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The Sixers failed to capitalize on valuable chances in the 2019 NBA Draft

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Getting outfoxed in the first round and disregarding the second were the themes of the night

NBA: NBA Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

This offseason is a critical one for the Philadelphia 76ers. While the free agency of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris may have been at the forefront of discussion surrounding the team, the 2019 NBA Draft was particularly important given the multiple chances available to acquire some cheap depth. The Sixers were armed with three picks inside the top 34, plus the 42nd and 54th picks, giving them several opportunities to find some young, affordable talent to help fill out a roster which they hope will feature an incredibly expensive Big Four.

Draft night came, and the Sixers unequivocally failed to do that.

The Sixers started by getting their man, Matisse Thybulle, in the first round. Even though his historic defensive numbers (3.5 steals and 2.3 blocks per game) were inflated somewhat by playing in Washington’s zone, he’s a phenomenal defensive prospect. There’s no denying he has terrific size, speed, motor, and instincts, and if averaging those numbers in a zone was easy, we’d see more prospects do the same. It’s unfair to call him a non-shooter after he made 30.5 percent of his 3s last season, too. He shot no worse than 36.5 percent from 3 in each of his first three years in college and shot 78.2 percent from the free throw line (85.1 percent in his final year). Even though providing much offensive value with the ball and as a floor spacer will be the concern with Thybulle early on, he can help on defense and has the upside to fit in perfectly overall if he proves his shot is reliable.

The problem is that the pick didn’t come as seamlessly at No. 24 as many would have hoped. Too many executives around the league knew how set the Sixers were on Thybulle, who didn’t work out for any teams ahead of the draft because of Philly’s interest.

According to ESPN’s Jonathan Givony, the Boston Celtics seized the opportunity to make the Sixers pay by giving up an extra asset in the form of the 33rd pick to move up just four spots to 20 to secure Thybulle:

“In 2014, Sixers GM Sam Hinkie was able to sniff out the Orlando Magic’s interest in drafting Elfrid Payton, selecting him at No. 10 and forcing Orlando to give up an additional first-round pick to get its target.

“Five years later, it appears that the Boston Celtics were able to do the same, taking advantage of the 76ers’ very clear interest in Matisse Thybulle early on in the pre-draft process. The Celtics picked Thybulle at No. 20 and flipped him to Philly while moving down to No. 24 and extracting the No. 33 pick. The Celtics then turned around and auctioned off that pick to the Suns for a 2020 first-round pick, doing some nifty business considering where they started from.”

To rub salt in the wound, the Celtics used the 33rd pick to draft a player who would have been a great fit for a Sixers team in need of extra shooting, both off the catch and off the dribble: Carsen Edwards. Even if nothing much came of their picks at 34 and 42, a two-man haul of Thybulle and Edwards would have been a solid night for the Sixers.

In additional to potential targets at 33, though, and as good as Thybulle can be for the Sixers (I believed they should target him at 24), there was the opportunity to land an even better talent with their first-round pick due to a couple of prospects falling.

Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke — who was widely viewed as a lottery talent and as high as No. 3 overall by both Liberty Ballers’ own Jackson Frank and Founder of The Stepien Cole Zwicker due to his tremendous athleticism, defense, finishing, IQ, and sometimes overlooked skill — was still available when the Sixers traded up to the 20th pick. At that point, forgetting fit for a moment and simply drafting the best player available could have been more worthwhile. And sure, it’s easy to play the “what if” game. But if the Sixers’ intention to select Thybulle wasn’t so obvious, maybe there’s a chance he falls to 24 as expected and the 33 and 34 picks could have been used in a trade up the draft for a top-level prospect like Clarke or Grant Williams (who went 22nd to Boston).

That’s enough for hypotheticals, though. The Sixers’ main problems came in the second round, starting with sending the 34th pick to Atlanta for the 57th pick and two future second-rounders. Admittedly, they may recover some draft value in the future this way. The problem is that they missed an opportunity to actually find a possible contributor at 34, and the picks they added won’t be helping in their current timeline to contend.

The Sixers continued by trading Jonathon Simmons and the 42nd pick to the Washington Wizards for cash considerations. What makes this deal so foolish is that only $1 million of Simmons’ salary next season is guaranteed, so the Sixers could have waived him and taken the $1 million cap hit, or waived and stretched him and taken a cap hit of only $333,000 in each of the next three seasons. It’s not ideal, but it’s a minimal price to pay.

Even if the Sixers did waive Simmons, they still could have remained under the luxury-tax apron. They wasted another asset by attaching the 42nd pick, and another chance to find a potential role player. Or even a swing at a high-upside pick like Bol Bol, who was worth a shot after falling all the way to 44th, eventually winding up with Denver. Seeing as unsigned second-round picks have zero cap hold, the Sixers gained no cap flexibility by trading away the 34th and 42nd picks.

They wrapped things up by trading the 57th pick to Detroit for $2 million in cash and an essential fake Miami 2024 second-rounder, as it’s top-55 protected.

As my Liberty Ballers’ colleague Adam Aaronson pointed out, the Sixers’ recent disregard for the second round is pretty startling. Despite having 12 second-round picks over the last four years, they’ve walked away with just four players.

“We’re gonna develop Zhaire (Smith), Jonah’s (Bolden) developing, Shake (Milton) is developing, now Matisse (Thybulle) is gonna develop,” GM Elton Brand said to reporters after the draft. “Too many young guys with a team with championship aspirations does not work.”

Yes, it’s hard to hit the mark with second-round picks. But it’s impossible if you disregard their value and trade a bunch of them for cash.

For instance, using the very next pick after the Sixers’ selection of Lessort at 50 in 2017, the Denver Nuggets drafted Monte Morris, who would be a terrific backup point guard for Philly. Another well-run franchise like the Toronto Raptors, fresh off their first championship, have been receiving valuable contributions from multiple players who were drafted in the second round — Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Norman Powell, and their undrafted pickup from 2016, Fred VanVleet.

The more chances you take, the more likely it is you can find yourself a contributor at a bargain price. Not just to use for the upcoming season, but as cost controlled players moving forward to maintain depth for title contention. The Sixers need to realize this.

As badly as the draft turned out, though, it’s obviously not all doom and gloom for Philly. Thybulle should be able to contribute next season and has plenty of upside to grow. A healthy Zhaire Smith (who I’ve personally always been high on) is almost like a new addition to the bench as well, after only playing six games at the end of last season. Shake Milton will have a chance to prove himself, too.

If Butler and Harris stay, the Sixers can still enter next season with one of the top few rosters in the league, especially if they can upgrade their bench at all in free agency. If the Sixers re-sign JJ Redick for $10 million next season and max both Butler and Harris, they still have the full $9.25 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception to use (thanks to Bryan Toporek for calculating the updated numbers). By spreading out the MLE to make a couple of acquisitions like a reliable backup center and some improved guard and/or wing depth (we’ll have plenty of coverage on exactly who that should be soon), the Sixers would be in excellent shape. The Eastern Conference may open up for them if Milwaukee struggle to retain their free agents and Kawhi Leonard leaves Toronto.

Ultimately, the Sixers were never going to use all their picks. They weren’t going to bring that many rookies onto next season’s roster, and there was always a good chance that they’d be stashing someone overseas or flipping later selections for future picks.

But they never should have left this draft with all their hopes of potential impact resting on Matisse Thybulle alone. They never should have treated the 34th and 42nd picks as if they weren’t chances to find value for next season and beyond, as this core’s window is opening and an affordable supporting cast is essential.

Ownership yet again failed to realize the value of second-round picks, while Elton Brand was also unable to convince them otherwise, embrace the value of the picks they had, or help avoid an overpay to draft Thybulle in the first place. The 2019 draft was another instance of this team failing to build around the margins at a time when they needed affordable talent more than ever.

Now, the focus returns to free agency, where the pressure really lies to determine how strong the Sixers’ championship chances are for the upcoming season.