtag #peltonmailbag or email them to peltonmailbag@gmail.com.


The key question here is, of course, how you define a team's top three players. Surely you're referring to the trio of Joel Embiid and rookies/No. 1 overall picks Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons, but in terms of value this season I'd say there's a pretty good chance either Robert Covington or J.J. Redick -- and quite possibly both -- is better than one or both of Fultz and Simmons. And given the restrictions on his availability, it's unlikely Embiid would crack the top three Sixers in minutes played.

Those caveats noted, I took a look at the least experienced teams in modern NBA history in terms of their top three players from my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric. If we assume Embiid, Fultz and Simmons are the top three, their 31 combined games entering the season would be the third-lowest total behind the 1986-87 Cleveland Cavaliers (whose heavy contributions from rookies, including all three of their best players, were discussed in a recent mailbag) and the 2014-15 Philadelphia 76ers (29 games after Michael Carter-Williams was traded midseason, leaving a top three of the aforementioned Covington, rookie Nerlens Noel and second-year pro Isaiah Canaan).

The least experienced top three to make the playoffs belongs to the 1984-85 Houston Rockets, who, like Philadelphia, had drafted Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon No. 1 overall in consecutive years. They were joined by second-year forward Rodney McCray to form a youthful top three (161 career games entering the season) that led Houston to a 48-34 record. Of course, in those days, rookies were more experienced and tended to contribute more quickly than they do now. Olajuwon was an All-Star as a rookie, as Sampson had been the year before, and that's an unrealistic expectation for Fultz and Simmons so early in their careers.


"Assuming the lottery reform conversation is largely based on 'The Process,' would an example that the process worked (the Sixers winning a playoff series or two) change/influence anything? Regardless of what happens to the 76ers this year or next, is reacting in such a way to what is essentially one team and really one GM finding loopholes appropriate or necessary?"

-- Brandon McIntire

I think it would be a mistake to paint the discussion about lottery reform solely in terms of Philadelphia and Sam Hinkie. Remember, HoopIdea was pounding the idea that tanking was a major problem in the spring of 2012 -- a full year before the 76ers hired Hinkie.

Even if you think the hostility toward Philadelphia's rebuilding efforts -- and the decision to bring in Bryan Colangelo, which led to Hinkie's departure -- has prevented another team from going to such extremes, that doesn't solve the issue of tanking entirely. We still saw plenty of it during the second half of last season, for example. And we'll continue to see it as long as the lottery structure heavily incentivizes additional losses.

That all noted, the perception of tanking is in many ways more problematic for the NBA than tanking itself. So certainly if the Sixers become wildly successful because of the core of players built through the lottery, it could affect the discussion. But it looks as though any changes the league implements will be decided before we find out whether Philadelphia can buck the trend of similarly inexperienced cores.


"The RealGM podcast Northwest Division preview was discussing Denver and Utah's offensive/defensive rating predictions for the upcoming season. Host Danny Leroux and guests David Locke and Adam Mares concluded that Utah would be around 20 offensively and top 3-5 defensively, while Denver had the opposite with a top 3-5 offense and around 20 defensively. They mostly agreed that the top offense is more valuable due to being able to produce points in crunch time. I'm curious if there is any evidence that in this scenario the top offense would likely produce more wins during the regular season and if that changes for postseason play."

-- Kyle Wilson

I don't think there's compelling evidence that offensive-minded teams perform better than defensive-oriented ones in close games. But in recent years, teams that rank high on offense have outperformed those that rank high on defense because there's been more spread among teams on offense than defense. You can see that recent trend favoring offense graphically in this chart of the standard deviation (a measure of spread) of offensive and defensive ratings in the NBA by season:

Basically, what this means is the best offenses are better relative to the worst ones than the best defenses are relative to the worst ones. And -- as Locke noted -- that gets lost when we talk about teams in terms of where they rank, which is why I generally prefer to look at how much better or worse than league average they are.

This issue is exacerbated with projections because we can generally project offense more reliably than defense, so the latter gets regressed heavily toward average. As a result, Utah's second-place projection in the defensive rating from ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM ) projections is identically far from league average as Denver's sixth-place projection in offensive RPM (both 3.5 points per 100 possessions better than league average). And Denver's 21st-ranked defensive RPM projection (minus-1.0) rates relatively better than Utah's 23rd-ranked offense (minus-2.0). That's why the Nuggets have the better RPM projection.


No two players better exemplify the difference in fortune between players who became free agents in the summer of 2016 and this summer than the brothers Plumlee. As you note, Mason Plumlee has been the better player. Through his four-year contract, Mason totaled 20 WARP as compared to fewer than six for Miles Plumlee. Yet Miles cashed in on a well-timed career year with a four-year, $50 million contract from the Milwaukee Bucks last summer. He's already been traded twice since then.

With the start of training camp barely more than two weeks away, Mason continues to languish as a restricted free agent and there's no indication of talks with the Denver Nuggets on a long-term contract. I'd expect Mason Plumlee to sign his $4.6 million qualifying offer and try his luck as an unrestricted free agent next year.

Mason Plumlee's situation isn't quite as dire as Nerlens Noel's because he isn't depending on a team's having significant cap space to make him a reasonable offer next summer. Still, I think the odds are against him making more than $10 million a year given the saturated market for centers and the fact that there will be even less cap space available in 2018 than this year. Since Mason is already 27, the next long-term contract he signs will almost certainly be his biggest one. So I'd make Miles something like a 3-to-1 favorite to outearn Mason in their respective careers.