Previewing The Sixers' Draft and Rebuilding Process

Note: I'm not a Sixers' fan, but I've been fascinated by what Hinkie's been doing, especially as it relates to this draft and the discrepancy between analytic and general views of prospects. So here's a way too long overview of where I think the Sixers are at and what they may do on draft night.

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Last year on draft night, The 76ers and GM Sam Hinkie made a huge splash, moving their best player, Jrue Holiday, a 23 year old All-Star point guard, for draft picks and a shot at lottery balls in the 2014 draft, hailed then as one of the best ever. After all the dust has settled, after Hinkie further gutted his roster for picks, after the ping pong balls bounced around, the 76ers have seven picks in, including the 3rd and 10th overall, in a draft now regarded more for its depth than its franchise talent at the top.

But the team stunk. After starting the season with a flurry, they were unwatchable the rest of the year, tied the NBA record for longest losing streak, and were consistently blown out towards the end of the season. While that was all part of the plan, there's only a certain amount of time available before losing hurts fan and team morale. Doing well in year's draft is essential to the team's rebuilding project.

Sam Hinkie is an analytics guru, made four draft day trades last year, and comes from a Houston Rockets front office known for making constant, small moves to tinker their way into leverage and larger deals. I could seem them making six or seven, or even a dozen, draft day trades, moving up and down for targeted players. Looking at how barren their roster is, I imagine every player except Nerlens Noel is likely available. They have tons of cap space to absorb contracts for assets, and armed with seven picks and a draft board likely much different than the NBA consensus (we'll use Chad Ford to represent that), I imagine the Sixers with be incredibly active on draft day.

The Current Core

First, we'll look at their current roster and cap number to figure out what could be in play on draft day. Not including team options, but assuming Jason Richardson and B.J. Mullins accept their player options, the Sixers have a little over 30 million dollars in salary commitments next season. With the cap projected to move up to 63 million this year, they are swimming in cap space. While they don't have to meet it, they did last year, and they'll need to add $23 million to reach the cap floor, which should be a bit less than $57 million. Say, 8 million will go to first round picks and team options, and another few will go to second rounders, so they have maybe $15 million dollars of salary to add in a year they don't want to compete.

Looking at the current roster, I'd guess Nerlens Noel is the only untouchable player. Since they have more info on his health than anyone else, his value is higher to them than other teams, and a young two-way center is too valuable to send packing early for almost any price. The rest of their roster contains exactly two rotation caliber players. Thaddeus Young is certainly available for the right package, and while it would seem unlikely that a rebuilding team would trade the reigning Rookie of the Year, I'd guess Michael Carter-Williams is also available for the right package (see below).

In short, almost everyone is available for assets, and ideally not assets that will help them win next year. See, the Sixers don't want to compete next year. Their 2015 first round pick was traded to the Heat for Arnett Moultrie, which reverts to two second round picks if the Sixers miss the playoffs. So they probably will. They'll miss a future first headed to Orlando in the Bynum disaster, and two second round picks (if they miss the playoffs) headed to Boston via Miami, so they're still probably looking to grab future assets in this draft to make up for that.

So that's where they're at: no desire to compete next year, seven picks, cap space and a desire to stockpile current and future assets. While the practice has gotten more expensive in recent years, they have the cap space to absorb unwanted contracts for picks, if, say Sam Presti wants to take Kendrick Perkins away from Scotty Brooks, or the Heat need to dump Udonis Haslem's salary, or any teams needs to shed salary to make a move in free agency.

The Sixers Board versus the League Board

We'll use Ford's tiers as a rough guide for consensus league opinions on players: he talks to teams, scouts, executives, and builds a list of their general opinion. While some of it is probably smokescreen from teams, it's useful. Hinkie probably has a board much, much different than this. While it's impossible to know what Hinkie's board looks like, we can get a rough idea by examining what different analytical models of prospects say about this year's class. Layne Vashro's model might provide us with a lot of insight.

Looking at last year's draft, it's remarkable comparing the Sixers to Vashro's statistical ratings. Hinkie took the top player on Vashro's board with each of his picks: he grabbed Vashro's #1 player, Nerlens Noel, with the 6th pick, Vashro's fourth prospect, Carter-Williams, with the 11th pick, and Vashro's 14th with the 54th. (Note: Vashro's model only includes college players, no internationals). Looking at the trades he made last year, the correlation appears even closer: he traded Jrue Holiday, a young all-star, for not just the 6th pick in the draft and a future 1st, but, using Vashro's model, he traded for, by far, as the top player in the draft. With their 35th pick, Vashro's model had four similar players ranked between 10th and 16th available – Hinkie made three trades, and picked up two additional second round picks and still picked up Kazemi, #14, at 54.

All of this is a long of saying that, if we look at Vashro's model for this year's draft, we can get a rough approximation of what Hinkie's board may be – and one much better than Chad Ford, Draftexpress, or countless bloggers boards may be. Comparing Vashro's to Ford's, we see a major discrepancy at the top: Embiid is clearly number one, but Parker and Wiggins, who Ford's league consensus see as two of the top 5 players of the past 5 years, come out 7th and 10th – which we'll call 8th and 11th considering Dante Exum is probably in the top 4 somewhere.

This makes it look like the Sixers apparent love for Andrew Wiggins is a smokescreen, either to fool the Cavs into trading down or coercing a team to trade up.

Keeping the Pick

If Hinkie keeps the 3rd overall pick, I'm sure he'd grab Embiid there, but I doubt Embiid will be available. He's clearly the top player in this year's draft – a potentially dominant two-way center with incredible athleticism, skill, and constantly improving feel for the game. If he's gone, I'd guess Exum and Smart are fighting it out for the number two spot. Exum's lack of statistical history, limited tape, and general small amount of information on him might scare Hinkie away, but he looks the part. A 6'6'' quick, tall, athletic point guard – could be a taller, less vertically explosive Derrick Rose. If he's there at 3, he could easily be the pick. Pelton's limited translations love him, as does analytics writer Dean Demakis.

Smart is really intriguing though. Almost all analytic models love him – he's first in Kevin Pelton's WARP projections, 4th in Vashro's EWP model, 2nd in Hickory High's ASPM model, and first in ziggythebeagle's comparable analysis. He has all the statistics that project well: high steal, block and rebound rates, high assist-to-turnover ratio. He gets to the line often, and, despite some troubling incidents where he let his competitiveness get the best of him, Smart is generally praised for his leadership and intangibles. He's hardworking, he improved in some important areas last year (assist-to-turnover ratio, shot selection, finishing, and on-ball defense), and is a beast defensively – something box-score based analytics have no way of measuring. But, importantly, he didn't improve his biggest weakness: outside shooting.

Which is a concern, but not a huge concern, I'd guess. Shooting is largely based on practice, form, and repetition – with the right coaching, an easily improvable skill. We know Smart will be a bulldog defensively, a solid finishing, solid passing point guard with great leadership qualities, and if Philly can find their Chip Engelland and improve Smart's shot, he could be James Harden offensively, with Tony Allen's defense – a superstar, and a worthy gamble at 3. This upside is clear when you look at his some of his top statistical comps: James Harden, Chauncey Billups, Chris Paul, Paul Pierce, John Wall, Dwayne Wade. Smart could easily be the #2 player on Hinkie's board, and he might look to move down to grab him, depending on what he thinks Orlando does at 4.

(And for anyone questioning whether his flopping and big mistake against Texas Tech should limit his draft value, I think the Paul comparison is apt: I'm sure every team would want one of the league's biggest floppers and trash-talkers, who punched Julius Hodge square in the nuts in college on their team. Having too much competitive fire tends to be a good thing if managed decently. There's a miniscule chance he goes all Artest someday, but its worth it, especially considering he's already a smaller Artest defensively.)

Granted, they may also be really high on Parker and Vonleh as stretch 4s, and may grab one of them with the 3rd pick. If the Rockets' draft history when Hinkie worked there is any indication, then Hinkie is probably searching hard for a power forward who can shoot, since they bend defenses in ways few players can. Since 2010, Daryl Morey has used five first round picks on players who could potentially become stretch 4's: Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Donatas Moutijunas, Royce White, and Terrance Jones. White went bust, Moutijunas hasn't shown too much, Patterson and Morrison are playing well on other teams, and Terrance Jones shows serious potential, even if he's not shooting well from three.

But, overall, it shows a pretty clear trend: Morey and the analytic Rockets have seen the huge impact a big man who can shoot from three has on a team's offense, and went in search of that. If we guess that Hinkie might think the same, then we can look for players he might have higher on his board. Roughly, and depending on some of their abilities to defend the 4, the list includes: Parker, Vonleh, Kyle Anderson, Adriean Payne, Damien Inglis, Nikola Jokic, Isiah Austin, and Aaron Gordon..

Parker may be in play at three, then, especially considering Nerlens Noel is potentially an ideal running mate – a big that can protect this rim defensively and dive toward the basket on pick and rolls offensively. This pairing could blitz the league the way pairing Melo and Tyson Chandler at the 4 and 5 did two years ago. It presents some issues defensively in the half-court, against the post, but I think they'll deal with that for now. However, Parker's defensive issues, trouble scoring at the rim, and complete inability to pass the ball could scare Hinkie away.

Vonleh is young, super-long, a great rebounder and shot well from three in a limited number of attempts. He has some statistical red flags, but looks like a great prospect. Aaron Gordon is a monster athlete and great defender who struggles offensively. He's sort of Marcus Smart on the wing: a lock down defender, good rebounder and passer for his position, who if he ever learns to shoot, could be a star . They both do well in analytical models an could potentially become stretch fours. They could be in play at 3, maybe, definitely at 10, and are candidates if the Sixers move around within the top 10. My sneaking suspicion is, if Hinkie holds on to the 10th pick, he grabs Kyle Anderson or an international player: Anderson shot well from three this year, is a statistical wonder, and can provide tons of options as a Boris Diaw-like point 4. Dario Saric, Elfrid Payton, Jordan Adams, Clint Capela, Jusef Nurkic, and Tyler Ennis are all analytical studs available at 10, depending on what Hinkie does at three.

Now let's look at what could happen if they trade up or down from 3.

Trading up

It seems like Milwuakee is going to hold on to the 2nd pick, and with rumors swirling that the Cavs are open to moving the pick, the Sixers could be angling to grab that pick. If the Cavs believe, as the league seems to, that Embiid, Parker, and Wiggins are in the same "tier", that they are roughly comparable prospects, then they may be open to grabbing one at #3 in exchange for more assets. While the # 10 is apparently off the table (but who really knows), the Sixers can offer Thad Young, some second rounders, and Arnett Moultrie or Tony Wroten. If the Cavs believe the Wiggins smokescreen, and think they can either grab Embiid (the best player) or Parker (the most ready) at number three, then maybe they pull the trigger. Who knows, but I think the 6ers would seriously consider moving up to grab a prospect with as much potential as Embiid. Other scenarios could include moving down from 10, say, with the Bulls for 16 and 19, and including one of them for the first pick.

The Cavs appear in Win Now mode, so the possibility of adding Thad Young along with one of the top three may appeal to them. With the Cavs leaking information that Embiid's back apparently has "red flags", it appears to be working – the Cavs are trying to gauge whether Embiid would be there for them at three if they trade down, assuming the Sixers would grab Wiggins.

If the Sixers can move up to grab Embiid without giving up too much, I think they have to do it. While Embiid and Noel sharing a frontcourt could hurt a team's spacing, you clearly take the best player available at the top of the draft and at this stage in their success cycle, and their upsides and potential trade value make it a no brainer. And they could probably work together – Noel has the athleticism to guard 4s, and Embiid has the offensive skill to play as a 4 in the mid-post.

Trading Down

This is where it really gets interesting, and where the Wiggins smokescreen begins to make a ton of sense. See, they want Wiggins to go in top two. If he does, then either Embiid, likely their #1 pick, or Jabari Parker are there at #3. If Parker's there, then the commonly discussed trade with Utah makes sense. If Utah is dying for Parker, a Mormon, then they can demand the #5 and some combination of 23, 35, Rudy Gobert, Alex Burks, and Golden State's 2017 pick or Utah's future firsts. If Utah is willing to give up some assets for Parker, then the Sixers can jump on that and still grab whichever of Exum, Gordon, and Smart the Magic pass on.

Anonymously talking up Wiggins to Chad Ford makes sense if they want a team to grab him in the top two. If Wiggins is still available at 3, the smokescreen could still help them create a bidding war for teams looking to move up and grab him. Except, this is more difficult, since the Sixers will still (probably) want to pick between 5 and 8 to grab one of their top prospects. That leaves three teams. The Celtics have tons of future assets to part with if they want to move up for Wiggins and leave the Sixers on of Smart, Exum, Gordon and Vonleh, but the Lakers and Kings lack assets to make a move up to three, so I doubt they get involved.

Outside the Celtics, no one else makes sense, unless the Suns are in love with Wiggins and throw a massive combination of their 3 picks, the Lakers 2015 1st, and some young prospects or future picks out there. Again, there remains a possibility that they could hop around: move down from 3 and 10, and use some of those extra assets to move back up for their player.

If they can find the right offer of current and future assets to move down from 10, I think they do. While grabbing a potential star at 10 is enticing, this draft is so deep in the mid-to-late first and early second rounds that maximizing assets there makes sense. The Bulls (16 and 19), Thunder (21 and 29), Jazz (23 and 35), Raptors (20 and 37), and Bucks (31 and 35) all have multiple picks in that range that Hinkie could move down for. While this may not make sense given that they already hold seven picks, it gives them ability to move up and down a pick or two to either grab a player they're targeting or pick up future assets. Remember – no one saw the Holiday trade coming, so expect the unexpected.

If we compare Vashro's model for college players and Pelton's for internationals against Ford's big board, moving down from 10 start to makes a whole lot of sense. Look at the discrepancies between the two boards:

Kyle Anderson - 2nd versus 28th

Jordan Adams - 3rd versus 40th

Mitch McGary - 11th versus 30th

Jarnell Stokes - 12th versus 31st

Javon McCrea - 15th versus 82nd

Khem Birch - 17th versus 56th

Spencer Dinwiddie - 23rd versus 38th

Jusuf Nurkic – top 10 versus 20th

Clint Capela – top 10 versus 27th

Nikola Jokic – top 10 versus 51st

Guillem Vives – 10 to 15 versus outside top 100

While draft boards are undoubtedly much more complex than a simple model, including interviews, injury history, character, translation, etc., and other models differ from Vashro and Pelton, it does give a pretty intriguing look at why the Sixers may move down from 10. If they can combine the 10th pick and a few of their second rounders to grab three mid-to-late first rounders, then moving down could be a great move for Hinkie. I think that's a very likely scenario, especially as the Sixers are in straight asset collection mode.

The Second Round

With five second round picks, Hinkie will likely be incredibly active there on draft night. While Phil Jackson and some others have questioned whether the Sixers can keep all their picks, they only have seven players under contract next season (assuming Richardson and Mullens exercise their player options), meaning they have lots of spots available for rookies, and they don't want to compete next season. I'd imagine they'll wheel and deal, picking up future second rounders as they pinpoint players they think are undervalued.

Including the above players, there's a list of players I'd be shocked if Hinkie didn't walk away with at least one of of these players: Mitch McGary (11 in Vashro's model), Javon McCra (15), Khem Birch (17), Chris Udofia (18), Kendrick Perry (20), Spencer Dinwiddie (22), Troy Huff (24), T.J. Bray (26). Damien Inglis and Moussa Diagne are international prospects not mentioned above Hinkie may love. Remember these names on draft night and see how many Hinkie grabs.

The MCW Conundrum

At face value, it seems incredibly unlikely that a rebuilding team would trade their Rookie of the Year point guard one season after drafting him. However, given the strength of this draft in the slots where the Sixers are picking are point guards: Smart and Exum are both better prospects than MCW and should be available at # 3, and Elfid Payton and Tyler Ennis rate slightly better than MCW and one or both should be availabe at # 10. Thus, if they can get remarkable value – in young players or picks for MCW, I think they may pull the trigger.

While his rookie season flashed a ton of potential – Carter-Williams still has the same warts as when he was drafted. He can't shoot, he's turnover prone, and he's a train wreck defensively (even though he has athleticism gives him potential in this regard). If anything, Carter-Williams success should make it more likely that they draft Smart or Payton – he's a data point validating the model that rebounds and steals translate well and are great predictors for NBA success.

While I don't think it's likely that MCW gets traded, I think the 6ers are open to deal, and consider Noel as the only untouchable player on the roster right now. If they draft Smart, Exum, or Payton, I think they play alongside MCW as Hinkie tries to find a young star to trade for. I also wonder, if they find a team that really loves MCW and would move a very good NBA player the Cavs like to get him, if Hinkie could pull together something like Young, MCW, #10 and some second rounders for Embiid. I also wonder if he'd do it, given the opportunity.

A Huge Draft for Hinkie

The tear down and rebuild is underway. The Sixers were horrible this year, borderline unwatchable. They tied the NBA's longest losing streak. They were a train wreck offensively and defensively. However, they maintained strong support from fans who believed that they had a plan, were on a path toward contention, or were at least doing something better than years of Doug Collins' stifling mediocrity. They'll probably be able to maintain this for another, which is good, as they seem like they'll be horrible again.

But at some point, at the Hornets decided last year, as the Cavs, Bucks, and Pelicans apparently decided, losing becomes too much. It demoralizes the fan base, it demoralizes players and may stunt their development. It hurts revenue. It looks bad and bruises the owner's ego. If they're not improving by year three, Josh Harris may begin to lose patience with the project.

Hinkie looks like he nailed last year's draft. Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year, Noel's rehab is apparently progressing well, and without the injury he was the consensus best player available in the 2013 draft. This draft, armed with seven picks in one of the deepest in a long time, is important. Hit the first two picks, find a supporting player or three in the second round, and all of a sudden they're on their way to contention, either through player development or flipping them for stars. Miss these picks, and their stuck, horrible again, losing fans, without progress to show for it.

It's going to be interesting, especially considering how different Hinkie's board is from general opinion. Will fans be content with Marcus Smart and Kyle Anderson or Jusef Nurkic at 3 and 10, with a gaggle of international picks and unknown players from small schools in the second round? Or how about that along with a bunch of future picks? I'd certainly applaud that draft, but who knows how long the Rebuilding Project can hold popular support. Hinkie seems to have the unwavering support of the Sixers ownership and fans, so he can afford to gamble like that.

The Sixers are in a great position. They have two great prospects, and should add a few more in this draft. They'll be bad next year, add another pick, and head into next offseason with a talented young core, lots of assets to move should a star become available, and tons of cap space. If they nail this draft, they could be a powerhouse - a dynamic blend of the Rockets and Spurs. If they miss on their picks, and neither Noel or MCW progress well, Hinkie could be looking for a job in a few years. There's risk involved in tearing in down, but neither Josh Harris nor Sam Hinkie are afraid of risk.

If nothing else, it's going to be fascinating to watch.

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