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How did the Sixers get here?

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A collection and timeline of misstep after misstep

San Antonio Spurs v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

You ever watch one of those movies that start off with a character getting blown up or punched and the scene stops in place and they say some line like: “You’re probably wondering how I got here”? That was me after watching the Sixers get blown out by Jayson Tatum after game 2. The Sixers went on to play the Celtics in a decisive game 3 and they lost the nail-biter to ultimately put the unofficial dagger in a lackluster season.

The team is stuck. Really stuck. The treasure chest that Sam Hinkie collected in just three years is officially drying up. The Sixers’ ownership group that preached optionality and the long-term view went back on their own words and now find themselves fastened to a team with very little flexibility going forward.

It’s pretty miraculous that just 5 years ago the Sixers were a young and upcoming team filled with assets. Sam Hinkie was leading the Sixers through a tough few rebuilding seasons with incredible trades and great signings and development. The Sixers really had the world in their hand.

Until they didn’t.

So, how did the Philadelphia 76ers go from a young darling team rich with assets to a team that could possibly waste the prime of two transcendent players in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons? Well, we have to go all the way back to the winter of 2015 to see the snowball effect in the Sixers’ downfall.

December 7th, 2015: The Sixers hire Jerry Colangelo as a Chairman of Basketball Operations

The Sixers were at the lowest point in their rebuild around this time. The team was coming off an 18 win season and looked to be even worse than that for the 2015-16 season. The team ranked 28th in the entire league in attendance for games. Pressure was mounting from teams around the league and from the league office lead by Adam Silver.

The national media and NBA felt like the Sixers were making no progress whatsoever. The league was taking a financial hit from the Sixers not being a popular team. It got to the point that Adam Silver prompted the Sixers’ owners to hire someone new to oversee the team; and ultimately control Sam Hinkie.

Jerry Colangelo was hired in to give a “new voice” to the team. At the time most didn’t seem to think that this move would be that damaging, but it would later come back to haunt the Sixers. It symbolized the beginning of the end.

April 6th, 2016: Sam Hinkie steps down as 76ers’ GM

The Jerry Colangelo hiring ultimately made Sam Hinkie lose the majority of the power he had before the move. Hinkie couldn’t do a trade or acquire assets without getting the green light from Colangelo; who was trying to speed up the process and making the team competitive.

Sam Hinkie acquired an incredible amount of draft picks and prospects that developed into good NBA players in his short stint with the team. Here’s a list of all of the Sixers’ assets acquired during Hinkie’s tenure at the time of his resignation:

Draft Picks:

  • 2016 Philadelphia 76ers 1st round pick (Right to swap with Kings)
  • 2016 LA Lakers 1st round pick (Top-3 Protected; Top-3 Protected in 2017; Unprotected in 2018) [Michael Carter-Williams Trade – 2015]
  • 2016 Miami Heat 1st round pick (Top-10 Protected; Unprotected in 2017) [Thaddeus Young Trade – 2014]
  • 2016 Oklahoma City Thunder 1st round pick (Top-15 Protected; Top-15 Protected in 2017) [JaVale McGee Trade – 2015]
  • 2017 Philadelphia 76ers 1st round pick (Right to swap with Kings) [Reacquired in Elfrid Payton Trade – 2014]
  • 2018 Philadelphia 76ers 1st round pick [amended protections allowing the pick to return from Orlando]
  • 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers/Brooklyn Nets 2nd round pick (Whichever is more favorable) [Keith Bogans Trade – 2014]
  • 2018 LA Clippers/New York Knicks 2nd round pick (Whichever is more favorable) [Travis Outlaw/Arnett Moultrie Trade – 2014]
  • 2018/19 Sacramento Kings Pick (Top-10 Protected in 2018; Unprotected in 2019) [Nik Stauskas Trade – 2015]
  • 2018 Philadelphia 76ers 2nd round pick
  • 2019 Philadelphia 76ers 1st round pick
  • 2019 Philadelphia 76ers 2nd round pick
  • 2019 New York Knicks 2nd round pick [Travis Outlaw/Arnett Moultrie Trade – 2014]
  • 2019 Milwaukee Bucks/Sacramento Kings 2nd round pick (Whichever is more favorable) [Casper Ware Trade – 2014]
  • 2020 Philadelphia 76ers 1st round pick
  • 2020 Brooklyn Nets 2nd round pick [Brandon Davies/Andrei Kirilenko Trade – 2014]
  • 2020 New York Knicks 2nd round pick [Guillermo Hernangomez Trade – 2015]
  • 2020 Philadelphia 76ers 2nd round pick
  • 2021 Philadelphia 76ers 1st round pick
  • 2021 Philadelphia 76ers 2nd round pick
  • 2021 New York Knicks 2nd round pick [Guillermo Hernangomez Trade – 2015]

All credit to Basketball Reference for helping track draft picks

Sam Hinkie collected a massive treasure chest in a short amount of time. The team was stacked with draft picks; including their own and from other franchises around the league. Hinkie found the puzzle pieces to make a championship caliber puzzle and the Sixers would go on to lose them with time. Let’s move forward:

April 10th, 2016: The Sixers hire Bryan Colangelo to take over GM duties

It didn’t take the Sixers long to find their replacement for Hinkie and brought in Bryan Colangelo; Jerry’s own son. Bryan Colangelo was famous for being the 2005 Executive of the Year with the Phoenix Suns and drafting — a widely considered bust — in Andrea Bargnani 1st overall with the Toronto Raptors.

It turns out that Bryan Colangelo was not the prophet Sixers’ fans had hoped for; like at all. Colangelo would go on the empty the Sixers’ treasure chest of assets in multiple transactions that largely led to short sighted moves with no long-term benefit. Almost every transaction made by Colangelo was a bad one that helped set back the Sixers team we have today. Let’s start off with the first of many:

June 23rd, 2016: the 2016 NBA Draft

The Sixers — largely thanks to Hinkie — managed to get the number 1 overall draft pick in the 2016 Draft. Colangelo drafted the consensus player; Ben Simmons. Also armed with the 24th and 26th pick he managed to select Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Furkan Korkmaz; two international prospects.

Oh, and I should probably mention that he drafted both of them right before future All-Star Pascal Siakam and All-Defensive player Dejounte Murray.

Luwawu-Cabarrot had a decent rookie year but never amounted to anything during his tenure in Philadelphia. He would later be shipped out in a multi-team trade to the OKC Thunder just a couple seasons later. Furkan Korkmaz would eventually develop into a solid three-point shooter a few seasons later and carved out a role with the Sixers. Korkmaz could go down to become the only “long-term” asset acquired during Colangelo’s GM tenure in Philadelphia.

July 9th-13th, 2016: Colangelo’s first free agency

I’ll keep this short because it doesn’t effect the team that much now, but man was this a huge whiff for the Sixers. There was a ton of excitement heading into the 2016 season as the Sixers drafted Ben Simmons, signed Dario Saric, and had Joel Embiid returning after a long 2 year injury rehab. The team looked to sign a veteran presence and contributing players.

The Sixers signed: Gerald Henderson (2 year deal), Jerryd Bayless (3 year deal), and Sergio Rodriguez (1 year deal).

Keeping things short: they really didn’t help much at all. Henderson was decent but ultimately went down with a hip injury that would eventually mark the end of his career. Bayless was signed for a year too extra and never had any real winning impact on the team. Rodriguez had a cool beard and nickname, but just wasn’t a good NBA player.

November 1st, 2016: Jerami Grant gets traded to the Thunder

Colangelo shipped off Jerami Grant in a deal to acquire a stretch-four in Ersan Ilyasova alongside a fake first round pick (that actually didn’t turn out to be fake in the long haul).

Ilyasova proved to be a good floor spacer next to Joel Embiid and a good mentor for Dario Saric. It would’ve been a great move if Jerami Grant didn’t pan out. Which he did.

Grant developed a consistent three-pointer and proved to be a great multi-positional player alongside Russell Westbrook and the OKC Thunder. Sam Presti got him on a solid contract extension for around $9 million a season; which was a steal. Now on Denver, Jerami Grant is exactly what the Sixers could use right now; a good three point shooter that can cover multiple positions on a team friendly contract.

This move ruined the chance of the Sixers getting a two-way role player for the foreseeable future next to their core stars. Ilyasova would later get traded in the season to the Atlanta Hawks (and would actually return a year later), and gave the team no real long-term value in the trade.

February, 2017: The Sixers attempt to clear the log-jam at Center

The Sixers were rumored to be in advanced talks with the New Orleans Pelicans on a deal involving Jahlil Okafor. So much so, that the Sixers told Okafor to stay at home until the impending deal was finished.

The thing is — the deal never materialized. For one reason or another (a failed physical per a Colangelo burner), the deal fell apart and Jahlil Okafor would remain a Philadelphia 76er. Not only was this awkward for the team and any form of chemistry they built; it tanked any remaining value Okafor had left.

The Sixers would later go on to pull the trigger on a deal involving the Dallas Mavericks and Nerlens Noel just a few weeks later. The Sixers got back pennies on the dollar in this trade by acquiring: Andrew Bogut (who was waived), Justin Anderson (was later traded), and a fake first rounder (which was really fake this time!).

The Sixers essentially turned their top 6 selected rim running modern center into... two second round picks. Not great.

June 19th, 2017: The Sixers land Markelle Fultz and whiff on another draft

The Sixers managed to move up in the 2017 draft lottery thanks to a pick swap that Sam Hinkie got in a robbery with the Sacramento Kings. The Sixers had a top three pick in a loaded draft class.

The team didn’t decide that pick number 3 was good enough as they were in love with Markelle Fultz. Fultz finished up a successful individual season at Washington and had all the skills that would help both Simmons and Embiid thrive. Bryan Colangelo hopped on the phone with Danny Ainge and eventually agreed to a deal to move up from the third pick to the first.

The Sixers gave up their third pick in the 2017 draft along with either the protected Lakers pick or the Sacramento Kings unprotected pick (outside of #1). A pretty hefty price to move up just 2 spots. The Sixers went on to select their point guard of the future where he preformed well in summer league. What could go wrong?

Well, Fultz having an injury/forgetting how to shoot could put a damper in things.

Fultz developed an injury/mental block/something that led to his elite shooting ability disappearing within weeks. Fultz would spend the majority of the season rehabbing as the guy they traded for him — Jayson Tatum — would go on to light the Sixers up in the playoffs and send them packing. Yikes.

Markelle Fultz wasn’t the only Sixers’ whiff in the 2017 Draft, however. Bryan Colangelo felt the need to trade up for Anzejs Pasecniks; an international center. Pasecniks would go on to player ZERO games as a Philadelphia 76er. You read that right; the Sixers gave away a free draft pick to the Orlando Magic to acquire a guy that would never suit up for them.

All in all, the Sixers essentially gave up three quality first round picks on a draft night where they acquired no long-term talent.

December 7th, 2017: Yes, it can get worse.

Bryan Colangelo had been trying to trade Jahlil Okafor since his arrival in Philadelphia and finally did so. The nightmare for Okafor and the Sixers estranged relationship ended with the Sixers giving up an arm and a leg to do so.

Remember how I said that failed Okafor trade tanked any remaining value? Well this doozy of a trade reflects that:

The Sixers trade: Jahlil Okafor, Nik Stauskas, and a second round pick (that turned out to land at #31).

The Nets trade: Trevor Booker

Booker was a solid role player for the Nets averaging around 10 points-per-game and 6 rebounds-per-game at the time. However, his fit with this Philadelphia team really didn’t make sense. Booker was a good slashing power forward and was moved to a team that had the paint clogged by Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. It got so bad to the point where the Sixers waived Booker just a few months later; where he eventually went on to sign with another playoff team.

The Sixers gave up their 3rd overall draft selection in 2015, Nik Stauskas, and a high second round pick for literally nothing. This trade was another example of Colangelo throwing away value and draft picks in a trade.

May 29th, 2018: Burnergate strikes

Now, at this point we all know what Burnergate was and what happened. If you don’t, click here to read about it. Colangelo (or his wife, depending on what you believe) had twitter accounts leak crucial team information and insult team personnel on a public basis. It looked like Colangelo’s reign of terror was finally over... maybe.

In the madness reports came out that the Sixers’ owners and club was trying to see if there were ways to right the situation and ultimately retain Colangelo as their GM.

Colangelo leaked critical team info and slandered players, staff, and personnel around the league. The situation was straight up embarrassing for not just Colangelo, but the entire team. The news put the Sixers in the bad spot light once again. Colangelo eventually resigned with the team in a statement basically throwing his wife underneath the bus, but the damage was already done.

The Sixers’ answer to making a temporary fix was making head coach Brett Brown their interim GM as they searched for Colangelo’s replacement.

This solution would’ve been fine for most off seasons, but the Sixers were trying to lure free agent LeBron James to Philadelphia. The Sixers needed to be on their A-game and the star they were trying to acquire was mocking the situation unfolding in Philadelphia.

The Sixers went on to strike out entirely in free agency as LeBron went to LA, Paul George re-signed in OKC, and Kawhi Leonard was traded to the Toronto Raptors.

September 18th, 2018: The Sixers hire Elton Brand as their new GM

The Sixers finally settled on making their decision in regards to a new GM with Elton Brand; who served a year and a half as the Blue Coats (formerly known as the Sevens) manager.

The decision on who would be the next Sixers’ GM took a long time and likely cost the Sixers big time in free agency. The ownership group wanted to maintain the staff around the general manager which led to the process taking very long. Most GMs want to bring in their own staff around them to work with. This led a lot of outside candidates away from the job and led to the Sixers having an in house hire in Elton Brand.

David Griffin was a name commonly thrown around as he’s proven to be a great GM and has proven capabilities of building a championship caliber roster. The Sixers even had an interview with him and decided that “he wasn’t a good fit”. Griffin ultimately chose a Pelicans team that was dealing with an Anthony Davis trade request over the upcoming and contending Sixers.

Unfortunately, the downward spiral of the Sixers would continue alongside Elton Brand.

November 12th, 2018/February 6th, 2019: The Sixers go all-in on winning

The Timberwolves were also making headlines for not good reasons as their star Jimmy Butler was fed up and wanted out. Tom Thibodeau had to sell low on his top 15 player and traded him for Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless, and a second round pick.

Butler would go on to have a great season with the Sixers; proving to be the piece they’ve needed for a few seasons. He carried the team’s offense at times and was clutch in moments that the team previously struggled with.

The Sixers later swung a blockbuster surprise deal in acquiring Tobias Harris from the LA Clippers. The Sixers traded a promising rookie in Landry Shamet, a 2020 first round pick, a 2021 first round pick (unprotected from Miami), and 2 second round picks for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, and Mike Scott.

The Sixers traded away two of their starting five, — along with a quality reserve in Landry Shamet —, 2 first round picks, and 4 second rounders for their new core of players.

The Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris, Embiid lineup would go on to have a successful year and were arguably 4 ball bounces away from winning a title. The future looked bright in Philadelphia if the team could retain their free agents and run it back.

It turns out that the ‘‘if’’ in that was pretty big. It didn’t go down like that.

July 6th, 2019: Free agency

The first domino in the Sixers running it back fell when JJ Redick signed a two-year deal with the New Orleans Pelicans within the first hour of free agency. it was at this moment that many people could tell big change was coming to the roster.

Jimmy Butler scheduled a meeting with the Miami Heat and chose to play there. The Heat were over the salary cap so the Sixers had to engineer a sign and trade with Pat Riley; which lead to Miami making a giant 4 team deal that helped the Sixers land Josh Richardson.

Richardson has proven over the past few years to be a great 3&D player on a very team friendly deal. Acquiring him in a situation where Jimmy Butler departed was largely a win in most eyes. The Sixers found their replacement for Redick.

Tobias Harris agreed to a 5 year contract worth $180 million, which proved to be the largest contract in Philadelphia 76ers’ history. Harris was coming off of a career year with the Clippers, but struggled in the Toronto series where the Sixers lost in 7. The Sixers paid a huge price to maintain at least one of their two previously acquired stars.

News of Al Horford signing with the team rocked the twittersphere as the 33 year old center (at the time) became the highest paid at his position with a 4 year $109 million dollar contract. The deal wasn’t going to age well, but it really didn’t age well after seeing Horford play in his first year with the Sixers. Father Time has gotten to big Al.

The final dagger in this awful free agency was signing Mike Scott to the Sixers’ lone Mid-level exception. Scott had proven to be a fan favorite and a quality role player in the Sixers’ playoff run, so most were excited. Scott fell out of the rotation for the majority of the 2019-20 season and now takes up the biggest contract outside of the Sixers’ starting five.

In Conclusion

The 2019 free agency was a giant whiff. The Sixers pushed all of their assets in to try and win big with a very competitive group in 2019 that they didn’t even try to maintain. They opted to go another route which now finds them stuck now more than ever. The Sixers’ asset pool has dried up in the Colangelo/Brand era making it nearly impossible for the team to make deals and adjust the roster.

The whole point of this is to show that the Sixers didn’t have one simple misstep that lead them to this point. It’s been a combination of ignorance and short sighted decisions that led them to be where they are now.

There’s nobody else to blame but the Sixers’ front office and ownership. Letting Sam Hinkie walk out the door was a massive mistake that the team could’ve pivoted away from given the right moves. Bryan Colangelo proved to be one of the worst GMs in NBA history and the Sixers held on to his staff after he was gone, which is truly a head scratching decision.

The Sixers now find themselves in a hole with no real way of climbing out of it. Sam Hinkie’s treasure chest could’ve lasted the team for a very long time and brought them to being serious NBA contenders. The Sixers blew through Sam Hinkie’s riches and now find themselves flat out broke. Maybe they can sell a draft pick or two to get some cash.