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Organic growth shouldn’t serve as only path for Sixers improvement

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Cleveland Cavaliers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

As the Sixers enter the franchise’s most pivotal offseason in recent memory, a certain narrative has sprung up among a subset of the fan base. To wit, the team should be cognizant of “winning the right way”, i.e. letting players the franchise drafted continue to be the focal point of the team rather than bringing in highly priced players via either free agency or trade to come and “take over”.

The idea bothers me for a couple reasons. First, there’s no right way to win. Every team’s situation throughout history has been unique, and past winners have correctly navigated their particular set of circumstances, both internal and external, while receiving some degree of luck along the way. Moreover, the notion that successful teams should be built by drafting players and solely riding them for the next decade can be disabused by looking at the current teams in the two ongoing Conference Finals series.

I looked at each of the four remaining teams (plus the Sixers) and measured how much production they have received from “homegrown” players. I considered a player homegrown if they started their NBA career with their current team. So Cleveland’s Ante Zizic would be considered homegrown despite having been drafted by Boston, but Robert Covington is not, even though he is considered an original “Process” guy. Most notably, I kept LeBron James as a homegrown player. Technically, LeBron is a free agent signing following his sojourn to South Beach, but we all know he wasn’t signing with Cleveland if he hadn’t been “coming home” to Ohio and the franchise that drafted him in the first place. The designation is somewhat arbitrary, but it works for our broad purpose here.

To measure production, I used Basketball Reference’s Win Shares statistic, which the site describes as such: “Win Shares is a player statistic which attempts to divvy up credit for team success to the individuals on the team.” Obviously, no statistic is perfect, but this will give us a rough approximation of how much production is coming from homegrown players, versus from guys the teams have brought in from the outside.

All data is as of 5/23/18 and does not include Friday night’s Game 5 between Boston and Cleveland.

Postseason Win Shares via Homegrown Players

Team Total Win Shares % from Homegrown Players Top Contributor(s)
Team Total Win Shares % from Homegrown Players Top Contributor(s)
Cleveland 8.3 56.6% LeBron James (3.9)
Philadelphia 6.2 51.6% Dario Saric (1.2)
Boston 8.9 50.6% Al Horford (2.4)
Golden State 10.7 45.8% Kevin Durant (2.3)
Houston 9.2 23.9% Tie - James Harden, Clint Capela (2.2)

As you can see, Cleveland attributes the most production from homegrown players, thanks to a unique situation where the greatest player of his era is almost entirely carrying the team by himself. LeBron James has accounted for 47% of his team’s playoff production. Still, looking at the roster quantitatively rather than qualitatively, the Cavaliers have shaped it with a lot of external players. James and Tristan Thompson are the only 2 homegrown players providing positive Win Shares for Cleveland.

Next is the Sixers, who were evenly balanced between homegrown guys like Dario Saric, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid, and guys who weren’t with the team last season like J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli. One of the things I don’t understand about this narrative is how seemingly everyone was thrilled when veterans like Redick, Belinelli, and Ilyasova were brought aboard. Why wouldn’t you want do the same thing, but upgrade those ancillary pieces? How is pairing your homegrown stars with external role players morally superior to pairing your homegrown stars with external stars?

Third on the list is Boston, who has received a fair amount of production from homegrown players. However, the Celtics are a unique situation in that they had anticipated large contributions from outside acquisitions Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Their absences allowed Boston draftees like Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown to assume much larger roles. Free agent signing Al Horford has been Boston’s best player with 27.0% of the team’s playoff Win Shares, and I would expect the team’s homegrown percentage to fall next season when Irving and Hayward return.

Even in Golden State, a team fans might point to as having “won the right way”, the homegrown core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green has received substantial help from Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala (coincidentally the two Finals MVPs for the team’s two recent titles). Durant has easily been the most productive player for Golden State in these playoffs.

Finally, we have the Rockets, who are an extreme example of a mercenary team, with Houston general manager Daryl Morey having traded for two star guards in James Harden and Chris Paul. Clint Capela is the only player drafted by the Rockets with positive Win Shares this postseason.

With the exception of one of the best players of all time putting forth a superhuman effort to drag his club to yet another Finals appearance, all of the current successful teams in the league have received more production from external sources in the postseason than the Sixers did. They clearly need an upgraded roster to be truly elite, and while some of the team’s growth will come from the young guys continuing to improve and the 10th pick in the draft, some of it will also have to come via trade or free agency.

There should be no concept of “our guys” when it comes to making decisions to improve your roster. Do you think Houston fans care that James Harden was acquired via a trade? Or that Golden State fans mind Kevin Durant coming as a free agent to supplant Curry as the Warriors’ best player and last year’s Finals MVP? Cleveland fans were burning LeBron’s jersey when he took his talents to South Beach, but welcomed him back with open arms. Once a player puts on your team’s laundry, he’s your guy, regardless if he was drafted by your favorite team or their fiercest rival.

There are valid reasons to be slightly apprehensive about the possibility of LeBron coming to Philadelphia. The team seeking to appease the King with win-now moves in lieu of maintaining a state of sustained excellence over a long period of time would be the foremost concern for me. However, neglecting to bring him in, or any other max level star, because it wouldn’t lead to “winning the right way” with “our guys” shouldn’t be an issue. As much as we all love Dario Saric, if he has to be included as part of a Kawhi Leonard trade, you pull the trigger. Boston wouldn’t hesitate to do the same with Jaylen Brown.

For the Sixers and every other team in the cutthroat world that is the NBA, there is no “winning the right way”. There is only winning, by whatever means necessary.