Believe it or not, it has only been less than 11 months since the Philadelphia 76ers made Elton Brand their new general manager. There were babies born into a world where Elton Brand, Sixers General Manager, was a statement of fact who still haven’t celebrated their first birthday (most of these babies are Virgos, so I’ll pay strict attention to detail in this piece in their honor).
Still, Brand has been at the helm for each of the major time periods on an NBA general manager’s calendar: the trade deadline, the draft, and the opening of free agency. With some time to digest everything and knowledge of how things have played out thus far, we can begin to evaluate the job Brand is doing, starting with his two major trades from the 2018-19 season. With all due apologies to Markelle Fultz, James Ennis, Jonathon Simmons, Malachi Richardson, and Emir Preldzic, I’m referring to the deals that brought Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to Philadelphia.
Note: I’m evaluating the two deals independently, meaning if the Sixers didn’t make the Butler trade, they still would have made the Harris trade, and vice versa.
November 12, 2018: Sixers trade Jerryd Bayless, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and a 2022 second-round draft pick to the Timberwolves (as of now, Minnesota will receive the more favorable between Philadelphia and Denver’s picks, while Miami will receive the less favorable pick) for Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton.
Bayless couldn’t find the floor in Philadelphia and is still a free agent, Patton was waived and remains unsigned, and that 2022 pick should be a late second-rounder, so we’ll consider those parts of the deal negligible. Covington’s 2018-19 season was derailed by injury, but he is still considered one of the top defensive wings in the league on a bargain contract. Saric was unable to find his footing with the Timberwolves and was dealt to Phoenix in order for Minnesota to move up from No. 11 to No. 6 in the draft. Butler had some rocky moments in Philadelphia, but eventually emerged as the team’s primary ball handler and, oftentimes, best player in the postseason. This offseason, a sign-and-trade evolved into a four-team deal sending Butler to Miami (and Mathias Lessort to the Clippers), with Josh Richardson joining the Sixers.
Ultimately, the Sixers traded Covington and Saric for three-quarters of a Jimmy Butler season and Josh Richardson. Given the salaries that needed to be dished out elsewhere, I think general consensus holds that it was unlikely Dario would remain in Philly long-term. His market price of moving up five spots in the lottery would peg his current value at around a lottery-protected or top-20-protected first-round pick. Let’s assume the Sixers would have traded Saric away this offseason as a necessary step to opening up cap space to sign Al Horford (Sorry, Dario. I still love you. Use sunscreen in Arizona.). You’re looking at sliding doors scenarios of having Robert Covington with three years left on his deal and a future protected first-round pick, or two seasons of Josh Richardson and a little over $1 million in cap space each year (the difference between the Covington and Richardson salaries).
I think you can make a fair argument for either reality I’ve laid out there. Covington is likely a slightly better defender, has one more year of team control, and first-round picks are always useful, whereas Richardson is the more dynamic offensive player. However, add in the fact that Jimmy Butler was nearly the difference for a Sixers team that, had things slid slightly differently for a star center’s digestive tract or a Kawhi Leonard corner fadeaway, could have legitimately won the title last year, and you have to think Elton Brand would consistently do this deal over again.
February 6, 2019: Sixers trade Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, a 2020 first-round draft pick (the Sixers’ pick, top-14 protected through 2022, then would become two 2nd round picks in 2023 and 2024; used by LA to acquire the 27th pick from Brooklyn in the 2019 draft), a 2021 first-round draft pick (Miami’s pick; used by LA as part of the package for Paul George, and now part of a complicated scenario involving Oklahoma City, Miami, and Houston’s picks following the Thunder’s Westbrook-Paul trade with Houston), a 2021 2nd round draft pick (Detroit’s pick), and a 2023 2nd round draft pick (Detroit’s pick) to the Clippers for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, and Mike Scott.
This trade has more to unpack than the first deal, so for the sake of brevity, let’s set aside Chandler, Muscala, the two second-round picks (although there’s a chance those picks are pretty good), and Boban (lovable human being, unplayable against elite teams in the postseason). We’re left with Shamet and the two first-round picks for Harris and Scott.
Shamet thrived in Los Angeles, eventually being named to the All-Rookie Second Team, and has three more years on a very cheap rookie deal. Philadelphia’s pick will likely be late in the first round (as the market value exhibited by the Brooklyn trade would attest), while Jimmy Butler’s presence in Miami should keep the Heat out of Tanksville and prevent that pick from being too juicy (another great aspect of the deal sending Butler to the Heat). Those picks are obviously terrific to have, but the Sixers probably won’t be rueing the day they let them slip through their fingers.
On the other end, Harris and Scott both had to be re-signed, but it’s safe to say they wouldn’t be in Philadelphia going forward unless Brand had traded for them first. The ability to offer a fifth year at a near-max was pivotal to signing Harris, and the team culture and Mike Scott Hive likely sold Scott on returning to Philadelphia on a deal slightly less than his probable market value.
Having Shamet as a ready JJ Redick replacement would have been incredibly valuable, so I think this deal hinges on how you perceive Tobias Harris going forward. If you think he’ll continue to improve with more ball-handling responsibility in the wake of Butler’s departure and live up to some approximation of his enormous contract, then the Sixers probably made out fine. If Tobi’s game plateaus and he winds up being wildly overpaid as a third or fourth option, this could look like a bad deal by Brand. Like with the Butler trade, though, you have to factor in how Harris and Scott were vital parts of a team that could have realistically won the championship last season. With all of that in mind, I don’t view this deal with the Clippers as quite the overpay others may.
The supposition for NBA front offices is that it’s difficult to “win” a trade as a contender, because the opposing party can afford to be more forward-thinking. Given that context, Elton Brand in some sense breaking even on the ledger with his first two major trades has to be viewed in a positive light. He may have less than a year under his belt in the role, but Brand has done well to navigate the waters of life in the NBA as the general manager of a contender.