The 2019 NBA draft is in the books. It was Elton Brand’s first go-round as head of the “collaborative front office.” Reactions on Twitter ran the gamut from some initial jubilation around the trade up for and selection of Matisse Thybulle. And then the mood started to sour as the Sixers had to watch a prospect they were linked to, Carsen Edwards, go one spot ahead of them to the rival Celtics because of the trade they made. Then gas hit the flames as the Sixers didn’t make selections with their next few picks.
The first round and the trade
The Sixers process here was very murky and unnecessarily limiting. Starting back in mid May, Brand began openly discussing the team’s need for an older player who can contribute right away. His Senior Director of Scouting Vince Rozman began echoing the sentiment.
Eventually they were linked to Matisse Thybulle who had “a promise” and some of the best draft-reporters like The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie sniffed out who made it:
“The thought is Philadelphia makes the most sense. With picks 33 and 34, it’s easy for Philadelphia to mask the promise by bringing in players who could be in the mix at No. 24, as those same players could potentially be in the mix at No. 33. But they also haven’t brought in a ton of players with potential to be picked ahead of No. 24.”
Eventually, as ESPN’s Jonathon Givony noted, the Celtics (of all teams) picked up on all of the breadcrumbs the Sixers left and used it against Brand in a trade, wrangling away the 33rd pick in the draft to select Sixers’ target Carsen Edwards, a player the Sixers were (intelligently) eyeing. (And one who could very well wind up being better than Thybulle given his shooting prowess and sturdy on ball-defense despite his 6’ size).
There is some very fair criticism in here for the process of their trade:
Thybulle didn't work out for any teams leading up to draft. Asked why, he says he canceled his workouts because of the Sixers' interest. "Philly showed interest early and we just trusted them and decided that we were going to put our faith in them and kind of shut things down."— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) June 21, 2019
The draft always includes uncertainty. If Thybulle becomes a very good player for Philadelphia, or nets them one in a future trade, all of these errors will be harder to criticize. Of course they could have been better prepared for draft fallers had they worked more top end prospects out. And of course they may have been able to keep the 33rd pick and select Edwards had they simply shared less of their intentions.
As soon as the Memphis Grizzlies traded up one selection later, it revealed a bit about the market for moving up a few spots, lending credence to the theory that the Sixers tipped their hand and had to pay extra to get their man:
Christ. That pretty clearly shows how Ainge pantsed Brand here. https://t.co/d3Zek7B3hB— Matt Carey (@RealMattCarey) June 21, 2019
I believe the Sixers were overconfident. They were too comfy in either A) which selections would be available to them around pick 20-24 (without bringing in more of the projected lottery picks they were perhaps unprepared for the types of “surprises” a draft inevitably presents); or B) they were too comfy that Thybulle was the best combination of upside and fit for their team at pick 20 given the alternatives.
Now I’ve been guilty of this myself. I didn’t like the Landry Shamet pick a year ago because he was projected to go later than their 26th pick and he turned out to be a beautiful selection for them. I was overconfident and I was wrong. I’m not an expert. The uncertainty of all of this is why it’s so fascinating. However also available at pick 20, and someone who the Sixers may not have looked closely enough at, was Brandon Clarke of Gonzaga, who was widely regarded as a better prospect and potential lottery pick.
For example at The Stepien, a site the Sixers surely respect because they recently hired someone from their team (Sean Derenthal), Clarke was the 5th overall player in their composite rankings and Thybulle the 19th.
ESPN’s crew had Clarke in the late lottery range, and The Ringer had Clarke ranked 17th vs. Thybulle’s 24th. Our own Jackson Frank ranked Clarke as his third overall prospect in the entire draft as did Cole Zwicker, founder of The Stepien. If the Sixers did indeed pass on a guy who could have been one of the best players in this entire draft, that could haunt them for a long time.
There were fit concerns with a player like Clarke. Ideally he is in a small-ball center and at just 6’8 with a 6’8 wingspan, that may not happen for him at the next level in which case his lack of shooting (so far) could really clog up a Joel-Embiidless lineup. I get all that. Can a team in win-now mode bank on an undersized big? But it’s always a tricky calculus to determine how much talent and upside you sacrifice for fit when you’re building a title team. I’m not sure the Sixers threaded the needle this time. I would have wanted to draft Clarke while trading the 34th pick instead of the 33rd so I still had my shot at Carsen Edwards. Had they not tipped their hand in the pre-draft process it seems likely they could have gotten both; or at least Thybulle and Edwards.
Had they done that, I wouldn’t have minded (as much) if they sold their last couple of picks to save Jonathon Simmons’ salary and a few of the dollars they’re willing to fork out for future luxury tax bills.
The Second Round
I won’t do this justice the way that Bryan Toporek of Forbes has.
Or Derek Bodner of The Athletic:
The Sixers have systematically devalued the type of assets that continually bring good players.
wildest part is people scoffing at value of 2nd round picks a week after watching gasol, draymond, danny green, powell, jerebko, bell, looney (30th pick), mckinney/van vleet/cook (undrafted) in finals— Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) June 21, 2019
The best counter-arguments to all of this are ones that put this all into perspective. If the Sixers keep their starting lineup in tact during free agency it may not limit them as much as all of this criticism might imply. If they hit on a great player in Thybulle, there may be lots of hand-ringing for naught. If they find some good vet minimum guys to come in and produce it may be hard to quantify their lack of draft and trade savvy. They could probably do better with veterans than they could later in the second round anyway.
But it does reflect the type of alarming inability to play the margins that championship-caliber front offices like Golden State, Boston, Houston, Toronto or San Antonio do so well. Up and coming teams like Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans have shown just how much they have learned from the Sixers former front office under Sam Hinkie. Even the lowly Timberwolves, now with former execs from Daryl Morey’s team in Houston and Hinkie’s team in Philadelphia, made some crafty moves yesterday led by Gersson Rosas and Sachin Gupta.
Hopefully Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris aren’t deterred at all by the apparent lack of experience this front office has shown and believe enough in the players and coaches in place and the extra money. Then maybe we can look back on these margins and laugh. If one of Butler or Harris leaves without a Kawhi Leonard coming, then they’ll really wish they took more shots at upside talent with the assets and lottery talents they let slip away.