Blind Loyalty: The Sixers should draft two-time NCAA champion and local hero Mikal Bridges out of Villanova
Randy Cohen: No, they shouldn’t!
BL: Absolutely they should. Bridges is exactly what the team needs: a 3-and-D wing to back up Robert Covington.
RC: Don’t you mean, to back up LeBron James, after we sign him? Are you sure it won’t be Covington backing up James and Mikal gathering dust as the third-string SF behind two guys who seem capable of playing 40 tremendous minutes each and every night?
BL: Well, the draft is before free agency, and we have no idea whether we’ll be able to get LeBron. And right now, our biggest need is an additional Cov-like wing.
RC: True enough, but doesn’t that highlight the foolishness of drafting for need when you have $30M of cap space? Sure, we are short a wing right now, and very deep at, say, PF. But if Ersan leaves and PG arrives, that will reverse itself! Given that we already have a terrific SF in Cov and that our top two free agent targets are SFs, isn’t it weird to focus on the SF “need”? And if you tell me he can play some SG, well, isn’t that Markelle’s main position, given that it turns out Ben Simmons really is a point guard?
BL: If we sign LeBron or PG-13, we’re in great shape regardless.
RC: I agree we’ll have a heck of a team if we add one of those guys. But if you look at that team’s lineup, it’s clear the weakness is our need for a third quality big! Ironic, I know, it’s barely a year since we all obsessed over the supposed “logjam” in the middle. But here we are! If LBJ gets a supermax contract from us, we’ll have no cap room to keep Amir or Ersan.
BL: Those guys may stay for the veteran minimum, hoping to win a title.
RC: We can hope, but, remember, despite appearances Amir is 30 years old, not 40. He earned $11M this year, and plenty of coaches and GMs know how valuable he is. With cap space tight around the league he probably won’t get another $11M offer, but he’ll probably get a lot more than the minimum. Same goes for Ersan, granting no one knows his true age! So we’re looking at a situation with no backup PF and only Richaun as a backup C. If Wendell Carter is on the board, doesn’t he fit our “need” better?
BL: But you don’t know LeBron is coming! Or Paul George. And we can always pick up a veteran backup big, always a Plumlee or something out there!
RC: Well, as I say, that’s the problem with drafting for need when you don’t even know who your starters are. You should take the best player available.
BL: But that’s Bridges too!
RC: What makes you say so? The titles? For the first one, he was a role player, and even this year, it was his teammate Brunson who won all the Player of the Year awards. You want to use the long-awaited Lakers pick on a second banana?
BL: Everyone knows Mikal was both the best player and the best prospect on that team.
RC: OK, I’ll grant you that. But what makes you think he has NBA-star ability?
BL: Just look at his numbers! 18 points on 12 shots, ultra-efficient. Almost 60% from 2 and almost 44% from 3. Plus lock-down D with tons of steals and blocks.
RC: Weren’t his opponents outclassed at every position by an awesome Nova team, leading to oh-so-many wide-open looks for Mikal?
BL: The team was awesome, but Mikal was the #1 reason. And two-way players like him are a rare and ultra-valuable commodity.
RC: BL, have you ever watched little kids play pickup ball at a playground?
BL: Since I’m you, you know I have, back when we could see we played pickup all the time!
RC: Right. Remember how sometimes we’d see a bunch of kids, all the same size, and one would totally dominate the others? Like, they’re all 4 foot 10, but one of them is just draining three pointers and stuff? And we’d be amazed but then we’d get an explanation? Do you remember what the explanation always turned out to be?
RC: And that was...?
BL: The kid who was way better would turn out to be like 3 years older than the others.
RC: Mikal Bridges will be, what, 28 years old when the NBA season starts?
BL: Don’t exaggerate. He’s 21 now, turns 22 in August.
RC: So isn’t this just a big kid beating up on little kids? Everyone he faced this year was either not an NBA talent or was around three years his junior. That’s an absolutely enormous gap in physical development, coaching, and experience. OF COURSE he crushed them like bugs!
BL: There are plenty of old guys in college hoops who don’t dominate like Mikal.
RC: Sure, but none of those guys become top NBA players, either. Remember Denzel Valentine? Remember how he dominated NCAA competition at an advanced age? And then people couldn’t believe how far he fell in the draft? And now he’s a lousy NBA player?
BL: He improved a lot this year!
RC: Actually, I just looked and that’s true, he was an OK backup this season. But he’s 24 and a half years old now, his best case scenario is to be a borderline starter in his prime, and more likely he’s a career backup. Did we wait all these years for the Laker pick to convey just for that?
BL: You can’t make that argument based on a single example! What about Kyle Kuzma, he’s the flip side of the coin — everyone says he’s a star, he gets 16 and 6!
RC: Wow, almost as good as Jah’s 17 and 7!
BL: Jah was a special case; Kuzma can shoot from 3.
RC: Obviously Kuzma is going to have a better career than Jah, but that’s a low bar. He plays no D, and I really don’t think he’s going to be a special player. Still, I’ll grant your point that we won’t get anywhere with cherry-picked examples, it’s just not a fair approach. But what is fair is comparing apples to apples. Most of the guys we’d consider with this pick are 19-year-old freshman. When Mikal was in that position, he hit .299 from 3.
BL: But now he’s a terrific distance shooter.
RC: But that’s what I mean about apples to apples. Mikal improved his shooting between 19 and 21. Remember last year when Sixer fans didn’t want Jayson Tatum?
BL: They ranked him 7th on the LB Community Big Board, if I recall correctly.
RC: Because he only shot, I forget, 35% or something from the college 3-point line, and so they feared he’d be an iso scorer who wouldn’t space the floor in the NBA.
BL: That turned out not to be a problem after all.
RC: Right, he’s hitting 43% from 3 with the Celtics. Now, obviously not everyone takes the step forward Tatum did after their first college season. But my point is, it’s a huge mistake to compare Mikal’s play this year to freshmen. I won’t use future GOAT Ben Simmons as it stacks the deck, so let’s instead use favorite whipping boy Brandon Ingram.
BL: Use him how?
RC: Brandon Ingram was born in September, Mikal in August.
BL: So Ingram is a month younger?
RC: No. Ingram was born in 1997, he’s a year and a month younger than Mikal. Now, imagine Ingram went back to college next year. Don’t you think he would dominate, to steal a line from the great Bill James, like Babe Ruth in a Babe Ruth league? I mean, imagine that were allowed, and he did it, people would think it was absurd! No one would think his domination of college kids at that point was anything to be super-impressed by.
BL: But Ingram IS going to be a very good NBA player, quite possibly a huge star!
RC: Sure, but you see my point. Lots of guys who are Mikal’s age and who are just OK NBA players would have absolutely killed it if they’d been playing college ball this year. Marquese Chriss is about a year younger than Mikal and he’s being treated like El Busto, but don’t you think if he went to Kentucky next season, when he’d be the age Mikal was this year, that he’d kick a little ass!
BL: Possibly. But the fact is, Mikal DID improve from 19 to 21 and IS NBA-ready now. Other 19-year-olds were better than Mikal at that age, I won’t deny it, but they didn’t step up and Mikal did.
RC: Well, Mikal made a significant improvement from his first to second year it seems, though it’s hard to be totally sure when the minutes grow too. But second to third seems not so big. His 3P% did go up by 4 percentage points, which is great but is really just a difference of a few shots falling. Assists and rebounds are up incrementally, steals and blocks not really at all. Actually Dean Oliver’s ORtg-Drtg was better in his earlier years. Are you sure he’s better?
BL: Everyone who can see seems to agree he’s a lot better.
RC: Well, then I’ll accept it, but just saying, if our whole theory of Mikal is that we can forgive his age because he’s improving so rapidly, someone should make really, really sure he actually is. Because, remember, Nova was #1 for a chunk of Mikal’s second season, too.
BL: Wait, shouldn’t that count for him, not against him?
RC: It’s tricky; given a player’s ability at 21, you can argue it’s more impressive if he was great at 20 and 19 also, as it shows consistency, or you can argue it’s more impressive if he was less good before, shows he’s growing before our eyes.
BL: Yeah, forecasting these guys is hard. But isn’t it a huge advantage that he, at 22, may help us a ton next year, whereas a 19- or 20-year-old will need time to develop.
RC: I think so, yes, because we were writing LB posts saying the Sixers could win the title LAST year if they traded for Jimmy Butler. We wanted Kyle Lowry this offseason because we thought — correctly! — that the Sixers would be title contenders this year if we had him. They all laughed at us, oh how they laughed, ha ha! they said that Lowry didn’t fit the timeline, as the team was years away from contention. So for folks like us, who think the timeline is now, then, yes, being older is a real advantage of Mikal, he’s more likely to help right away.
BL: It’s funny, the people who disagreed with us about Lowry were probably right, but for the opposite of the reason they thought they were right!
RC: Exactly — the reason not to sign Lowry is that we are SO far along on the timeline that we really might get LeBron given that we didn’t tie up the money on Lowry, not because we aren’t far enough along the timeline for Lowry to make us contenders.
BL: Yeah, even this year, we have a shot, and if we’d added Tyreke instead of Marco we’d REALLY have a shot.
RC: Um, yeah, I wanted Tyreke too, but Marco’s been great so far, so let’s leave him alone for now! Let’s get back on track, shall we?
BL: So you grant Mikal’s age is in some ways a benefit. Moreover drafting an older player means you get his ages 22-25 seasons super-cheap, rather than getting his ages 19-22 years, which may not be good even if he turns out to be a star!
RC: Good point.
BL: And then we get to be almost sure we keep him for his ages 26-29 seasons, his prime, whereas a younger draftee is an unrestricted free agent right before his prime starts.
RC: Yeah, that is a really annoying feature of drafting young, players don’t peak until 27, often in their NINTH year!
BL: And then there’s the local angle; wouldn’t it be pretty sweet to have a guy who already won the city a championship on the Sixers?
RC: Villanova is not in the city.
BL: Oh, don’t give me that crap, you know Villanova counts.
RC: I agree; until our ancestral home of Northeast Philly — shout out to the B’n’B, Bustleton and Byberry! — gets its own university with a terrific hoops team of its own, I love Nova and will support them faithfully. But, come on, wouldn’t you rather have a better player who comes from UCLA or Texas or Georgetown?
BL: Obviously if it’s a way better player I’ll take a guy from anyplace — you name it, Kentucky, Duke, Pol Pot University, if he’ll be a star for us, I’m in! But this is entertainment, right? It would entertain me more to root for Mikal Bridges than Miles Bridges, even if they’re equally good players. So, at the margin, yeah, it counts.
RC: At the margin, OK, but it better be pretty darn tight for that to be the decider. I’m here to win championships — flags fly forever!
RC: We should finish up. What’s your best argument for Mikal.
BL: The biggest inefficiency left in the ever-smarter NBA is the tremendous underrating of defense. I mean, every piece of data we have for evaluating players’ total contribution says the question about Robert Covington is not whether he’s worth his contract, or whether he should be a starter if we add a superstar, or whether he’s better than Dario, but instead whether he’s a top-10 player in the NBA. My favorite single statistic — imperfect like all stats, but the least imperfect I know — is the adjusted plus-minus stat folks call RAPM. Here are the league’s top three as I write:
1 Steph Curry
2 Robert Covington
3 Joel Embiid
By the way Ben Simmons is ranked #16 in the league... yeah, things are looking good in Sixerland!
Anyway, the point is, maybe Cov isn’t having the second-best season in the NBA this year, but if we could bet and then the Supreme Being would come down and tell us the truth, I’d bet he’s top 15, and I’d lay odds he’s top 30. And yet EVERY. SINGLE. THING. I read about the Sixers says we have two superstars and one star, that being Dario, with Markelle poised to join one of those two groups. All of which is true except that it leaves out Robert Covington.
RC: You’re on a bit of a rant there; we should save that for a separate post.
BL: You’re right, you’re right, I know you’re right. Anyway, the point is, Cov is underrated. Roberson is underrated. Hell, Chris Paul is one of the all-time greats, and even HE’S underrated, because people just don’t understand the importance of perimeter defense. If Mikal Bridges were just as good as he is, and just as old, but his talent was 70% offense 30% defense instead of 60-40 the other way, he’d be a top-3 pick.
RC: Eloquently argued, granting that I’m biased toward your style of rhetoric!
BL: And not only are defense-first players underrated, that is exactly the sort of player that a team with ball-dominant players like Ben and Joel and Markelle will benefit the most by adding.
RC: Back to need?
BL: This isn’t about positional need; you’ve convinced me that’s overrated. The point I’m making here is, as the cliche says, there’s only one ball. So if you add a player who is great offensively to a team full of excellent offensive players, the benefit is real but muted. Whereas an additional chunk of defensive ability delivers 100% value. Take it to the extreme; if you had a team with four great two-way players, say CP3, Butler, LeBron, and Giannis, and you had a choice of a terrific offensive center like Cousins or a defensive center like Gobert, who would help your team more, if we assume they are equally good in a vacuum?
RC: I’d want Joel. But, wait, who would they play; who would you get that would give that squad a decent game?
BL: I don’t know, say the aliens come down and want to play us, the stakes being the survival of mankind.
RC: Then I’d definitely want Joel!
BL: Of course, two-way is always best. And Mikal, like Cov, is in fact a terrific two-way player, that floor-spreading and those made threes really do count! But my point is, for any given level of ability, on a bad team you can make a case for offense or defense, but once you have terrific players, you get more payoff per unit of talent from defense.
RC: Makes sense.
BL: And remember this is on top of defensive players being underrated, especially 3-and-D guys, whom everyone pays lip service to but who are in truth so insanely valuable they are still massively underrated despite all the chatter about them.
RC: OK, you’ve sold me on all that. So it’s really a question of weighing:
Pro: Mikal is an ideal TYPE of player in that players like him are a perfect fit for our team, regardless of position, and also tend to be underrated.
Con: Mikal may be a lot less good than he seems, as he was playing guys who either were much younger than him or who were just not NBA material, and so dominance last year may simply be a result of ultra-favorable circumstances.
BL: That’s about the size of it.
As you can see, I am conflicted! Let me know in the poll & comments who won the debate, or if either of me missed any crucial points!
Who’s right about Mikal?
This poll is closed
Blind Loyalty is right, we should draft Mikal Bridges even if an attractive alternative like Trae Young or Wendell Carter is available
Randy Cohen is right, we should only take Mikal if all the other attractive candidates are off the board
Randy makes better arguments and wins the debate, but BL is right, we should take Mikal
No, it’s the other way, Randy has the right of it, but BL wins via superior debating tactics