The Sixers have played 38 games and straddled the fence of outright tanking, and preserving the value of their tradeable assets (Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes) remarkably well. As of today, they have the fourth worst record in the league, despite getting career best seasons from all three of those aforementioned players.
The losing part of this undertaking has been aided by the fact that the Sixers boast one of the worst benches in NBA history. At times, this team has run five undrafted free agents on the court for extended minutes in competitive games. But that situation could be changing rapidly in the near future. With Arnett Moultrie due back any day, Nerlens Noel closing in on his debut, Jason Richardson vowing he's coming back in the second half, and Lavoy Allen still lingering in the shadows as a semi-competent NBA bench player (sometimes), this team could very quickly turn itself from one of the league's worst, to semi-respectable, as least as it relates to a league which seems to be setting the bar lower and lower each week as teams race to the bottom in the name of lottery picks.
From the perspective of most fans hoping this team lands one of the Top 3 picks in the draft, the script for the rest of this season should write itself. Trade Turner & Hawes for whatever you can get, shop Thad for a slightly better return, and move all three on their way just in time to let Moultrie get an extended run with the starters, Noel to get some decent minutes, and Richardson to get some time to play himself into shape to see if he can establish any value that might make him a movable piece this offseason. Oh, and by the way, doing that likely means losing games. A lot of games.
The hitch in all of this, and where the organization differs from the fans, is that they are committed to gaming the market for the best deal possible, and also are determining the value of a trade versus how these players relate to the future of the franchise. That, more than anything, is why I think the Sixers have stood pat so far. It's also why I think it's entirely possible they don't trade all three of their assets when it's all said and done.
I'm sure there are many teams who would take Hawes right now as an offensive minded back up center, but given he's an expiring contract, and many teams are still trying to figure out where they stand in the landscape of this season, I can't imagine anyone is willing to part with anything of value at this point. Hawes probably doesn't have much of a future with the Sixers franchise, but he's the type of player that if you shop him right up until the deadline, you might find a team desperate enough to win, to part with a little more than he's worth for 30-or-so games he'll be on their roster. Of course you run the risk of not trading him at all by doing that.
Turner is a restricted free agent this offseason and while some of his surface numbers have been, by far, the best of his career, the flaws that have always been there are still there. He's never going to be a good defensive player, he forces things too much, and he's a bit of a lightning rod for both referees and media members. It's hard to imagine the Sixers getting much more for him than they would for Hawes (hence the recent rumors of Hinkie trying to package the two into one trade).
Trading things of a value for a restricted free agent means you have to love the guy you're getting back, and be almost willing to match any offer on him in the offseason. Nothing about Turner's career has given any team a rational reason to think that way about him, meaning his value in the eyes of most teams is probably not much more than that of an expiring.
The wrinkle that people aren't considering with Turner, that the Sixers on some level have to be considering, is how this offseason might play out. Turner thinks he's a very good player. I'm sure he and his agent looked at what Tyreke Evans got this past offseason as a template for what he expects to get as a RFA. But does the rest of the league view Turner the way he views himself? In his four seasons as a Sixer, several of which have had him pop up consistently as a player that is being shopped, I can't recall once ever reading that a team 'really likes' Turner. And if that Evans type offer isn't out there because of a healthy skepticism throughout the league about Turner's value, is Turner the type of guy who will sign the best offer sheet, or would he stubbornly accept a qualifying offer for a chance to take one more year to establish himself as a guy who should be paid substantially? The qualifying offer being accepted is a scenario that's not impossible and one the Sixers would have to at least consider before dealing him for a minimal return.
Thad is under contract through next season, and has a player option for the '15-'16 season. As it stands right now, it would be very surprising if he did not opt out that year. His game has evolved so much that he should be looking to cash in as soon as possible. He's another player who the Sixers could trade for the sake of trading today, but certainly there is a lot value to this organization keeping Thad beyond this year. There is a very real possibility that the '14-'15 Sixers will have four lottery picks from the past two drafts in the starting lineup. A quality, stabilizing fifth like Thad in the middle of that lineup would be extremely helpful to the development of those young players, and help make the team a more viable and competitive team quicker. That taken into consideration, the Sixers have every right to stand pat and wait for someone to pay fair market value for a very good player on a very affordable contract for the next year and a half.
And that's why we are where we are. An organization gambling to maximize its value on its best players, unwilling to just give them away for some very understandable reasons, while still attempting to covertly lose games.
It's a dangerous game to play in a season where many organizations are completely and shamelessly preparing to pack it in for the second half, as they chase down dreams of Wiggins, Parker, and Embiid. It's always been true that the longer the Sixers hold on to their 'Big 3,' the more they threaten their positioning for the lottery, but it becomes even more of a problem with a looming injection of competent talent about to return to the roster.
It is possible the Sixers stick the landing on this whole thing -- they avoid a crippling winning streak prior to the deadline, and manage to flip all three of these players for a haul of developmental pieces and picks, at which point, they can use the entire post All-Star break period to evaluate the remaining young pieces on the team.
But if the organization waits to long, is unable to make any trade, then this entire effort to land a top pick could turn into a disaster.