January 19, 2018

Jeff McMenamin interviews 14-year NBA player Tony Battie, now an analyst for the Orlando Magic, about his playing career. Having played on good teams and bad teams, competitors and rebuilders, as well as playing for the Sixers immediately before the beginning of the Sam Hinkie era, Battie has a unique insight into what they are doing, why, and the pitfalls of their strategy.

By the end of this past November, the Philadelphia 76ers were the talk of the NBA. They finished the month with an 0-14 record, and had four losses of 20 or more points, including blowouts of 32 and 53 to the Toronto Raptors and Dallas Mavericks in the very same week. To start December, the Sixers then lost to the San Antonio Spurs 109-103, and were on the verge of tying the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets for the worst start in NBA history (0-18).

Many believed this would serve as a deserving mark of futility for general manager Sam Hinkie, who seemingly refused to field a winning product on the basketball court in the 2014-15 season. Indeed, Hinkie had deliberately not acquired players who could be of any immediate help. He drafted center Joel Embiid with the third pick, arguably the best prospect in his draft class, but due to foot surgery prior to the draft, Embiid was not expected to suit up at all this season. He traded away promising point guard Elfrid Payton, selected tenth, to the Orlando Magic for forward Dario Saric – a European phenom who isn’t expected to join an NBA team due to contractual obligations for another two seasons. Some thought that Hinkie was taking the idea of tanking a season too far, enough to put a black eye on the competitive nature of the league.

However, others, like current Magic analyst and former Sixer Tony Battie, didn’t follow that train of thought.

The Sixers were able to narrowly avoid the record-tying skid by defeating the Minnesota Timberwolves, 85-77, back on December 3rd 2014. Four years prior, Battie had experienced a different type of emotion when, on December 2nd 2010, he could only sit and watch as the Dallas Mavericks manhandled his inexperienced Nets team to notch the worst start in NBA history.

Then in his 12th season in the league, Battie knew exactly why he was there, and he knew full and well what the organization was intending to do.

“The organization decided to make a move where they’d let the young guys play and develop win or lose,” said Battie. “They were building cap space, just in case LeBron [James] decided to come to Brooklyn. It was a business decision for the Nets. They tried to take a step backward in order to take a couple steps forward. Personally, being a veteran at the time, I wasn’t thrilled to be benched but I understood it.  I knew I wasn’t in their future plans.”

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This wasn’t the first time that Battie was a part of a rebuild. After a dreadful campaign the year before, the Denver Nuggets selected Battie with the fifth pick in the 1997 NBA Draft. He was regarded as one of the top athletes in his class coming out of Texas Tech, where he had averaged 18.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game as a junior.

Sometimes pieces fall into place, and sometimes they don’t. Then-Nuggets general manager, Dan Issel, thought of Battie as one of the central pieces of the team’s rebuild back in 1997. They finished just 21-61 in the previous season, and adding Battie was supposed to bolster the team’s front court. Instead, however, they finished Battie’s rookie season with a franchise-worst 11-71, with Issel labeling him “El Busto” after he posted averages of just 8.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. The next summer, Battie was traded to the Lakers, along with the rights to Tyronn Lue, for Nick Van Exel.

“You have to fall in line,” said Battie, looking back on his development in the league. “You’re constantly under evaluation as a young player. Can you be one of the foundations of a franchise or can you play in a complementary role for a team that’s trying to build? You definitely have to get your numbers on a losing team, but you can’t necessarily be selfish about it. It’s all about developing into the player that you are and can be in this league. That rookie contract goes by pretty fast and guys are eyeing that second contract. You have to showcase your talent to the best of your ability in the time you have.”

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Tony Battie and Paul Pierce
Prior to the 1998-99 season, Battie was shipped again, this time going from the Lakers (for whom he never played a game) to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Travis Knight. In Boston, he joined a young and talented Celtics team, featuring future All-Stars Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker. Over his next six seasons in Boston, Battie’s role developed as mainly that of a defensive enforcer in the paint. He often guarded the opponent’s best offensive option up front and, along with a 99 defensive rating, helped propel the team to a 49-33 record in 2001-02. But Denver’s initial evaluation of Battie as a foundation piece had certainly worn off. He averaged just 6.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in his time in Boston, before being sent to Cleveland partway through the 2003-04 season.

A few short years after Battie’s departure, in 2008, the Celtics were crowned as the NBA champions. Battie, meanwhile, found a new home in Orlando after the Cavaliers swapped him in a July 2004 deal with the Magic for Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao. He watched as his good friend Pierce crossed the stage to receive the NBA Finals MVP award, averaging 21.8 points, 6.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds to seal the title for Boston.

As a rookie in 1998, Paul Pierce came to Battie for advice. The two were close in age, and Battie had already gone through the rookie gauntlet the previous season in Denver. In that first year, Battie and Pierce developed a bond, one that grew stronger on and off the basketball court in the years that followed. But it was a traumatic event on the night of September 25th 2000 that brought the two even closer, while almost breaking them apart.

Inside the pool room at a nightclub in Boston, Battie and Pierce were partying when three men jumped Pierce, repeatedly punching and kicking him. One of the assailants smashed a champagne bottle over Pierce’s head, before stabbing him 11 times in the face, neck and back. Pierce was rushed to a Boston hospital by Battie, who pleaded for Pierce, his brother, to hold on.

Hold on he did. Pierce would undergo surgery and recovered quickly enough to start alongside Battie on opening night in late October. Battie commented on that evening to reporter Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel back in 2008, months after Pierce had won the Finals MVP award.

“It was frantic,” recalled Battie. “We didn’t know how badly injured he was at the time. I guess it was probably better not knowing. … It was very challenging, a life-changing experience for him. But knowing his character, if anybody could pull through something like that, Paul would be the guy.”

Pierce made a full recovery and went on to a Hall of Fame career, one he is still playing in. While lauding Pierce’s individual Finals success, Battie was suddenly finding success of his own on a very complete Magic team in the 2008-09 season. With Dwight Howard dominating in the paint, the team was able to reach the NBA Finals out of the Eastern Conference, losing to the Lakers in five games. But much to his surprise, Battie was shipped out after the season to the aforementioned Nets shortly after the series ended, as part of a deal for Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson.

The Magic were desperately trying to reach the top, but in turn they sent Battie back down to the bottom.

After his one difficult year in New Jersey, Battie moved on once more. Not long before Hinkie was named general manager back in May of 2013, Battie was now a member of the 76ers team which had finished a single game away from the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011-12. The notable names of that squad included Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams, Elton Brand and Evan Turner. But tucked away on the bench was the 16th pick in the NBA draft that season, Nikola Vucevic, awaiting his ever-sparse rookie minutes from one of the league’s most notorious coaches for not giving them – Doug Collins.

In his first season in Philly, Vucevic averaged just 15.9 minutes a game. In comparison, Brand, then in his 13th season in the league, averaged 28.9 minutes a game. Vucevic went on to average just 5.5 points and 4.8 rebounds in his first year, and was traded to the Orlando Magic as part of the Andrew Bynum trade in the offseason.

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And then he broke out. In his first year in Orlando, Vucevic increased his averages to 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds in 33.2 minutes per game, and this season, he’s currently averaging 19.6 points and 11.3 rebounds through 56 games with the Magic.

As both a teammate of his at Philadelphia and an analyst in Orlando during his breakout, Battie has had the opportunity to watch Vucevic’s game develop. He feels as though Vucevic was given the short end of the stick in Philadelphia, because of the situation he was coming into.

“For a young guy like Nikola, being drafted to a playoff team is something that’s very exciting, but it comes with some downfalls as well,” said Battie. “If you’re playing a lot of minutes in your rookie year, you’re probably on a very bad team. But on that Sixers team we had Spencer Hawes, Elton Brand, Thaddeus Young and myself who’re going to play more meaningful minutes than Nikola. … Doug Collins favored his vets sometimes as a coach and he did have a short leash for the younger guys. But every rookie has to experience a learning curve. If you’re making mistakes on a team like that Sixers team, you’re going to get yanked. It happened a few times where coach Collins would put him in, and he wouldn’t execute the play in the way which he was supposed to and he’d get pulled.”

Had the Sixers management had known what they had in Vucevic at the time, they may have never had to pull the trigger on the Bynum trade in the first place. Vucevic is the offensively gifted talent that the team is desperately hoping Embiid can turn into. The organization is currently structuring the team around the idea that Embiid will serve as the focal point of the offense and inject life into the offensively anemic Sixers, who rank dead last this season in points per game with just 89.8 per game. But Vucevic could have been it.

Vucevic is a player who went against the grain. In the face of adversity, he performed at a higher level. The opposite can be said about Battie at a younger age. He was given chances to succeed, but fell flat. Ultimately, for Embiid not to go the same way, it will be up to him to develop the habits which will make him a stronger player in the long-run. But according to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey, bad ones are already starting to surface.

Embiid has a weight issue. Although the Sixers wouldn’t disclose his weight, a source said he’s close to 300 pounds after being 250 pounds at Kansas last season.

His work ethic is being questioned by some inside the organization.

And a blowup with assistant strength and conditioning coach James Davis is one of the reasons he was sent home during the team’s recent West Coast road trip.”

The Sixers organization must suffer these growing pains as a side effect of their rebuilding strategy, but owners Josh Harris and Adam Aaron surely cannot help but think about what fell through the cracks with Vucevic. Battie, admittedly, never saw Vucevic turning into the player that he is today, which could be said for the entire Sixers organization as a whole.

“[Nikola] started to pay attention more, work harder and be more assertive in the minutes he ended up receiving with the Magic,” said Battie. “I’ll be honest, I had no idea that he would eventually be a 20 and 10 guy, but I definitely saw that he had a future in the league. It’s really a testament to him. He paid his dues, he learned from some pretty savvy vets and when he was traded to the Magic it was the perfect position for him to succeed.”

Nevertheless, Battie sees positive signs in the Sixers’ current rebuild, and in Embiid. And with his unique perspective, Battie sees similarities between the current 76ers and the situation in San Antonio the season before he was drafted.

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“I can see what the Sixers have coming together faster than the average rebuild,” said Battie. “They already have some pretty key pieces. I wouldn’t necessarily say that back in 1997 when I was drafted that San Antonio tanked, but with David Robinson being out and their record not being very good, they ended up with Tim Duncan. With Robinson and Duncan together, things fell into place quickly. I’m not saying that Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel are Robinson and Duncan, but for comparisons sake the talent is there. You’d rather have that talent in-house then to sit back wishing.”

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During his NBA career, Battie played in a total of 14 seasons on eight different teams. He registered 893 total games played, including the playoffs. He’s someone who has prodded through the rubble, who climbed the mountain and who saw everything come apart.

He knows the business, he knows what it takes to win and he knows what it takes to lose. Not one member from either of his 2008-09 Magic or 2011-12 Sixers teams remain on their respective franchises. He knows about turnover in the NBA, and about how to build the right foundation. For the current franchises that are building through the draft, he sees the risk involved, but understands it’s perhaps the smartest way to start on that winning track in today’s NBA.

However, even if Hinkie’s plan does come together, Battie can see a problem for the 76ers down the road.

“The biggest thing with building through the draft is when it comes time to start paying those players,” said Battie. “If you look at the Thunder, they were able to keep Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, but then had to let James Harden go. Which problem would you rather have – getting talent to officially commit and come to your city to play for your team or having a surplus of talent and deciding which piece you’ll need to let go? There comes a time when all of those rookie contracts will be up after three or four years and you’ll need to find a way to make all of the salaries work. But building through the draft I believe is the smartest route, because you have the better opportunity to find one of those pieces. If you decide that one of those picks isn’t really working out as planned, they’re the types of players that other teams would be willing to trade for.”

This is where the Sixers may have the most trouble down the road. Indeed, they already have that problem this summer, as they going to have to pay the 32nd pick in this past June’s draft, K.J. McDaniels, in the next offseason. Instead of signing a normal (for Philadelphia) four-year deal, McDaniels bet on himself with a non-guaranteed one-year deal, and in light of his rookie campaign should be drawing attention from plenty of potential suitors across the league this offseason.

The more you need to spend, the more opportunity there is for error. It’s hard to make all of the pieces fall into place, even with luck. But for now, Battie likes the team’s current chances over the team which Hinkie was dealt the moment he stepped into the office.

“When Doug Collins didn’t come back, they had a decision to make,” said Battie. “Do they keep a team that’s pretty solid and can probably make the playoffs every year as the seven or eight seed or do they tear it down and try to build a championship caliber team? It all depends on where your team is and what type of talent you have to build around. They pretty much broke down the whole team and got rid of everybody. That’s just the way basketball is, do you play the hand the way you have it or do you throw it away and reshuffle the deck?”

Battie knows the scenario all too well. At the snap of the wrist, you could find yourself back in the pool, waiting to be picked up by the next suitor. When Hinkie is ready to show his hand, he’s hoping to deliver a full house.

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Jeff McMenamin

Jeff McMenamin is a basketball junkie based in Philadelphia, who has produced a wide variety of NBA content for both the internet and in print. He's been a guest on ESPN radio and is a credentialed reporter for the Sixers.

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