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NBA’s best teams draft well outside of the lottery — and the Sixers have joined the fun

The Sixers’ 2020 draft class is looking pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Philadelphia 76ers v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

It appears the Sixers finally got the memo: If you draft well outside the lottery, you can fill out your roster with cheap talent. If you’re really lucky, you may even get more than just a rotation player.

Perhaps that’s a bit unfair; Daryl Morey’s MO has been to swap players and picks for better ones since he first became GM of the Houston Rockets in 2007. While he never won a championship in Houston, he did get tantalizingly close a couple times.

If you consider some of the NBA’s biggest success stories of the last several years — Milwaukee’s 2021 title, Golden State’s runs in 2015, 2017 and 2018, or (TRIGGER WARNING) Toronto’s in 2019 — you’ll notice that all three teams hit home runs late in the draft.

Let’s start with Milwaukee. We all know about Giannis. This pick was so good that you can forgive them for taking Jabari Parker over Joel Embiid second in 2014. (And we Sixers fans will certainly forgive them for that mistake.)

But Giannis couldn’t do it on his own. As a downhill scoring, playmaking big who rebounds the ball and takes it coast-to-coast, who protects the rim, and guards smaller guys on the perimeter (damn, he carries a heavy burden for that team), Giannis needed a guy to shoulder some of this load. In today’s NBA, legit title contenders need a shot-making perimeter guard or wing who can shoot threes at a high percentage and make difficult shots — someone who could create something out of nothing, to balance out a modern half-court NBA offense. The Bucks found their Robin, Khris Middleton, whom they acquired as a supplemental piece in the Brandon Jennings trade after a pedestrian rookie campaign with the Pistons. Middleton was drafted in the second round, 39th overall, by Detroit the prior year.

Maybe the Bucks’ former GM John Hammond knew Middleton would eventually become an All-Star wing; maybe he got lucky. The Bucks won the title in July, while Detroit held the first pick in the 2021 NBA Draft a week later, so we’ll just have to credit Hammond with a stroke of team-building genius. With a 23.6/ 7.1/ 5.6 line during Milwaukee’s Finals run, Middleton was the Bucks’ second-best offensive player last year.

If we go back to 2019 (sorry, I have to do this to make my point), we see that the Toronto Raptors had several contributing players who were drafted outside the lottery. Pascal Siakam, selected 27th in the 2016 draft, was one of their best players, averaging 19 points and seven rebounds during the playoffs that year. He was an All-Star in the 2019-2020 season, and still had a solid, if unspectacular, 2020 campaign, which was likely affected by a bout of COVID-19 at the start of the year.

A year after drafting Siakam, Raptors’ president Masai Ujiri selected OG Anunoby with the 23rd pick. While Anunoby was mostly a 3-and-D guy back then, he is now one of the better two-way players in the game, averaging more than 20 points a game and playing lockdown defense.

But the Raptors’ biggest coup is the smallest player I’ll mention today, Fred VanVleet, who was undrafted coming out of Wichita State in 2016. Even our Sixers missed out on him, while they were being run by our favorite big collar-wearer, and maestro-level drafter, Brian Colangelo. VanVleet worked his way into the starting lineup by 2019 and was instrumental for the eventual 2019 NBA champions. He can play either guard position, is an excellent playmaker, solid three-point shooter, and tenacious defender.

I have to stop here and direct my ire toward Mr. Colangelo for a moment. In 2016, the Sixers had three first-round picks (thanks, Sam!): first, 24th, and 26th. After taking Ben Simmons first overall (which was the right call), Colangelo proceeded to draft Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot 24th and Furkan Korkmaz 26th, skipping over both Siakam and VanVleet. While Korkmaz has turned himself into a good rotation player, Siakam has been better up to this point. Luwawu-Cabarrot, now 26, is a fringe rotation player who would be at the end of the bench on this team. VanVleet has been better than both wings drafted by Colangelo, and absolutely would have been a difference-maker for this team in the 2019 and 2021 playoff runs. If you hadn’t considered this before, I apologize for ruining your day.

If we’re talking about teams who found gems late in the draft, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Golden State’s Draymond Green. He’s one of the best defensive players of all time and he was a critical part of the best team of the last 10 years, winning three championships, and making two other Finals appearances. He was selected 35th in 2012, certainly one of the best draft picks of all time. He’s a good example of why second-round picks are lottery tickets worth playing — and not selling.

So what does this have to do with the Sixers? Everything.

As we all know by now, drafting is difficult work. Morey knows this better than most. According to Michael Lewis, Daryl asks would-be scouts looking for work, “Who did you miss?” Meaning, which prospects were you completely wrong about, who turned out to be great players? If the scouts don’t have a good answer, well, they won’t be hired by Morey.

With that said, I’m not going to argue that Tyrese Maxey will be better than VanVleet, Isaiah Joe will be Middleton or that BBall Paul (yes, that’s his legal name; no, I don’t know why he’s listed on the Sixers website as Paul Reed) will be the next Draymond, but I will suggest that great teams find good players late in the draft. And so far, the Sixers’ 2020 draft class is looking very nice.

But before we look at the new-ish guys, we must face some unpleasant truths about the state of Sixers’ drafting between 2015 and 2018. Consider this: The Sixers had top 10 picks from 2015-2018, and all they have to show for those four picks is the perceived market value of Ben Simmons. (Yes, the Ben trade will happen. Yes, it will be for a good player. No, it will not be for Dame, Beal or Zach LaVine. Yes, I will be thrilled if my predictions are proven incorrect.) The Ben Simmons situation, no matter how much Morey tries to stop the bleeding, is one of the worst possible outcomes for a No. 1 overall pick.

Make no mistake: The Sixers had four swings at getting a star player to pair with Embiid and seem to have failed. There’s a very real possibility this mismanagement squanders the prime of Jo’s career. While Ben was the right pick at the time, it’s pretty clear the man is not interested in coming back, leaving a massive hole in their starting lineup. It will be difficult for the Sixers to flip him for a comparable talent. Unless they trade him for Jaylen Brown, which would be awesome on every level.

To be clear, drafting Ben was not a mistake; but how they have developed him, and how they have mismanaged this situation is incredibly frustrating. It’s an embarrassing organizational failure that Josh Harris et al. should think about every day. And it’s something I’d love to ask Mr. Harris about — very nicely, of course — in the unlikely event I ever have the chance.

When the Sixers failed with their 2015 pick at No.3 (Jahlil Okafor), 2017 at No. 1 (Fultz), and No. 10 in 2018 (Zhaire Smith + a pick that was used to overpay for Tobias Harris), they could have effectively closed their championship window just as it was opening.

Thankfully, this year, the Sixers look to be improved offensively, and much of it has to do with the drafting and development of young players in 2020: Tyrese Maxey (21st pick; first round), Isaiah Joe (49th pick; second round) and BBall Paul 58th pick; second round).

As you know, young Maxey has taken over the point guard duties that Ben Simmons evacuated. So far, the Sixers’ offense is one of the top in the NBA, small sample size warnings acknowledged. Maxey is averaging a solid 14.4/ 4.7/ 3.6 line as a first-time point guard, but his contributions go further. He has a very nice 3.1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio as of today. He can run the second unit offense well. But most surprisingly, he has been very good defensively. So far, he’s played great defense against Trae Young, Damian Lillard and Lonzo Ball.

But Maxey isn’t the only player who has taken a leap this year. Isaiah Joe (currently out due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols) was also looking like a solid rotation player in his second year, chucking over 11 threes per 100 possessions, according to BasketballReference.com. While his three-point percentage is only 33 percent this year, I’m optimistic he’ll be closer to 40 percent by the end of the season. His improvement on defense was also encouraging.

After selecting Joe in the second round, the Sixers nabbed BBall Paul, a rangy big with great hops, lateral quickness, and a “can’t stop/ won’t stop” motor with one of the last selections in the draft. Though clearly raw, the Sixers felt that Reed had the makings of a modern backup big, able to play the four or five positions, with the ability to both crash the glass and hang on the perimeter against smaller wings.

Furthermore, Paul won the G League MVP last year with an impressive stat line of 22.3/ 11.9/2.3, and averaged two steals and 1.8 blocks a game. He also shot 44 percent from three on 3.6 attempts a game.

Now that the Sixers are a good team, they don’t appear to be drafting in the top 10 again any time soon — and that’s a good thing. But to remain good and not mediocre, they will need to keep hitting on these late draft picks.