Poor Luc Mbah a Moute. Remember all the grief we gave him?
As Process Detractors griped ad nauseam through summer 2014 for a touch more veteran presence on the roster, late August would see Sam tossing them a bone in the form of the jumperless, 27 year-old Cameroonian. Luc would go on to register a career-low shooting percentage and career-high minutes average in 2014-15, with Process Twitter groaning along as he sponged up minutes from K.J. McDaniels, Jerami Grant, and even JaKarr Sampson. Jason Richardson, making a valiant late-February return to play all of 416 minutes that season, would welcome a similar response. Anyone with one foot out the door almost seemed to be an enemy of the Process.
Although not the hard-and-fast rule of Hinkie’s regime, every roster move since his hiring has begged the same question: “how does this player fit on the next great Sixers’ team?” Even deals netting no future assets would garner praise as long as it meant the expediting of vets: trading Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen for a Danny Granger shirsey was wildly lauded in the Philadelphia blogosphere, even with the Sixers standing as outright losers of that deal years later.
The introduction of Bryan Colangelo to the franchise would, unsurprisingly, lead to the shattering of this tenet -- thus far to the tune of unexciting, if not underwhelming results: Sergio Rodriguez, slowly being weeded out via Chasson Randle, may have played his way back to Europe this season; Jerryd Bayless won’t see the hardwood until October; it took me a solid two minutes to remember that Gerald Henderson was the third signing this offseason, though he’s efficiently filled a role previous Sixers teams lacked. Surely a happy medium exists between the Colangelo and Hinkie ideologies -- it’s well-documented that a lack of replacement-level point guard may have cost Sam his job last season -- but the 2016 summer was a harsh deviation from the old guard. No move was nor has been as polarizing as Colangelo’s first trade, sending Jerami Grant to Oklahoma City for a Kinda First-Rounder and sweet-shooting, underutilized journeyman Ersan Ilyasova.
But he’s no Luc Richard. The 29 year-old Ilyasova -- as players in their latter prime years often do --has enjoyed a career season thus far. Both Ilyasova’s volume and efficiency numbers have leapt across the board, and his situation in Philadelphia has put him in a position to garner a much better contract this summer than if he were to stay in a reserve role in Oklahoma City.
He unclogs the lane, is a deceptively brilliant passer in transition, and has undeniably helped the Sixers win more games — 4.68, per ESPN’s RPM. The Sixers’ offense is at its worst with Ersan off the floor, even if his presence doesn’t necessarily fit the narrative that he’s helping Embiid’s development (Joel’s efficiency takes a noticeable slide when the two share the floor, per nbawowy). Such numbers may mislead, anyway. An alternate universe without Ersan likely slides Rock Covington up to the four, leading to a weaker wing presence, further exhausting The Process on both ends.
But since when have raw results been our aspirations? Unlike Hinkie’s theoretical career-saving point guard — who would’ve supplanted Kendall Marshall, an unready T.J. McConnell, and whatever the hell Phil Pressey was — Ersan constitutes the league’s most notoriously loaded frontcourt. He’s decidedly a power forward, regularly forcing Covington and Dario Saric down a number and away from their ideal future positions.
Saric at 24 minutes per isn’t much an issue during just his rookie season, although logging more minutes with Jahlil Okafor than Embiid has feasibly hindered his development some. The return of Ben Simmons will only further muddy the rotation, unless the Aussie is destined to play the one exclusively upon his return — not exactly ideal for a player with Draymond-esque potential at the five.
And as it’s been with this team for three seasons and change, the future is impossible to ignore. Ilyasova turns 30 in May, and certain flaws don’t figure to age well. His jumper is and should always be as sharp as Bryan Colangelo’s suits, but Ersan’s already a average rebounder, has a propensity to look off other options for a few misguided stepbacks a night, and is always good for two or three game-breaking (and not the good kind) defensive plays:
Ilyasova’s contributions may well lead to a strong playoff push next season while landing the Sixers in the conversation this year, but as fun as the extra Ws are, he’ll be far over the hill by the time this team can hopefully contend. He’ll predictably prefer one last long contract at this stage of his career, but Philadelphia’s money would be better spent standing pat and re-upping the deals of Embiid, Covington, Nerlens Noel, and even McConnell within that time.
The expected dip without Ersan might not even be as grave as we think. His production was sorely needed in exchange for extra Okafor minutes in the season’s early going, but Ilyasova’s services may no longer be needed. The Sixers simply haven’t had the minutes to experiment with an Embiid-Noel duo since Nerlens came back into the fold — a lineup that would surely sacrifice spacing but could catapult Philadelphia’s defense to another stratosphere from the Embiid-Ilyasova pairing — and Dario’s numbers have unsurprisingly faired better (in a small sample) when starting.
That’s what makes the trade such an inherently anti-Process deal: it purchased instant gratification at the cost of experimentation in a building season.
It initially made sense on the surface. Grant’s value likely peaked in Philadelphia’s frontcourt — a heavily-protected first seemed his best return — and immediately shedding Ersan would have mended some logjam woes. But keeping Ersan beyond the deadline will be counterproductive in that regard, and though he may well have played into being worth a late first-rounder, that’s always easier said than done in a league with two true contenders. Cleveland could surely make use but has first-round trade obligations through 2020, he’d be redundant in Golden State, and he doesn’t move the needle for Boston, Toronto, San Antonio or Houston.
Colangelo’s motives matter here, and the Great Grant-Ersan Trade of 2016 offers few compromises. Flipping Jerami for what could ultimately be multiple picks would be as Process as Tony Wroten himself, but failing to move Ersan before October would create for several unfavorable long-term implications.
Letting Ersan walk in July also certainly remains a viable option, but seems nonsensical given that he could plausibly net at least a healthy second-rounder at this juncture. Such a move seems timely, especially considering Simmons’ (hopeful) return date somewhat coincides with the trade deadline.
None of this is to say that he is bad or even that his current understudy, Dario, will ever be as effective, but late-20s players like Ilyasova can be had any season. And I’m already sweating what a four-year deal could cost (is $50 million crazy? $60 million?). Ilyasova has done an honorable job of both helping the Sixers and beefing up his pockets along the way, but it’s time to let him go. This has always been about process over results.