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Shaping the Sixers: How Has Uncertainty Impacted Past Decisions?

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Looking at past draft decisions through a lens of uncertainty

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the ubiquity of risk and uncertainty in management decisions, specifically those that face Hinkie and the Sixers organization. In the interim, I poured a full glass of water on my computer and spent a week without it, fully derailing my plan to follow up the next week.

But now I would like to do that. It's one thing to understand that management faces a number of unsavory decisions in the abstract, and that each of those decisions have varying chances of success and failure. It's a wholly different to see this sort of assessment in action. So I thought I'd apply that thought to the highest leverage decisions this management group has made, trying to retroactively apply only what we knew then.

2013 Draft:

6th Pick, Nerlens Noel

Probably the most straightforward of Hinkie's draft picks. Nerlens was seen as the Best Player Available by almost all pundits at the 6th pick in the draft. Hinkie made a killer trade that was seen as a winner even at the time. But let's take a moment to unpack exactly what is meant by BPA.

The concept of Best Player Available seems simple in the abstract. But in practice, it is far more complicated. Is the purpose of the draft to find productive, positive players, or is it to find players with the best chance at being a superstar? The two goals are not always compatible, and someone with higher superstar equity may also have higher bust equity. Somewhere in the draft, there's an inflection point where positive equity outweighs whatever minimal superstar equity may remain.

Hinkie has, through three drafts, proven adept at finding productive players at selection spots usually lacking in them. Richaun Holmes, KJ McDaniels, and Jerami Grant offer proof that Hinkie knows how to find players more likely to stick in the league. But it's the superstar search that has mattered most, and in this case Hinkie swung as hard as he could.

The three players selected directly after Noel were Ben McLemore, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Trey Burke. While there was a non-zero chance that Nerlens may never recover from his torn ACL, it's a common enough injury that it was safe to assume he would come back at levels reasonably approaching his previous self. Nerlens had much higher superstar equity than anyone else in the class, and much lower bust equity than those wringing their hands over his injury believed.

Still, even as he was absolutely the correct pick, his superstar potential wasn't necessarily that high. He has seemingly borne that out so far; he is a unique defensive player, but it's doubtful he'll ever become a top five player in the league.

11th Pick, Michael Carter-Williams

This is the first pick Hinkie has made that can have issue taken with it. But it's not nearly as simple as, "Hinkie should have just taken Giannis."

(Nylon Calculus)

This shows the historical probability that players at different draft slots will bust or become superstars. In no way does it mean that all drafts will follow its rubric, but it helps to delineate where the majority of draft value lies. Simply put, there's an inflection point somewhere around the late lottery in which the probability of selecting stars are so low that merely finding rotational players who stick in the league is a success. Only half of the players selected in the second ten draft slots even had fruitful careers.

Here is a list of the 15 players selected 11th prior to Michael Carter-Williams in 2013:

Year Player All Star Appearances Games Started NBA Seasons
2012 Meyers Leonard 0 25 3
2011 Klay Thompson 2 315 4
2010 Cole Aldrich 0 20 5
2009 Terrence Williams 0 9 4
2008 Jerryd Bayless 0 70 7
2007 Acie Law 0 8 4
2006 JJ Redick 0 210 10
2005 Fran Vazquez 0 0 0
2004 Andris Biedrins 0 311 10
2003 Mickael Pietrus 0 172 10
2002 Jared Jeffries 0 335 11
2001 Kedrick Brown 0 36 5
2000 Jerome Moiso 0 3 5
1999 Trajan Langdon 0 5 3
1998 Bonzi Wells 0 275 10

What does this tell us, other than that some guy named "Jerome Moiso" existed and he somehow managed to play 5 seasons in the NBA?

Simply, that finding rotation players at the 11th slot in the draft is hard. Klay Thompson accounts for the only two All-Star appearances of the last 15 years, and only Thompson, Bonzi Wells, and JJ Redick could be considered above average starters during their primes.

This doesn't mean that the 11th pick in the draft is worthless, or that teams never find useful players at or below this draft slot, but it does mean that expected value of the 11th pick is relatively low. It's important to discuss the expected return for an 11th pick when contextualizing the choice of Carter-Williams. Specifically, it reframes Hinkie's decision such that even getting a starting-caliber player is a winning selection at this juncture. That's an important distinction to make.

Also, there were almost no players with true superstar equity remaining at this point in 2013. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the closest, but he was an enormous risk at the time. While Giannis had incredible physical attributes, he had never even played in Greece's top league, let alone played against NBA-caliber competition. And while his physical tools portended the possibility of superstardom, the probability was tiny. In fact, Giannis has surpassed even the most optimistic expectations in his first three seasons, and even now it seems unlikely he'll ever develop into a primary creator on offense.

If you were to crudely compare the probable outcomes for MCW and Giannis prior to the draft, it might have looked something like this:

Player Superstar All-Star Starter Rotation Bust
Michael Carter-Williams 0% 20% 40% 20% 20%
Giannis Antetokounmpo 2% 5% 5% 13% 75%

This is a rough illustration of what an organization's evaluation might look like, but it communicates the point. Carter-Williams was a much safer pick, with some All-Star upside if he could ever fix his shot. You can argue over the correct assignation of probability to each of the delineations I've made and when the correct point is to make go with the superstar possibility rife with risk over the starter possibility with relative certainty. Regardless of what you think of that inflection point, it's hard to argue that Carter-Williams was a poor pick, or that it was inexcusable to have passed on Giannis for him, especially when considering the expected returned value of an 11th pick.

2014 Draft:

3rd Pick, Joel Embiid

Embiid was the only correct selection, and Hinkie swung hard. Embiid's draft profile was so strong that, if he were healthy, he was nearly guaranteed to be an All-Star or superstar caliber player. Let's break out another hypothetical table for Embiid and the players picked directly after him.

Player Superstar All-Star Starter Rotation Bust
Joel Embiid 30% 30% 0% 0% 40%
Aaron Gordon 5% 25% 25% 30% 15%
Dante Exum 5% 20% 25% 25% 25%
Marcus Smart 0% 30% 30% 30% 10%

Again, feel free to quibble with my numbers, but they're merely meant to be illustrative. While Embiid has by far the highest risk associated with his choice, the overwhelming probability that he would become an All-Star caliber player or better if he overcame his injury risk makes it a selection worth making, given the remaining choices on the board. Joel Embiid was, to my mind, inarguably the best pick of the Hinkie era, even if he never sets foot on an NBA basketball court.

2015 Draft:

3rd Pick, Jahlil Okafor

We have arrived, at last, at what is perhaps the most contentious pick of Hinkie's Philadelphia tenure. Let's set aside, for simplicity's sake, the recent reports of ownership meddling and Andy Miller preventing communication with Porzingis. I'd like to approach this merely from a logical standpoint.

The most important thing to note is that both Okafor and Porzingis were flawed as prospects. Okafor's defense was an enormous concern, while Porzingis looked to be a terrible rebounder and was so skinny that an LB poster once referred to him as a "coked out runway model." The two options remind me very much of the choice between MCW and Giannis in 2013, even as the stakes are raised due to higher ceilings.

Okafor, like MCW, was a player with strong physical tools and a very high likelihood to be an NBA starter or All-Star. Like MCW, he had one fatal, but potentially fixable weakness, his defense. Porzingis, like Giannis, was a player with outstanding physical tools, but a relatively high likelihood to bust. While his absolute ceiling was perhaps higher than Okafor's, he seemed less likely to reach it.

As was the case with MCW, Hinkie took the safer route, and it appears, once again, to have come back to bite him. But unlike with MCW, there were multiple other factors that make it less clear cut.

The first is that Porzingis was much safer than Giannis ever was. Hinkie had multiple years of statistical date and game tape from Porzingis's time in the Spanish ACB, and Hinkie had personally scouted Porzingis more than any other GM. While his poor rebounding and passing numbers were worrisome, his versatility and positional malleability provided a slightly higher level of safety than might have otherwise been assumed by similar prospects.

The second was the team context. Hinkie was looking to draft a big man into an organization that had chosen the two best center prospects from the previous two drafts. While the BPA strategy suggests that having too much talent with a poor fit is a good problem to have, this is a case in which it's worth thinking hard about that. Specifically, if the Sixers are already home to the two highest upside centers of the last two drafts, then Okafor's risk assessment should have been compared to both of Noel and Embiid in addition to Porzingis.

But throughout all of this, what remains most clear is that these decisions are remarkably difficult. Even if you have complete faith that you've assessed a player's probable outcomes correctly-- which is hard enough to stomach as is-- it remains wildly difficult to parse through the probable outcomes in comparison to each other. If Porzingis was a 35% bust candidate but a 20% superstar candidate, and Okafor was at 5% and 15%, respectively, it's hard to say it was the wrong decision to select him over Porzingis, even with team context taken into account.

Maybe that's the biggest takeaway from this exercise: Hinkie is making the decisions that are the least wrong rather than the most right. It's a small distinction, but one that ultimately matters. Evaluated given the information available at the time, it's hard to argue that he has failed to do so when looking at his high leverage draft picks.