Why would you go out and trade a player that you've spent the last 18-plus months developing, and trade him for an unknown quantity?
Why are you, once again, trading an established player for a pick years down the line that may or may not work out?
Why are you, once again, taking a step back and seemingly restarting the rebuilding process?
In the eyes of Sam Hinkie and Brett Brown, the answer seems clear: to put themselves in a position to get great players. Reading between the lines it seems clear that they may not have seen that in Michael Carter-Williams.
"Saying 'Here's the future, here's the cornerstone of the program,' I don't know if we ever did do that," Sixers head coach Brett Brown said about Michael Carter-Williams' status as a cornerstone of the franchise. "I hear why people might think it was insinuated, and I think we all hoped that that's what would happen."
"We are really focused on how do we find greatness," Sam Hinkie said when discussing the trade deadline activity. "The sort of greatness from a team level, and then greatness at an individual player level, and we're looking for that every day."
While Hinkie, who is incredibly desirous not to come out and say anything negative about one of his former players, wouldn't come out and say it directly, it appears the franchise didn't have confidence that Michael Carter-Williams would reach that level.
Could shooting be one of the primary reasons? The team is looking for guys who can dominate on both ends of the court, and Michael Carter-Williams' continued struggles to shoot the ball and score efficiently bring into question whether he can ever do so. Shooting is one of those areas of the game that they've frequently talked about being a coachable skill, a fact that is evident in the progress and continued development of Jerami Grant. But it's also something that is incredibly important in the modern NBA game.
Looking at Sam Hinkie's former club, the Houston Rockets, who lead the league in three pointers with nearly 300 more than the team that has attempted the second most, indicates that the long ball is likely to play a bigger part in Hinkie's priorities once he gets his offensive focal points in place.
"Over time I do think shooting is something that we'll [address]," Hinkie said. "All of the best teams are strong both offensively and defensively, and these days all of the best teams are really strong from behind the [three point] line as well."
Michael Carter-Williams' progress in that area over the years has simply not been significant. He shot 29.4% from three point range during his sophomore season at Syracuse, the only season where he got significant playing time in college. He followed that up by shooting 26.4% from three during his rookie season and 25.6% so far this year. He is shooting only 27% on all field goal attempts beyond 5 feet on the season.
Sure, Carter-Williams' shoulder injury this past offseason limited the amount of work he could put into his jump shot, and could have been a legitimate factor in his stunted development in that regard, and I don't think Sam Hinkie was going to give up on Michael Carter-Williams. If he didn't get a great asset in return, I think he would have kept Michael Carter-Williams and hoped that he could improve upon his potentially fatal flaw: his jump shot.
But if Sam Hinkie was to turn down a pick that could, best case scenario, end up being in the top 5 next year, and has a reasonable chance of being top 10 within the next 15 months, then he would need more than hope in Michael Carter-Williams' jump shot: he would need confidence. And I'm not sure Michael Carter-Williams has shown enough progress or ability in his jump shot to warrant the level of confidence required to turn down the Los Angeles Lakers' pick.
"It is almost impossibly hard to get your hands on a pick that at least has the chance to be a high lottery pick," Sam Hinkie said about the trade. "It's very rare that they move. And because of that, that made us consider it, and in the end made us decide that it was the right thing to do to move the program forward."
That doesn't mean that drafting Carter-Williams #11 in the 2013 draft was a mistake. If you're aiming for greatness at 11 -- and with how barren the Sixers were, they should have been aiming for greatness -- you're not going to find a prospect that doesn't have significant risk. Michael Carter-Williams, if his jump shot improved, had the chance to be great. He impacted the game in a lot of other ways, and had a lot of physical attributes that become incredibly valuable. There was a risk, a very real risk, that he wouldn't improve his jump shot in a material way, and that could be a fatal flaw in him as an offensive player.
But the reward was worth the risk, because the reward was so high, and the risk was so low.
Make no mistake about it, chasing that superstar, or possibly superstars, is what this stage of the Sixers rebuild is about. This trade can be boiled down in a relatively simple way: the Sixers likely feel that the Lakers future draft pick has a better chance of putting them in a position to get a superstar than holding on to Michael Carter-Williams would have, whether that be a result of drafting and developing a player with that draft pick or using that pick in a trade.
"We're focused on 'How do you put the building blocks in place that have a chance to compete in May?' Those teams win in the high-50's," Hinkie said. "They get there usually on the backs of great players. As much as I've talked about how we make decisions, as much as I've talked about our organizational goals, and our player development, it is a players driven league. Still.
"When we have a set of players that can carry us deep [we will focus on winning] . That's the only way. That's the only way to get to where we're going," Hinkie continued.
"I think our fans do the same thing that we do here," Hinkie said. "They look at our set of players and they think about 'How good is he? How much better will he get? How about the next guy? How good could he be? Then they turn on their television and they look at college basketball and they think about that guy, and how good will he be?'
"I don't think there's any other way to look at it other than that," Hinkie concluded.
The Sixers will have 4 likely top-10 picks in over a 3 year period: their 2014 pick (Joel Embiid), their own 2015 pick, their own 2016 pick, and the Lakers pick, which should convey in either the upcoming 2015 draft or in 2016.
Draft picks are not a guarantee. That is something that is true, and frequently brought up by detractors of Sam Hinkie's plan. That doesn't necessarily change the likelihood of rising from where the Sixers were after the Bynum trade to contenders without hitting in a big way through the draft, though. It also doesn't increase the likelihood of becoming a contender by rebuilding through free agency or other means. You can thank the NBA and their rules for that.
Any rebuilding method that the Sixers would undertake to go from where they were after the Bynum trade to contenders would be an uncertain path. There is no guaranteed method. But that uncertainty doesn't keep Sam Hinkie up at night.
"How do you think about uncertainty? Do you think about uncertainty as it's scary, and it's something to be afraid of, or do you try to look at it and say 'where are there opportunities that can make our team better?'," Hinkie said.
It's that uncertainty in the draft, even at the top, that drives much of Sam Hinkie's process at this stage of the rebuild. If draft picks are risky, the best way to mitigate that risk is not by pursuing a path to obtain superstars (free agency) that has proven to be ineffective at this stage of the Sixers rebuild. The path to mitigate that is to double down on the draft and get as many high selections as you can, as counterproductive as that may sound.
"We will not bat 1,000 on every single draft pick. We have them by the bushelful, in part, because of that. Because we don't have any hubris that we will get them all right," Hinkie explained.
There might be uncertainty, although that uncertainty would exist regardless of the path the Sixers take at this stage of the rebuild. It is certainly far from a guarantee that Michael Carter-Williams will develop enough to become a true difference maker in this league, one that is capable of dominating a game at both ends of the floor.
Some have viewed this trade as the Sixers placing even more of an emphasis and reliance on Joel Embiid, and placing far too much of the long term hope on a fragile big man who hasn't proven anything at the NBA level. That giving up a proven NBA player is irresponsible.
I view it differently. By trading another player without the capability of becoming dominant for an asset that has the chance to be able to acquire a dominant player, the Sixers lessen their dependence on Embiid, or on any individual draft pick. They don't need Embiid to hit, and they don't need every pick to hit big. They need one of these to hit big.
But if the Sixers have already hit on a player in Joel Embiid who I believe, if healthy, is going to be a real factor in this league, then they have 3 very valuable draft picks coming up in the next 15 months to potentially add a second star to the equation. And if they are able to hit on one of those they will be in an incredible position to build something that truly matters.
The Sixers rebuild, more than anything, will be defined by what they do with Joel Embiid and these upcoming draft picks. This is, ultimately, still a players league. More specifically, this is a superstars league.