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Markelle Fultz, Jayson Tatum and the Sacramento Pick

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Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

So, I was a huge fan of the trade-up from #3 to #1. People can pretend all they want, but the facts are the facts, and those facts are everywhere on the web, as well as burned into the brains of Process Trusters like me who were there: Markelle Fultz was viewed as being on another level as a player from everyone else in the 2017 draft. It was not just the consensus view, it was the near-universal view. And moreover such views on point guards and combo guards have basically no history of being wrong. Look at the PG-types taken #1 in the past 40 years of NBA history; it’s Kyrie, Wall, Iverson, Ben, Rose, Magic, every one a major star, either for life or until derailed by injury like Rose. Lots and lots of #1s have flopped, but never at PG. They just don’t take a smaller player #1 unless they’re sure he’s going to hit. With Markelle, they were sure; and by “they” I don’t mean the Colangelos, I mean the whole world of NBA observers. Perhaps he’ll be the exception to the pattern, and that will suck if it happens; personally I’m not giving up on him yet. But there was every reason to think he was a cut above the others. And in basketball, a cut above means everything! You can have 100 fine players like, I don’t know, Josh Richardson, and it doesn’t add up to a single James Harden. Of course at this point we don’t know if Markelle will ever be a Josh-Richardson-quality player, let alone a James Harden. But you have to take those shots when you get the chance, and I’ll always believe we were right to take the one we took, given what was known at the time.

But there was another reason I loved the trade so much: I thought the pick we gave up to move up was unlikely to be very valuable. I figured it’d be the Sacramento pick — the way things were set up it wasn’t that likely the LA selection would convey. And the SAC pick was, first, in a draft expected to be relatively weak and, second, not that likely to be a high pick.

Now, although pretty much everyone loved the trade at the time, they didn’t necessarily agree with me about the SAC pick. After all, Sacramento has been consistently bad for years. Last year they won a fair number of games by luck or their record could have been worse than the already-poor actual outcome. And then they picked Bagley over Doncic, an obvious mistake in my opinion, and I admit my faith was shaken a bit.

But I had two secret weapons in my pro-SAC arsenal. The first is mean reversion. Bill James used to have a simple method for projecting team wins: 1/2 of last-year’s wins, plus 1/4 of the year before’s wins, plus 1/4 of the wins of a .500 season (41 in hoops, 81 in baseball). There are many, many forces pushing both good and bad teams toward the middle of the pack, from the draft, through injury luck reversing itself, to firing bad coaches, and on and on. By the way, the James formula would put SAC at 32 wins, which would give them the 10th position in the lottery based on last season’s standings.

Even bigger, though, is another factor: SACRAMENTO HAS NO REASON TO TANK!!!

Look, let’s face it, Sam Hinkie broke the league. Actually he broke all of pro sports, as the Astros have now won a title following his plan, and the Browns have a seemingly bright future as a result of their own Process. But nowhere is the effect stronger than in the NBA, where things have gone completely haywire. There are around 10 teams that already know they are pretty much planning to tank. Of course they’ll try for a few weeks and see what happens; if Mikal Bridges and DeAndre Ayton are prodigies and Booker starts playing defense and everything else breaks their way, Phoenix would, I imagine, be perfectly happy to make the playoffs this year. But if it hasn’t already, it will, with high probability, quickly become apparent that isn’t going to happen, at which point we’ll start to see the usual tricks — playing without a point guard (the real “Hinkie Special”); benching all the veterans or declaring them out for the season, etc. etc.

It’s in the East where we’re really going to see the tanks revved up. Out of Atlanta, Chicago, Orlando, Cleveland, Brooklyn, and the Knicks, I expect to see 5 of these teams trying to lose by January 1st, if not sooner. The West is less obvious; other than Phoenix there aren’t any teams that are clearly looking to lose. But it’s early days; a few teams will fail to gel or suffer devastating injury and decide to play the long game.

And Sacramento? They don’t have their own pick; why wouldn’t they try to win every night? The answer is, there’s no reason. Around a third of the games they play in the second half of the season will be in contests that are not contested because both sides want the same outcome — a SAC victory.

My view has always been that SAC will finish ahead of around 8-10 other teams, thus in all probability getting around the 10th pick. And that was assuming the team would be bad. So far, it’s not clear they are! The Kings are 5-3, which hardly proves they are title contenders; indeed it doesn’t prove they aren’t terrible. But still, what are the odds Cleveland is going to win 4 more games than SAC the rest of the way? Not strong, I’d say, given the incentives. Suppose the Kings’ true level of ability is only 27 wins, which is about as bad as any team really gets if they are trying to win. They’ll probably play about 15-20 games against teams that are tanking at the time of the game; say they would have won 40% of those sans tanking (these are weak opponents) but will instead win 70% since the other team wants to lose. That’s an extra 5 or so wins (30% of 15-20). Now they’re up to 32 without even assuming the team is any good. Of course the situation now is much better; they’ve banked three extra wins compared to expectations, and they seem like they might be a good or at least decent team. They will probably not continue to play this well, but at this point it’d be a surprise if they don’t make it to 30 wins.

Here’s the weird thing about the NBA and the tanking. This is obvious, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone write or say it before. The NBA was terrified that Hinkie would show teams they were better off trying to lose. And he did just that, and it had just the effect the league feared — now a quarter of the league starts the year with a tank plan, and that grows to between a third and a half as we get to late season. So far, the NBA saw the future accurately.

Except for one thing: everybody loves it! The fans of the trying teams are thrilled; people think fans want close games, but that simply isn’t true in my experience. Sportswriters want close games; they’re not rooting for either team so they want something interesting to write about. But fans? What fans want is for their team to win. They certainly don’t want a close game if it means any chance whatsoever of a loss. And even if victory is guaranteed, what fans want is a total bludgeoning of their opponent. Again, this is my impression, feel free to disagree. But what I observe is, winning big makes people happiest, winning small is a close second, and losing is hated with intense passion.

UNLESS YOUR TEAM IS TANKING!! In which case, losing is fine, indeed it’s kinda great. This is a Sixers site; I don’t need to explain this to the readers here. So now the Sixers play Atlanta, and we win big. Simmons plays great, and Markelle shines in garbage time. All Sixer fans are thrilled; far more thrilled than they were after the Charlotte nail-biter or the Detroit nail-biter loss! And the Atlanta fans? They’re fine! They might have preferred more of a battle, but they got to see their exciting young players develop, and they got the loss they needed to keep pace with Chicago and Cleveland and so on.

So, this is the future I predict. The NBA isn’t going to do anything to slow the tank, because it is working out fine for everybody. If this sounds crazy, I suggest you consider the extremely popular sport known as “college football.” Or college basketball for that matter. When’s the last time you heard a Duke fan complain that their latest victory over Chaminade was by too many points, and therefore not enjoyable? That’s where the NBA is headed — every night, a bunch of crowd-pleasing blowouts, and a couple of marquee games between two teams that are trying. It’s going to be great!

Back to the trade. Look, obviously it’s insanely frustrating that whatever happened to Markelle, happened. But in all honesty, it wouldn’t be that big a deal if Boston hadn’t picked Jayson Tatum and turned him into a star using whatever magic pixie dust Brad Stevens so consistently deploys. I’ll bet at this point most hoops fans think the Sixers traded Tatum and a pick for Markelle. No such thing occurred. No one wanted the Sixers to take Tatum, and no one thought they would. I bet I read 10,000 comments leading up to that draft, most when we still had the #3 pick, and approximately zero of them said we should take Tatum. He finished seventh on the LB Community Big Board. And, pixie dust jokes aside, I have no confidence whatsoever that he would be on his current path if the Sixers had taken him. Would Isaiah Thomas have been an MVP candidate if he’d played for us? Would Jae Crowder have done his Covington impersonation in Philly? Hell, even Evan Turner was great playing for Stevens!! He is an exceptional coach along multiple dimensions, and although I admire Brett Brown greatly, we can’t match the things Stevens does no matter whom we draft. But whom we drafted if we hadn’t made that trade would have been Josh Jackson (the Community consensus) or Malik Monk (the suggestion of the great and wise Mike O’Connor on our Sixers Science podcast back at the time). Maybe Dennis Smith or De’Aaron Fox. How would any of those people have helped us beat the C’s and Raps this year? Jackson and Monk aren’t good yet, and may never be. Smith and Fox are point guards, which as has been endlessly discussed here, is Ben’s position. And, um, also aren’t necessarily good yet! Of course it’s clear in hindsight that if we could have taken Tatum, and then coached him up as effectively as Stevens did, that would have been great. Did I mention that Al Horford and Aron Baynes never shot threes effectively before coming to Boston, and now Horford is one of the league’s best and Baynes hits like 80% against us?

So, look, can we cut it out with the breast-beating and endless recriminations? It’s unseemly, and it doesn’t make any sense. The pick we gave up was not that valuable in expectation. I mean, anything can happen, maybe it’ll be #2 after all, we shall see. But in expectation, it was a late-lottery pick in a draft seen as weak. And for that, we traded a selection at #3 that nobody had any idea what to do with that wouldn’t be a disaster in the making, for a guy who would have been a perfect fit if he hadn’t had his shoulder/shooting issues, which were entirely impossible to predict (he was still razor sharp in Summer League, long after we drafted him). The trade was great ex ante and could still easily be good ex post as well — there’s an excellent chance Fultz is more valuable to us than Josh Jackson and the SAC pick. The decision not to draft Tatum was terrible in hindsight, but almost every draft of almost every team is filled with that sort of mistake, the cherry-picking “mistake” where we go back and say our management are all idiots because they let Draymond Green slip to 60 or didn’t take Giannis. Honestly, it’s a silly game, pointless, illogical, and, what’s worse, not enjoyable. Let’s stop hitting ourselves.