Few NBA executives have completed a trade with Danny Ainge and emerged without being stripped of their valuable players and picks.
Ainge is ruthless in battle, as evident by his pillaging of the Brooklyn Nets in the assembly of the original big three, his shipment of a disgruntled Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks for Jae Crowder and a first-round pick and the acquisition of star point guard Isaiah Thomas. He’s not known for playing fair either. He’ll lie and leak information in hopes of getting exactly what he wants, and in most cases, it works out in his favor.
Ainge’s destruction of the Nets empire helped Boston secure the top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, giving them the ability to draft one of the most coveted prospects of the past decade. If there was ever a moment for Ainge to receive a king’s ransom, it was in a deal involving the chance to select Markelle Fultz.
The Philadelphia 76ers needed Fultz, a combo guard whose skill set makes him a natural fit next to Ben Simmons and amongst the current Sixers roster. Given president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo’s spotty transaction track record and the franchise’s assortment of valuable draft picks, Ainge certainly targeted him as another potential victim. But Colangelo went into negotiations with one of the dirtiest and brilliant tacticians the league has to offer, and resurfaced with minimal damage and the best player the 2017 draft class has to offer. It was a wild reversal of roles nobody saw coming; the prey became the predator.
“Well, it’s never easy negotiating with Boston because they’re smart guys – I’m talking about [Celtics assistant general manager] Mike Zarren, not Danny Ainge by the way,” Colangelo said on Monday at a press conference to confirm the trade, jokingly taking a shot at his trade adversary.
“Two teams have two different agendas and you try to get to a common ground and you get to a point where both sides feel comfortable moving forward and making a deal,” he continued.
Colangelo’s agenda was clear. He badly wanted to be able to select Fultz, but also had no intentions of jeopardizing the team’s future in the process. Somehow he was able to do both. According to Colangelo, the two sides began negotiations shortly after the conclusion of the draft lottery, and wrapped up the deal a few days ago. The Sixers agreed to trade the No. 3 overall pick in 2017 and the Los Angeles Lakers 2018 first-round pick for the No. 1 overall pick. However, Boston will only receive the pick in 2018 if it falls between selections two and five.
“I think I began talking to Mike Zarren about this Laker pick for, I don’t know, a year-and-a-half it seems,” Colangelo said. “We’ve been talking about various things related to the draft last year that related to the draft this year and once Boston got number one, immediately there was a discussion.”
If the Lakers pick does not convey next year, then the Celtics will receive the more favorable pick amongst Philadelphia’s 2019 first-round pick and the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 first-round pick. However, both are top-one protected (meaning Boston would then receive the lesser pick if one ends up being first overall), securing the opportunity for the Sixers to still be able to select each draft class’s most elite talent.
“It was important to us not to give up the opportunity to select number one with what would be called a high-value first-round pick, and we felt that the Laker pick was a high-value first-round pick and the Sacramento pick likely would be too,” Colangelo said about the importance of the pick protections. “Trust me, those protections started out differently upon first discussion, but to end up there feels satisfying – with that carved out, we ended up where we wanted to be.”
Ainge was the one operating from a position of power, yet Colangelo was able to negotiate down one of the league’s hardest bargainers to a deal that certainly looks to be in Philadelphia’s favor. Not only do the Sixers control their own destiny this year, but options are still open for the team down the line via both the draft and free agency. The acquisition of Fultz certainly eases the mind of those concerned about the Sixers overpaying for a player like Kyle Lowry, and Colangelo seems committed to the slow and steady approached focused around the team’s young guns.
“I think ideally, we would like to not only have max flexibility now but maintain max flexibility next year when this group has a chance to grow together a little bit more and be more, perhaps, more ready to add a high-level free agent,” Colangelo said about potential free agency plans.
“If we’re just not ready, so be it; we can wait as long as we maintain that flexibility and that’s going to be the key objective in this whole thing.”
Colangelo’s comments sound in harmony with stage two of Sam Hinkie’s process as the team shifts from the rebuilding phase towards being a competitive force.
The Fultz trade was Colangelo’s first true mark on the Sixers franchise since taking the helm just over a year ago, and he did it masterfully. He outwitted Ainge en route to snagging the best pro prospect in 2017 while allowing the Sixers to maintain most of the assets that make these potentially franchise altering deals possible. Colangelo’s commitment to gradual improvement also inspires confidence in his future moves.
Philadelphia’s core is now solidified. After four years of rebuilding, the fun is finally set to begin this season, and Colangelo is beginning to look like a leader capable of taking this franchise to the next level.