PHILADELPHIA — With one shocking trade, the 76ers may finally be contenders in the East.
In his first major moves as general manager, Sam Hinkie proved he wasn’t afraid to shake up the Sixers:
No matter who coaches them, the Sixers may be loitering near the Eastern Conference basement again this season. But they’re suddenly in a better position to succeed and shake the malaise that has gripped the franchise for the better part of the past 12 seasons.
“That won’t come overnight. That’s not a surprise,” Hinkie said. “That doesn’t make me Dr. Doom to say it won’t come overnight.”
The first chip came when Hinkie, hired away from Houston last month, sent All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday and his $41 million contract to New Orleans for Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel.
Noel was projected as a top pick in the draft. Instead, his dejection — after the first five picks passed by without him — became one of the lasting images of Thursday’s NBA draft. The Pelicans swooped in at No. 6 — then sent him and a 2014 first-rounder to the Sixers.
Noel was still wearing a New Orleans Pelicans hat in New York when he learned he was traded.
“I’m just looking to get down there,” he said, “and make an impact.”
Hinkie was just getting started. With Holiday gone, the Sixers selected Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams with the 11th pick. Hinkie then turned the second round into a lightning session of dealing and came away with Oregon forward Arsalan Kazemi and two more second-round picks in the 2014 draft.
The Sixers are now roughly $15 million under the projected salary cap for this season and have no heavy contracts beyond New Orleans native Thaddeus Young after this season if they want to become serious players in free agency.
Hinkie has put the 76ers on notice — he’ll move any player if it makes them better in the future. Young, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes could all be on the block this summer. Those Andrew Bynum jerseys can stay buried in the closet.
“In some senses, it should be a bit clarifying on where we stand,” Hinkie said. “We will take steps like we’ve taken (Thursday) over and over and over. We will take steps to be really future-focused and to really try and build something special.”
Of course, the moves come with risks.
Not even a year after the Bynum gamble backfired, the Sixers went after another big man with knee injuries. Noel had a March 12 operation to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The 6-foot-10 post player expects to return to the court by Christmas, a long road back likely to involve countless hours of rehabilitation.
Holiday was a proven star and a team captain, his best years clearly ahead. He logged heavy minutes and faded down the stretch, however, and is not the kind of guard who can lead a deep championship run on his own.
“I want to say thank you to the Philadelphia 76ers for four great seasons,” Holiday wrote on his Facebook page. “But now, I’m excited to get down to the New Orleans Pelicans and get to work. Any Pelicans fans out there?!”
The Sixers still have not hired a coach two months after Doug Collins resigned.
Hinkie said he has not yet interviewed any candidates for the vacancy. Michael Curry, who worked on Collins’ staff, will coach the 76ers summer league team.
Hinkie said Friday that Carter-Williams was the top target all along and the Sixers had tried to move up to get him. When he was still there at No. 11, the Sixers pounced.
In his lone year as a starter, Carter-Williams broke the school record for steals in a season with 111 and finished with 292 assists, the second-highest total in Syracuse history behind only Sherman Douglas’ record of 326 in 1988-89. Carter-Williams also recorded nine double-doubles.
His star rose greatly in the postseason as he led Syracuse on a scintillating run after an end-of-year skid. In free fall with four losses in five games to close the regular season, the Orange beat Seton Hall, Pittsburgh and Georgetown in the Big East tournament before falling to eventual-national champion Louisville in the title game at Madison Square Garden.
“I’m used to having pressure,” Carter-Williams said.
Carter-Williams shared a podium Friday with Kazemi, the first Iranian-born player to play Division I basketball. As a senior at Oregon last season, Kazemi averaged 9.4 points, a team-high 10.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 2.0 steals while shooting 59.5 percent from the floor in 35 games.
“Both of them are the kind of players we want to have in Philadelphia,” Hinkie said. “They want to work every day to get better at their craft. The only way we’ll be able to build something we can all be proud of is to continue to bring in a pipeline of ... serious players.”
None may be as serious as Hinkie ... about building a winner.
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