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Embiid’s injury led Sixers to hedge this year, while still landing best player at trade deadline

The Sixers sacrificed the chance to improve more this year in order to increase their title odds in the years to follow. But hey, maybe they still got the best player to change teams on Thursday’s NBA Trade Deadline.

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

In my opinion, the Sixers basically hedged at the trade deadline, opting not to shell out any first-round picks, maintaining their big ammo for a possible 2024 summer splash. And hey, they still may have even landed the best name who was moved last Thursday in Buddy Hield... (with all due respect to Bojan Bogdanovic and P.J. Washington).

Originally I penned this column before Daryl Morey spoke to the media, but sounds like he’d agree with the Buddy Hield point:

Not a worst-case scenario, even though I’m still confused about this bizarre and disappointing Jaden Springer trade. (Let us all pray he doesn’t turn out to be the best name moved on Thursday).

Morey, in that last clip above, describes how trades like this (adding second-rounders) made it possible for them to acquire Hield.

Morey also adds, “I have to keep my focus on the playoff team now.”

But did he?

Meh. Nah. C’mon.

Springer would have potentially helped more now than a second that can’t be used until the summer now anyway. But I guess we’ll see what the buyout market delivers, besides perhaps Kyle Lowry.

The same front office that not long ago simply waived Isaiah Joe might have a different view of Springer than the dreaded rival, Boston Celtics’ front office:

All eyes were on Daryl Morey, Elton Brand and the Philadelphia 76ers’ front office over the previous few weeks as the 2024 NBA Trade Deadline approached.

With Joel Embiid playing at an absolutely historic level, and potentially on his way to another MVP Cam Payne (ba-doom, cha!) plus a third consecutive scoring title, the big question was what moves would this team make to help Embiid and newly-minted All-Star Tyrese Maxey win a title.

Embiid recently drew comparisons from ESPN’s Senior Writer Zach Lowe to an amalgam of Dirk Nowitzki, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal!

Joel so recently looked simply unstoppable while averaging a sensational 35.3 points per game, 5.7 assists, 1.8 blocks, 1.3 steals and 11.3 rebounds per game. That was all before his injuries mounted, culminating in a season-altering game in Golden State where he flapped tore his (already ailing) knee and would soon opt for a meniscus procedure. We were told he’ll be reevaluated in about a month, and don’t have much sense about when he’ll return.

Not parting with first-rounders this deadline suggests to me at least a dash if not a dollop or even heap of pessimism and conservatism on the front office’s part, that Embiid truly can regain peak shape and MVP level form, the Sixers would require of him to make a serious Finals run; regardless of what hope they’re offering us today.

And that, I suspect, did impact this team’s approach to the NBA Trade deadline, much more than any failed pursuit of backup bigs.

The Sixers held on dearly to all of their first-round draft picks, and they wound up shipping out Jaden Springer, Furkan Korkmaz, Marcus Morris Sr., Patrick Beverley and Danuel House Jr. for Buddy Hield and Cam Payne.

They shipped out four second-round picks, and got back two, ponying up a bit of “second-day” draft capital for the new players, plus the ability to duck the luxury tax, while adding a couple of extra roster spots that should prove key on the buyout market.

Here is an updated overview of the current cap situation.

“Credit” to Sixers ownership for saving more cash — they’ve only paid luxury taxes now twice in Embiid’s eight legit playing seasons.

While I do suspect the 76ers feel pretty confident they’ll be able to sign Philly native Kyle Lowry (reuniting the Hornets’ point guard with coach Nick Nurse from their championship days in Toronto) and perhaps a backup big on the buyout market, one gets the pretty clear sense that they were not at all a team who was solely “focused on the playoff team now,” as Morey puts it.

And that should probably tell us all something about their true thoughts concerning Embiid’s eventual return.

Here’s a hypothetical for you....

What if the NBA Trade Deadline happened to be on (oh let’s say) Jan. 26, 2024, instead of Feb. 8? How differently do you think things might have gone?

Back on Jan. 17, the day after the Sixers knocked off Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets at the crib, their title odds were hovering around +1000 on DraftKings. Those implied title odds translate to roughly 9.1 percent. They were in third place in the East behind only the Celtics and Bucks (all with a Doc Rivers-led Milwaukee swoon still in the cards). And they had the sixth-best record in the league.

The team had three first-rounders to part with this deadline, and they will now have as many as five to trade by summer. But what do we think Morey’s Sixers would have done if the deadline had been Jan. 26?

Here’s a potential clue.

Do you remember the time back in 2019 when Morey, while still GM of the Houston Rockets shed some insight into his thinking regarding when to use or hold onto picks?

Morey, in an interview with Zach Lowe, offered:

“....I don’t understand the teams that hang onto their picks when they’re close like this....You should when you’re close and for us [Houston] that’s above 5 percent chance to win the title, which we’re comfortably over right now....to the extent the league limits it, [with The Stepien Rule] I think it makes sense to go to the max when you have a chance, ‘cause honestly, generally when teams drop out of contention, the average time they get back to contention is 8 years....”

So when the Sixers were hovering somewhere around 9 percent title odds at the time (and of course, his own algorithms may have spit out a different percent, but you get the gist), there was a reason so many of us were wondering which players he might target.

Their odds today on DraftKings have now plummeted to +1800, roughly a five percent shot when you adjust for juice.

The point that I’m driving at here is that if the Sixers had had this same trade deadline before Embiid was sidelined, it would have been borderline criminal to have not done even more to bolster this rotation for the playoffs.

If Embiid was perfectly healthy and never underwent this procedure, could you really have looked him in the eyes and revealed ‘yo dude, you look like peak Dirk, Hakeem and Shaq so we got you Buddy and Cam dumped a couple role players and seconds, and held all the best picks for summer because we’re totally focused on this playoff team now?’

Nah. I wouldn’t have volunteered for that dead-on-arrival-kill-the-messenger gig.

The Knicks did get Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks without parting with a first.

Might Morey offering up one of his 2026 firsts have tipped the scales? What players not traded might have been available for a first? Had they parted with one first-rounder, they still would have had four first-rounders to work with come summer.

I don’t have enough intel to tell you who specifically they may have had their eyes on, but I do think they would have traded at least one first if Joel never got this significant of an injury. It wouldn’t have made sense not to. It might have been simply unethical not to, the way he so recently looked.

So in conclusion....

The Sixers Brass can talk about how they want to help now. But the truth is they weighted that present-future balance dramatically towards the future. And that’s okay! It was the right thing to do! I wish they’d just own that, I guess.

They’re definitely not tanking this year (I suppose they still could depending on how things go injury-wise), but this deadline was a hedge.

Now, they’ll be extremely well positioned for bigger splashes down the road. They didn’t deplete their assets for such a question mark in 2023-2024, and I think that was ultimately the right thing to do because I’m not super optimistic that Joel will return to the form we witnessed in mid January.

That said, it’s pretty cool to go into a final deadline day, knowing (my words, not the Sixers’) you’re going to punt the season, and still land the best name who was dealt on Thursday. Don’t at me Knicks fans. Go Buddy.

Guess I’ll now look forward to the 2024-2025 Sixers’ title Cam Payne.

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