The Sixers gear up to face the Brooklyn Nets this weekend, and you’re likely going to be pummeled with reminders from reporters that the 76ers once drafted former Villanova and current Nets star Mikal Bridges.
You’ll likely see clips of Bridges in a Sixers cap on draft day 2018, thrilled at the prospect of playing for his hometown team. The Overbrook, Philly native’s own mother, Tyneeha Rivers (no relation) was working for the 76ers and the two appear overjoyed when his name was called 10th overall, just months after he won his second natty with the Main Line Wildcats.
ESPN’s broadcast transitioned from Mikal in the fly blue lid to the studio crew learning about the blockbuster in real time with bug eyes:
Pure movie screenplay comes to life until that fateful swap now five years ago.
It sounds as if Bridges was just as stunned as the rest of us when he was ultimately dealt to the Phoenix Suns, just six picks later.
Mikal Bridges on being drafted and traded by 76ers:— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) April 12, 2023
“That was the biggest thing all of my senior year was Philly has the 10th pick, they’ll be dumb if they don’t get Mikal... It was just set up for me to go home.”
"I walk out of there and they told me the news and I was… pic.twitter.com/qtQMDqY91I
They didn’t have to do him like that, did they?
Let’s revisit a painful memory because, well... because we’re sickos. This is your Sixers fan ancestry, and you should know your agonizing history.
2012, a Lakers failed super team
Yes, this story begins that long ago.
Back in 2012 the Los Angeles Lakers traded for an aging Steve Nash. L.A. shipped out a top-five protected 2015 first-round pick to Phoenix. They put Kobe Bryant with Dwight Howard and Nash, but it just never clicked.
2013 Sam Hinkie arrives in Philadelphia
The Sixers hired Sam Hinkie. When Sam came to Philly, his first ever move was to draft Michael Carter-Williams 11th overall.
2014 Rookie of the Year and Joel Embiid!
A year later, MCW wins Rookie of the year, right around the time Team President Hinkie selected one Joel Embiid third overall.
2015: a fateful blockbuster trade and endless tank debates
A few years after the Lakers bet on Nash, Hinkie would look to acquire that pick the Suns possessed in exchange for Carter-Williams, ultimately shorting both the perennially “star-hunting” Lakers and his own hand-selected point guard in one fell, scandalous swoop.
The Lakers always seem to replenish their star coffers in free agency, should anyone want to bet against them of all teams?
But Hinkie’s longview started to pay off. The Lakers won 126 games over a five-year span, the worst mark in the league, between the 2014 and 2018 seasons; one less win than the Processing Sixers.
Title or not, the Sixers’ Process was worth it https://t.co/aO1JVOC3pv— Liberty Ballers (@Liberty_Ballers) April 14, 2023
Still, the move sparked endless conversations about the 76ers’ shameless tanking strategy.
Much of that old toxic discourse makes this year’s MVP debates appear jovial and fluffy by contrast.
Yaron Weitzman, now with Fox Sports, authored “Tanking to the Top.” And that book takes us to former team CEO Scott O’Neil’s alarmingly influential role at the time.
Per Weitzman’s book, O’Neil had recently designed a marketing campaign featuring MCW days before he was traded. Weitzman writes:
“O’Neil was embarrassed. Furious too. Whatever semblance of a relationship that had once existed between him and [Sam] Hinkie was now broken. O’Neil began voicing his displeasure- to [Sixers Managing Partner Josh] Harris, but also to the NBA.”
As WFAN’s Spike Eskin once put it on “The Ricky” pod back in 2019:
“....the minute that Sam decided to trade [Carter-Williams] after the season-ticket packages had come out and [O’Neil] told the owners it would cause “armageddon in Philadelphia” ... was the minute that Sam Hinkie wrote his ticket to not being in charge of the Sixers anymore.”
O’Neil, it’s been reported, was close enough to reach out to his former colleague from his league office days, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver; the two reportedly began to lobby Harris to make a key change at the top.
O’Neil would actually allude to his MCW “mistake” a bit here years later:
.@YaronWeitzman on @SixersBeat pod mentioned time Sixers CEO + FO member(?) Scott O'Neil joked bout how wrong he was re: Michael Carter Williams's future on @PaulRabil pod in '18.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) September 18, 2020
It me or does PHI tend to promote you if you're so wrong + the dudes who were so right move on? pic.twitter.com/Sb289IYdJR
O’Neil’s maneuverings began to work.
As David Aldridge put it for The Athletic, just hours after we learned Josh Harris led a group who purchased the Washington Commanders for a cool $6B:
“The league was embarrassed at the dreadful product Philly was putting on the floor. All of those entities let Harris hear about it. The league was especially pointed, and relentless, in multiple conversations with Harris. And Harris came to see, and agree, with that position. It was not who he wanted himself or his team to be.
He took the league’s advice, and Hinkie was forced out.
“There were some contentious moments during that time, with Josh,” said the executive who’s known Harris for a long time.
But Hinkie’s vision was, ultimately, vindicated.”
If things indeed got contentious, Harris should have stuck to his guns.
Weitzman noted in his book how “Harris had always been susceptible to persuasion as an NBA owner.” Aldridge’s reporting here seems to support that idea. As Derek Bodner, Founder of the DailySix once put it “I think there are, in some ways, I think Josh [Harris] might be a little too trusting....”
Harris’ gut was right the first time about Hinkie. If he absolutely had to move on from Sam, he should have immediately obtained a new president (was Boston’s Mike Zarren available for the right price?) with a stellar resume, granting full and final say.
It was the subsequent Colangelo-turned-Collaborative leadership years from 2016-2020 that truly drove things off the rails before Daryl Morey came on board.
Anyway, Hinkie would start to get squeezed out in favor of a Jerry and later Bryan Colangelo-led group beginning on Dec. 7, 2015, becoming official by April 2016.
By the 2015 draft, the Sixers had a 17.2 percent shot at that Lakers pick falling outside of the top-five protections.
But the Lakers had lost just enough games that season to retain it. They’d take D’Angelo Russell 2nd overall.
An absolute historic fleecing, a trade that turned MCW into Mikal Bridges, may have helped get the exec who also hand-picked Embiid, shown the door.
2016: Lakers pick watch
With Hinkie out, fans kept watching those Lakers to see where the pick would eventually land.
By lottery day 2016, L.A. had just a 55.8 percent shot at retaining their own pick. But L.A. won their coin-flip and landed at No. 2, where they’d take Brandon Ingram.
2017: Oh man, not this draft
Timehop, the Markelle Fultz draft. This time, the odds had flipped, and the Sixers were likely to finally land the Lakers’ pick, now protected for selection Nos. 1-3.
L.A. had a 46.9 percent shot at keeping it, and the Sixers had a 53.1 percent chance at landing two picks in the top six.
But the lottery odds or gods once again “favored” L.A., who’d retain their second overall pick and tap Lonzo Ball.
2018: The Bridges year
Finally we’re up to the season that this pick goes to the Sixers regardless of where it lands, right?
Not so fast. Colangelo gambled really big in 2017. And his legacy dodged a bullet many of us forget skimmed all of our caps.
In the Fultz trade, Colangelo traded the Sixers via Kings 2017 third overall pick (Jayson Tatum was selected) to Boston.
In addition, he gave Boston the Sixers’ 2018 pick from L.A. if and only if it landed at picks No. 2, 3, 4, or 5.
If it fell first, sixth or later, Philly would keep it and send the better of their own pick or Sacramento’s 2019 pick.
Yes, Luka Dončić went third that 2018 draft.
Was there was an alternative universe where Colangelo’s legacy could have read “Hinkie left Colangelo lottery picks from the Kings and Lakers but Colangelo traded them both to Boston who used them to pick Tatum and Luka?”
You bet your ass that was a possibility. Luckily, the 2018 pick didn’t jump and landed at 10 where Philly kept it.
So, the interim group began scouting!
Still 2018 but now Burnergate
Colangelo got caught in a wild Twitter burner scandal just weeks before the NBA Draft and free agency. Josh Harris and co. eventually allowed B.C. to resign.
Maybe there were clues about who Colangelo would have selected, as one of the burner accounts “liked” several tweets praising Mikal Bridges and Miles Bridges, including ones discussing their fit with the Sixers.
Next then head coach Brett Brown, a coach with no front office experience, was tapped Interim GM and would oversee a front office collaborative with the NBA draft just a couple of weeks away.
Sixers coach Brett Brown will oversee basketball operations on an interim basis.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 7, 2018
Brown would oversee a team comprised of former Colangelo lieutenants like Ned Cohen, Marc Eversley, Alex Rucker and others. We’d hear a former minority stake owner named David Heller had some say in that draft as well.
The reason they allowed Mikal the celebration then awkward reveal was apparently because they didn’t actually know they were going to trade him — it depended on if Smith fell to Phoenix.
Spring through fall 2018: ‘Star hunting’
Why on earth did the Sixers do this? Who can we blame?
When Philadelphia made this trade, they had good reason to believe that 2021 would be the first year that high school seniors would be allowed to enter the the NBA Draft.
The league had recently sent out a memo suggesting as much.
You can hear ESPN’s Zach Lowe in the clip at the top talk about how valuable that pick was regarded. The late great basketball writer Jonathan Tjarks, who even believed Bridges would one day have a star impact, wrote that the Heat pick “may be one of the best trade assets in the league right now.”
Brown would admit Bridges was their “1A” and Smith was their “1B” so the asset value was too much to pass up once Smith fell to Phoenix.
They were stah-hunting.
“We all understand that (2021),” Brown explained, “could be the year that high school people are allowed into the NBA and that is far out. And it also could be the thing … that could be the thing that flips it with us having more assets to enhance a realistic trade for a star.”
This part is easy to forget but the 76ers literally had the flexibility to swing a blockbuster trade for one of Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler, while also signing one of LeBron James or Paul George as a free agent.
So the move, as painful as it is now, made sense at the time to some smart analysts and fans. If the Spurs had only preferred draft-assets to veteran star DeMar DeRozan, who’s to say?
A since-deleted take by The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor trumpeted more support:
Kyle Neubeck described our-mixed vibes at the time for PhillyVoice.
And for the record I approved too, though I whined about them not taking Robert Williams over Landry Shamet.
B+ on the Zhaire bit and an F on the rest of it. Taking Rob Williams also is how u ⭐️ hunt too https://t.co/XDzvamSSiv— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) June 22, 2018
Now astute readers will note that Zhaire Smith broke his foot, then almost died because of a sesame allergy, which coupled with knee ailments, completely derailed his career so far.
So yeah, there’s that.
And then this, from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski:
“Phoenix traded the rights to Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick to Philadelphia in June, and the moving of that valued pick played some part in pushing back the proposed rule change to 2022, league sources said. Those teams made decisions without the benefit of knowing the timetable on a change in the age limit.”
So Woj basically reported that the Sixers targeting this Heat pick played a part in the league basically deciding to make the pick um...less valuable.
Jeez, hate the Process much?
So if you want to skewer the Sixers for this Bridges blunder, OK, feel free. I’d say the process made sense, the results were a worst-case scenario. Honestly, it’s difficult to imagine the Colangelo-Collaborative years having gone any worse than they did, isn’t it?
But I mean, maybe two of Kawhi, LeBron, Jimmy and PG to pair with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid? And they were right to believe they could get at least one of that group.
As it played out, they had more than enough ammo to land Butler and a second blockbuster.
The subsequent front office, the Elton Brand “led” Collaborative splurged on Tobias Harris, who was playing for Doc Rivers’ Clippers.
Eventually Tre Mann was selected by L.A. with the once-heralded pick.
2023: The Suns were the ones star hunting in the end
When Mikal was in Phoenix he was regarded as mostly a 3-and-D stud. He was awesome, worthy of a max, and helped the team make the 2021 NBA Finals. He was so awesome in fact, he’d blossom into the centerpiece of a Kevin Durant blockbuster trade last winter.
So plot twist, it was the Suns who were going big game hunting by trading up for the nearly 22 year-old Bridges, even more so than the Sixers.
Now unleashed in a new role with the Nets, the local product is demonstrating he can create for himself as well, exponentially amping up his value. In the end, the Sixers had Bridges but let him go hoping for a star. And now Mikal is everything they were hoping for and more.
Philly will now have to contend with him in this first-round series, and likely for years to come in this growing division rivalry.