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The Sixers’ draft was FINE (if they run it back)

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NBA: NBA Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

We are now two days removed from the NBA Draft and the Sixers’ performance has been quite the polarizing topic of discussion. My initial takeaway from the draft was steeped in disappointment. I felt the Sixers put themselves in a disadvantageous position as their intentions seemed to be very clear to at least one other rival team, which forced the Sixers to give up an early 2nd round pick to move up four spots. Not only that, I felt they were so locked in on Matisse Thybulle that they were too blind to see that staying put would net them an enticing prospect whether it was Thybulle or not. And then, the 2nd round, oh boy the 2nd round. The Sixers had already lost pick #33, but they still had #34, #42 and #54. By the conclusion of the draft, they went on to add just one more player.

But in the time I’ve had to think about the draft, I’ve come around on it. There are legitimate reasons to be disappointed in how Elton Brand and the Sixers operated. Our Dave Early and Tom West made very strong arguments calling their strategy into question. Even I have some things I would have liked to see them do differently. However, there’s been a level of outrage that seems to exceed the reality of what happened on Thursday night. Much of the anger is rooted in the Sixers’ reluctantness in the 2nd round to... well, pick players.

With the Sixers’ 2nd round picks, I suppose the general criteria for any player ought to be either that they have tantalizing upside or they have the skills and experience to contribute immediately. But also of importance is that as talent evaluators, the Sixers should have conviction in a player when they select that player, some skill set they believe they can cultivate. (That’s not to say the player has to be a lock, but it would be negligent to take a player if the team didn’t have a ballpark estimate of the chance of success and how to get there.) Or, they should reinvest the asset.

So what did the Sixers do?

To review:

The Sixers entered the 2019 NBA Draft with five picks: #24, #33, #34, #42 & #54. Here’s what transpired with those picks:

  • Pick #24 & #33 = Matisse Thybulle. Their guy.
  • Pick #34 = #57, Atlanta’s 2020 2nd round pick, the best of ATL/CHA/BKN 2023 2nd. Talk about optionality.
  • Pick #42 = Jonathon Simmons out, cash considerations in. Bad.
  • Pick #54 = Marial Shayok
  • They traded sold pick #57 (Jordan Bone) to the Pistons for a 2024 2nd that has protections on literally every position it could possibly land and cash.

The Sixers came away from the draft with two players, two real future 2nd round picks, a fake future 2nd round pick, and cash. Five picks = two players, two picks.

Look, selling picks carries a musky stench. Quite frankly, it is a pathetic level of “more!” given the net worth of NBA owners and the franchise value of the Sixers specifically (though I suppose that to be successful in finance like Josh Harris has been, no amount of money is trivial). And the Sixers sold pick #42. That is lame, shame on them, fans are right to be disappointed and upset with that decision (although it does mean no more Jonathon Simmons).

They also sold pick #57, which was not a pick they had entered the draft with. Since 2000, here is the list of useful players that have been chosen at 55+: Patty Mills, E’Twaun Moore, Isaiah Thomas, Ramon Sessions, Jeremy Evans, Amir Johnson, Marcin Gortat, Luis Scola. So in the last 20 NBA Drafts, that range has yielded eight “noteworthy” (Evans is so very close to not mattering but I’ll give him to ya) players or .4 per draft. Sure, you can’t win the game if you don’t play along. But give it a break, the chances of pick #57 returning value is so, so minimal. If in 10 years, the next Manu came from this draft, tar and feather me. (Don’t actually do that.)

#54, Marial Shayok. Whatever.

The idea of Bruno Fernando as a backup center to Embiid over the long haul probably excited some folks. But the Sixers very obviously did not feel the same way, so they picked up two 2nds. It could be awhile before we know whether that was the correct decision. Many wanted to see Carsen Edwards in a Sixers uniform, myself included. He was not available to them, #33 was the cost of getting Matisse Thybulle.

Which leads us to #24. The Sixers got their target. They had a #1 on their board and they got him. His name is Matisse Thybulle, he posted absurd defensive numbers and shot 35.8% from three on 538 attempts at the NCAA level, and the Sixers’ commitment to him suggests they see him as an important part of what they are building. So if you believe Thybulle is the right prospect for Philly, then I have a question: what would have been worse than giving up pick #33 to move up for Thybulle? If the Sixers didn’t get Thybulle!

The draft was fine. It was fine.

2nd round picks have seen a growth in value and rightly so. Good players on cheap contracts, working the margins for talent, these are often descriptions of the most successful front offices.

The Sixers’ current front office has been viewed as a continuation of the Colangelo regime and short sighted. I don’t think that’s fair. Sure, the Tobias Harris trade was a win-now move. But the feeling is they plan on offering him a max or near max. The Sixers drafted Mikal Bridges, considered by many the most “win-now” option for the Sixers, and swapped him for Zhaire Smith, considered by many one of the more “project-y” options for the Sixers. They traded a package involving Dario Saric, Robert Covington and a ‘22 2nd round pick for Jimmy Butler. By all indications, the Sixers plan to offer Butler the max. Butler and Harris are win-now moves, but they’ve been executed with long term intentions.

The Sixers have not displayed a disregard for the future. The see in Joel Embiid a chance to win now. They see the NBA is wide open now. They’re looking to maximize a rare collection of talent. But they’ve got the players and enough assets to have staying power. They have projects. Their names are Ben Simmons and Zhaire Smith. They’ve got some late-draft upside to varying degrees in Thybulle, Bolden, Smith, Milton and Shayok. And they picked up more 2nds!

The run it back scenario limits roster space. Embiid, Simmons, Smith, Thybulle, Bolden. 5. Redick, Butler, Harris. 8. BAE, MLE/split the MLE. 10/11. Bird rights on Scott. 11/12. Three or four roster spots left. Do they give Shake a Jonah Bolden-esque deal? If so, 12/13. It comes down to a simple value proposition for the Sixers: should we fill those two or three spots with rookies we drafted in the 2nd round of a draft we feel is weak, or would we prefer to bring veteran minimum contracts on board?

An interesting dynamic in the background of the draft is that the Sixers maneuvering possibly suggests that they have a good feeling about themselves heading into a free agency period that will be nothing short of defining for Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment.

So I’d say here is where things stand: if the Sixers are able to run it back, not only does their draft and 2nd round plan make sense, it was beneficial for their future. If Butler or Harris or both walk, the Sixers could live to regret their decision to not fully invest in the 2nd round of the 2019 NBA Draft… A pattern of total disregard for 2nd round picks would be concerning. I’m not sure that’s what we saw on Thursday night.