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Jordan, The Admiral, and other NBA greats: Revisiting the Sixers’ 2019 Draft

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Philadelphia 76ers Introduce Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Kyle O’Quinn, and Raul Neto Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Readers, please remain calm, all is well, I am not following up my two Celtics-themed pieces with an article about Chicago and San Antonio.

Of course I’m referring not to mediocrities like Michael Jordan and David Robinson in the headline, but rather to the true dominators who the Sixers devastated their future by passing on. Surely there can be no doubt that I’m talking about Jordan Bone and Admiral Schofield. Along with other future Hall of Famers Carsen Edwards and Bruno Fernando. On draft night and the day after, the Philly media went into a full-blown panic over the hideous waste of assets perpetrated by the Philly front office. National observers were no different, as Elton Brand was mocked as an incompetent from coast to coast for his failure to land these superb talents.

Then the Sixers pulled off a series of impressive transactions that made it obvious why these draft night moves were necessary, and so all the writers who had slagged Brand and his colleagues wrote apology pieces admitting their criticism had been misguided and that, indeed, they had no idea what they were talking about when they wrote them.

Kidding! Of course no such apologies were forthcoming. The media dealt with being shown their foollishness by either doubling down on their criticism or simply ignoring the subject of the wayward second-round picks. Thus it falls to me to review what actually happened.

If this seems like irrelevant old news to you, that is strong evidence that you are a sane, normal person. Not me! I’ve been stewing over this for months, and then just today I got caught up on old episodes of some podcasts by Sixers writers and I got so irritated I am putting finger to keyboard to elaborate.

The rules of the game

As Elton Brand knows but apparently many others often forget, there are a number of independent restrictions on what players a team can sign. Among these are:

  1. The team has to obey the salary-cap restrictions
  2. The team can only have 15 rostered players, and only two additional players on two-way deals
  3. It’s extremely costly for a non-luxury-tax team to go into the tax, as it starts the clock that counts repeat-taxpayer years, hastening the day when the team is forced to let good players go or face financial disaster of a type few if any owners will tolerate
  4. The team needs to stay below the “apron” or face extreme financial inflexibility of a type that is very costly for roster-building
  5. The team must stay below the “hard cap”

On draft night Brand told the media that every dollar mattered, and that this was one of the reasons for trades involving second-round picks. Many interpreters understood this to be a reference to 4), staying below the apron in a run-it-back scenario. And, who knows, that may indeed have been a motivating force in the team’s thinking. But the most likely scenario is that Brand was referring to staying below the tax line for one more year before the Ben Simmons extension puts the team into the tax for the foreseeable future. Turns out the team knows about stuff, like Al Horford coming, that fans and writers had no clue about. Fancy that!

Just as important, it turns out, is the roster limit of 15 players. As a reminder, those players are:

5 Starters: Joel, Ben, Al, Josh, & Tobi

5 solid Veteran backups: Scott, Ennis, KOQ, Neto, & Burke

2 Young studs: Matisse & Zhaire

3 Young Fliers: Furkan, Shake, & Jonah

Now, let’s pause to remind ourselves that Elton Brand sold all four of the second-rounders we entered draft night with, a true atrocity. Except of course that he sold exactly zero of them, rather than four. To state the obvious, he:

  • Traded 33 to move up to take Matisse Thybulle
  • Traded 34 to get two future high seconds, and a low second that was quickly turned into cash, so essentially this trade was one high second for two high seconds, cash, plus a lottery ticket in the form of the tiny chance that someone we desperately wanted would be on the board at 57
  • Traded 42 to dump the Jonathan Simmons contract
  • Used 54 to draft Marial Shayok

Elsewhere I have gone into some detail as to why these deals made sense — it was important to shed the J-Sim contract for cap reasons, Thybulle offered a fit-quality combination that no other player on the board after the very top guys could match, Shayok was willing to take a two-way, etc. Here I’m making a different point: suppose we could have all these players, without a cap problem and while still drafting Matisse. Whom do you want to cut?

Obviously we’re not getting rid of the starters, or of Thybulle or Smith. That leaves eight guys, the five veteran backups and the three young upside guys. All by itself, this framing sort of makes the point: what the draft-night critics wanted was for us to keep four second-rounders — Edwards, Fernando, Schofield, and Bone — even though doing so would, as it turns out, have meant cutting three _other_ young upside guys, as well as a quality veteran. And as a side benefit, creating salary cap problems. The whole idea is absurd.

In truth if we’d kept Fernando, we wouldn’t have received the pick that got us Bone, so it actually wouldn’t have been possible to get both of them. So let’s drop Bone from the discussion; I mostly just needed him to get the little headline joke I craved. The basic point is that if we’d stood pat and drafted, as the critics so very much wished we’d have done, we’d have gained three additional second-round players -- Edwards, Fernando, and Schofield -- and this would have meant cutting, or not signing, three existing players. I’m hear to argue that, knowing what we know now, doing that would have been barking mad.

The Obvious Child

Let’s lay out the most obvious scenario, and then we can consider some alternatives. The obvious choices that since the three draft picks are young upside guys, we make room for them by getting rid of the three young upside guys listed above, all of whom were here last year. Of course those decisions have other implications.

Scenario 1: keep Edwards, Fernando, Schofield

Cut: Bolden

Don’t sign: Shake, Furkan

In this article I assume all players can be, and would have to be, signed for the deals they actually did agree to.

Implications:

  • lose 2 future high second round picks we received in the Fernando deal
  • lose $1.5M in cap space, this year and also next, by paying Fernando while also paying Bolden because Sixers cut him in this scenario (Carsen and Shake make about the same and are both paid out of cap space so don’t factor in here)
  • lose $1.3M of cap space by paying Admiral Schofield (Furkan, by comparison, is a vet min so doesn’t count against the cap)
  • lose $1M in cap space by cutting, rather than trading, Jonathan Simmons, either a full $1M this year or $333K per year for three years plus losing the stretch option on anyone else for three years
  • Take a chance, let’s say a 50% chance, of Thybulle not being on the board at 24 and ending up with Ty Jerome or similar (Grant Williams and Brandon Clarke were both taken before 24; Jerome, who some drafniks mocked to Philly, was the player actually taken at 24)
  • lose $3M of cash, which counts as nothing for most fans since we don’t get the money but if you think half of it goes in the owner’s pocket and half goes to improve the practice facility, coaching staff, amenities for players, etc. -- maybe it’s not meaningless after all

Look again at that list. Would any competent GM give up all that for some upgrades on the deep bench? Not in a million years! I mean, the lost $3.8M in cap space alone is devastating; that means giving up a real, non-vet-minimum player like Mike Scott. And then taking a real chance of losing Matisse, the best talent-fit combination out there, by a mile. Of course we wouldn’t have had to take Ty Jerome specifically, but go ahead and do the mock draft yourself. Let’s assume in this hypothetical that the Sixers had not made a draft promise to Thybulle, so Boston didn’t take him to trade to us. In that case he’d have worked out for a dozen teams. Just how certain are you that none of them would have liked him enough to select him? I don’t have a great guess but I think 50-50 is reasonable given his talents. Now ask yourself: who was on the board at 24 that you’d have taken if the coin toss had gone against us? Jerome? Bol Bol? Carsen Edwards? Again, Brandon Clarke and Grant Williams went before 24. In the fullness of time it will turn out that someone who was available ends up a really good player; no fair waiting and cherry-picking! Go into comments now and say who you liked on draft night.

So, OK, we’ve lost maybe Mike Scott, and Maybe Thybulle, that’s a lot. And then note that the whole reason the pundits were so angry at Elton’s supposedly-poor asset management was that high second-rounders are valuable and, they argue, the team seems not to understand that. But it’s Elton Brand who walked away from draft night with two second-rounders both of which (Atlanta and Charlotte-or-better) are likely to be top-5. And it’s the critics who want to incinerate those picks, throw them away like so many spent pieces of used jet trash. So now who’s the asset-management guru and who are the jackass talking heads?

Fine, the price was high, but, the critics presumably would argue, the payoff was huge. We got:

  • Carsen Edwards instead of Shake Milton
  • Bruno Fernando instead of Jonah Bolden
  • Admiral Schofield instead of Furkan Korkmaz

These are nice contract matches; Carsen and Shake have very similar 4-year guaranteed deals, Fernando has three guaranteed years while the Sixers have an option on Jonah’s third remaining year so it’s a little more team-friendly; Schofield has three years guaranteed while the Sixers have a second-year option on Furkan; again, I’d argue the real Sixer deal is a little better for the team than the hypothetical. The position matches aren’t perfect but they are reasonably close. In some ways I’d rather match Carsen up with Furkan as both will likely bring most of their NBA value via shooting, while Shake is a very different player type.

So, are those indeed gigantic upgrades? Are they, um, upgrades at all? I’m not so sure! I’d argue that none of the three are clear upgrades, that in fact what the pundits wanted was for the Sixers to sacrifice Mike Scott, risk a huge downgrade in talent-fit combo on our first-round pick, and give up TWO FUTURE HIGH SECONDS in return for... absolutely nothing. I don’t think the Edwards-Fernando-Schofield combo is better at all than Jonah-Shake-Furkan. I mean, they might turn out better! And they might be less good. What we’re really seeing is this: team beat writers want shiny new toys to play with. They already wrote about Shake and Furkan, they don’t have anything left to say. It’s in their interest for the team to swap them out for Carsen and The Admiral, even if they aren’t any better as prospects and even though the cost is, as detailed above, staggering. Or at least, that’s part of the explanation. Perhaps the bigger part is just that they didn’t stop for two seconds to think about it. They didn’t consider the fact that the team operates under a set of constraints, and those constraints meant that keeping the existing young talent and also adding five more rookies (Matisse and Shayok plus Edwards-Fernando-Schofield) was not going to be possible. By the way, did I mention that the team has nine more second-round picks in the next few years? And yet they were pilloried during draft week for being unconcerned about keeping the young-talent pipeline full. Yeesh.

Compare and Contrast

Now, I made a claim above that the young guys we’d have lost are just as promising as the ones we could have taken in the second round, and I’m sure there’s some skepticism out there about that. After all, we know that:

  • Shake Milton was terrific in the G-League but was just OK in the NBA regular season; while some folks thought he should be switched to a full contract so he could be on the playoff roster, the team disagreed and didn’t do so
  • Furkan Korkmaz had some great moments in the NBA regular season but overall played at just the mediocre-backup level (RPM around -1.5)
  • Jonah Bolden was unable to be used effectively in the NBA playoffs

These are all legitimate negatives of these players. But you know who else hasn’t done squat in the NBA? Carsen Edwards, Admiral Schofield, and Bruno Fernando! Now of course they have yet to have the opportunity, they just got drafted. But the experienced young players Philly kept over them are similar in age to the draftees, and have actually shown rather a lot, all things considered. Particularly instructive is a comparison between the much-maligned Furkan Korkmaz and future Hall of Famer Carsen Edwards. I don’t deny that the following logic is tempting:

  1. We’ve seen Furkan play; he only shot 32% from three, and he’s too skinny and weak to defend effectively. So he’s not good and likely never will be.
  2. Carsen Edwards has yet to play an NBA game, so we just don’t know how good he can be. His shot is pretty clearly for real, and while his small stature will probably prevent him from ever being a good defender, his strength and wingspan may make him an OK one, and if he can defend OK and shoot as we think he might, he’d be a valuable role player as an SG off the bench, and maybe more!
  3. So Carsen is a very valuable commodity while Furkan is roster filler.

Here’s the crazy thing: both 1) and 2) are true! But you can’t conclude 3) from them, because while the statements are true, they leave a lot out. One crucial fact is that both players were 21 on the day of the draft (Carsen is a few months younger). When Furkan was drafted this was a big selling point — a solid contributor in Europe despite being only 19! — but then when he missed most of his rookie year with an injury, people pretty much forgot about it. Now it seems as though he’s been around forever, stinking up the joint. But on that night when he dropped 40 on the Celtics in Summer League, he was younger than Edwards was during this summer’s league. And then Furk went out and, during his age 21 season, very much did not embarrass himself. There was a chunk of the season when he was the team’s go-to bench scorer, and many a tooth was gnashed here at LB over the front office’s supposed incompetence in not picking up his option. But now we have him back, on a great contract that consumes no cap space and that contains an additional team option. Team options are valuable!

Let’s try rewriting the syllogism above:

  1. Furkan Korkmaz has an incredibly sweet stroke that we would expect would deliver 37% three-point shooting. Instead he was at 32%, but if he’d had just six more shots rattle in, it would have indeed been 37. Perhaps he was just a little unlucky shooting, luck happens! And if we give him that extra handful of shots — or let’s say we give him three as the result of luck, and say he’ll make an additional three more next year because he’s 22 not 21 — then suddenly, with no other improvements in his game, he’s a -0.5 player — an above-average backup, instead of -1.5. In other words, there’s a super-plausible path to Furkan being a solid bench player in 2019-20. And if that happens, well then he’s a 6’7” wing with a beautiful shot who’s already a solid backup at only 22, on a minimum contract — quite a valuable commodity!
  2. Carsen Edwards is a tiny rookie who can’t play the point. Consequently there’s almost no chance he is playable in important situations this year or next. The best one can hope is that he’s a good player 3+ years from now, and even then his ceiling is capped, as an undersized SG with limited defensive ability, rotation player is the high-end outcome, shooting specialist the more likely one. Meanwhile it’s quite possible he’s so bad at defense that he’s useless, and yet the C’s will be forced to use cap space on him for four years.
  3. So Furkan is a much more valuable asset than Carsen. Imagine if Furkan had stayed in Europe two more years, which could easily have happened. Imagine he’d played there at a level that translates to -1.5 in the NBA. On draft night he’d have been 21 just like Carsen, imagine he’d been taken in the top 25 which, recall, is where he was taken in the actual NBA draft! And then imagine he agreed to a minimum contract, while Carsen took four years worth of cap space. Would there be any doubt in anyone’s mind that you’d rather have the guy who was drafted higher, who’s half a foot taller, who’s shooting is just as remarkable and who’s defense is just as suspect

Is this version of events any more accurate than the first one? Probably not! Clearly Furkan has no trade value, while Carsen had enough to move us up four spots in the draft. My point, though, is that it’s not obvious which of these player/contract combos a team should prefer. Certainly it would be nuts for a GM to risk losing the first-round talent he believes in in order to get the possible upgrade from one to the other, in either direction.

The Old Young Scrubs

Look, I don’t really know a ton about Bruno Fernando and Admiral Schofield. If you want to make the case that Fernando’s next three years are obviously going to be a lot better than Bolden’s, despite the fact that Bolden has played semi-competently in the NBA already and Fernando hasn’t, show me what you’ve got. As it stands, I’d rather have the guy who’s shown some NBA skills and with the 2+1 team-option contract than the one who’s yet to do anything and has three guaranteed years. Similarly I’d just as soon have Shake, who can clearly defend and hit NBA threes and who may or may not be able to play a little PG, over whatever turns out to be in the Admiral’s mystery box. Your mileage may vary. What I hope is flat-out off the table is the idea that the new young scrubs are so much more valuable than the old young scrubs that it would have been worth giving up two seconds, Mike Scott, and perhaps Thybulle too. Surely we can agree on that, right? Surely people only wanted us to keep the second-rounders because they didn’t think through the cost.

Alternatives

Out of Bolden-Shake-Furkan, the one the team most obviously was going to have on the roster this year is Jonah Bolden. After all, he is signed, cutting him means losing his cap space, with no hope of recovering it by packaging him in a trade for a superior player. As mentioned, cutting him for a cap-using player like the three second-rounders basically means we don’t have the cap space to keep Mike Scott; we’d have to settle for a cheaper, less-cool veteran. So let’s assume the team doesn’t cut Bolden; in that case they do have other options. But not many! Since we’re not going to cut Thybulle, Smith, or the starters, if we drop ShakeFurk and need one more, that just leaves the veteran backup corps:

O’Quinn
Scott
Ennis
Burke
Neto

Given the obsession with load management in the post-Raptor-title NBA, and given Joel’s vulnerability and Horford’s age, I doubt anyone wants to get rid of Kyle O’Quinn and make Jonah our sole backup center. And while we all hope that MT and Z take over the backup wing positions posthaste, for now I doubt many of us would want to deprive Brett Brown of his solid veteran backups Scott and Ennis in order to make room for Furkan or Shake in addition to the Carsen-and-friends group.

So that leaves Burke and Neto. I imagine there may be partisans of one or the other of these players who feel we don’t need both. Since the team signed Neto early and Burke late, let’s guess they prioritize the former. So we could have kept the EFS gang while keeping Jonah by not signing Burke. Question: would you rather have Trey Burke or Carsen Edwards?

For this year, it goes without saying that we’d rather have Burke, right? Burke had a +0 RPM last year, he was halfway between average starter and average backup in quality. He’s 26 so should be entering the center of his prime, a significant increase in play quality from last year is a real possibility. He has plenty of incentive to succeed; if he has a good year with us he has a shot at a big contract, given the paucity of strong free agents next offseason.

And while he’s not great, right now he’s the player C’s fans are praying Carsen Edwards might someday turn into. Burke can play PG effectively, most observers think Carsen can’t and probably never will, though hope springs eternal. Both are excellent distance shooters, both drive the lane well but we know Burke can do that at an NBA level while with Carsen we’re waiting to see. Both are defensively limited. It’s entirely possible that by age 26 Carsen Edwards becomes better than Trey Burke is now, but it would be a big surprise if Edwards were anywhere near as effective as Burke this year.

Just because Edwards isn’t as good right now doesn’t mean we wouldn’t rather have him. Burke is signed for just a single year, and if he’s good we won’t be able to keep him. Edwards has a four-year deal followed by Bird rights. I’d say Edwards is the more valuable asset. But, it’s a discussion! So now ask yourself -- is the value of Edwards’ future so great that you’d be willing to a) have a worse team this year by not having Burke and also b) risk losing Matisse Thybulle, and also c) spent a million and a half of cap space that Edwards costs and Burke doesn’t, just to get that future? Obviously not, right? The future is now!

Man of Steel

As you all know, when you present a weak version of the argument for a position you disagree with, that’s referred to as a “straw man” argument. When you try your best to present those you disagree with in the best possible light, that’s a “steel man.” I am a big fan of steel-manning; if we want to get to the truth, we need to see the other side’s view as clearly as possible.

To steel man for the critics, to make the best argument that the team screwed up on draft night, we should start by trying to identify the single biggest error. While it is absolutely true that critics acted as though the Sixers should have used all their draft picks, and true that critics savaged each of the deals the team made individually, including the obviously-stellar trade of Bruno Fernando for three picks, nevertheless showing that using all the picks would have been idiotic is almost too easy. Let’s work a little harder by seeing if there was one thing the Sixers did that was truly objectionable. The low-hanging fruit here is the sale of pick 57. After all, all the team got was money, which doesn’t directly benefit the fans. If we’d held on to Jordan Bone, we could have signed him to a two-way deal instead of Pelle, and since he’s a lot younger than Pelle, there’s a greater chance we find a diamond in the rough. If he plays well, we could (probably) sign him to a longer deal in a year, a la Shake Milton. The team seems to think that having Pelle as an emergency big is worth more than the small chance Bone becomes really valuable; maybe they’re right, maybe not. But even I can’t get myself to want to write a whole lot about this issue. Jordan Bone was the 57th pick. Lots of other guys people wanted at pick 57 ended up going undrafted, and the Sixers could have signed one of them as an undrafted free agent, and the chance of that player succeeding would be almost exactly as high as Bone’s. People like to point to Fred VanVleet as evidence of the value of second-rounders, but it’s the opposite — FVV went undrafted; what he shows is that a late second has very little value, as you’re approximately as likely to get value by using the roster spot on an UDFA like Fred.

So if the Bone sale isn’t a crisis, what is? I think criticism of the Sixers’ handling of Thybulle is deeply misguided, an embarrassing failure on the part of critics to think things through. Basically your choices are Thybulle and Shake, or a 50-50 shot at Thybulle or Ty Jerome, plus Edwards. Obviously if you love Edwards enough, or don’t like Matisse, you could prefer the latter. But to argue it was bad asset management by the Sixers to prefer the former is nonsensical. Shake is a similar asset to Edwards, a young SG with hope as a PG, with basically the same contract. To sacrifice first-round position in order to have one rather than the other would obviously be unwise; the choice the Sixers made was clearly correct from an asset-management perspective. Of course you can keep Shake and Edwards both, but the books gotta balance, then you need to give up someone else, and who would that be? It has to be Mike Scott, Burk and Furk and Ennis and the other minor signings were all done on minimum deals. No one believed Elton Brand when he said every dollar mattered, but now we know he wasn’t lying.

As to the Fernando deal, what can I say? Anyone criticizing it is, in my opinion, either a fool, a hypocrite, or Bruno Fernando’s mother. I mean, we got two very valuable second-rounders for one, in what world is that not great asset management? In what world is that not tending the orchard? And when you add in that, as with Edwards, keeping Bruno would have meant not only losing out on two valuable picks but also cutting a probably-better-than-Bruno player and creating cap problems, this deal was an absolute no-brainer.

So that leaves pick 42, the one we traded to dump Jonathan Simmons’ contract. I don’t deny that was an annoying deal. And presumably we could have found Simmons’ million dollars somewhere, say by front-loading Al Horford’s deal a bit less. But we’d still have to cut someone to make room for the Admiral’s Quarters. And we know the problems that causes; if we cut Shake then the numbers work, but what would make us think Schofield is more valuable than Shake? If it’s Furkan, well, same question, but also, now we’re over the cap by Schofield’s salary. There are real prices to pay for this stuff.

Honestly, here’s the steeliest man I can come up with: trading 42 to dump Simmons sucks, but adding Schofield really doesn’t make sense. Could we, perhaps, have traded 42 for a future second, and then eaten the million on Simmons by pushing some of Al’s money into future years, or by stretching Simmons?

And, let’s face it, that’s pretty weak sauce! It postulates the existence of a team that really wanted pick 42 and that had a pick to trade that was neither so valuable they’d never do it (e.g. a Charlotte second-rounder) nor so low in value it wouldn’t interest the Sixers (say, a Milwaukee second). And if that trade opportunity had existed — if we could have gotten a San Antonio second for pick 42 — there’s still the question of whether it’s worth having a million bucks less of cap flexibility in the future just so we’d be in possession of a tenth second-round pick in the years to come. I say maybe! And that’s the harshest criticism I can justify — it’s possible, though far from certain, that there was a trade out there for pick 42 that, if we’d done it, might have been a good idea and might not have. I.e. no criticism at all!

Look, I’m not trying to deny us our fun. If everyone just assumes all the GM’s know what they’re doing and don’t criticize their moves, then I won’t have any good sports stuff to read, and then I’ll have to read about the political situation instead, and then heaven help us! So, sure, go ahead and take your shots, critics. All I ask is: first, before going off, take a moment to think about why you might be wrong, about what you may not have thought of, or about what Elton might know that you don’t. Rather than assume you’re writing about an idiot, try to figure out what would have to be true for his actions to be rational, and then discuss the possibility that that’s what is happening. And second, how about a little accountability? I mean, if you predict the Clippers will win the West and instead it’s Houston, then, fine, I don’t need a lot of breast-beating over that. But if you write articles and do podcasts basically saying someone did a terrible job because they don’t understand the NBA well enough, and then it turns out they fully understood the NBA and it was you who was misguided, then I think a reckoning is in order. How about it, NBA pundits? Can I hear a mea culpa?