With the Philadelphia 76ers heading for yet another trip to the lottery in this June’s NBA Draft, it appears the fanbase is still bought into The Process. After seeing Joel Embiid and Dario Saric put out superb rookie seasons and knowing that Ben Simmons is on the way, it is understandable to have some excitement. Then, I remember all the mistakes made in the past 4 years, the faulty logic that goes into the process, and how unclear it is whether all their pieces will fit together.
The NBA Draft is one of the hardest drafts to gauge in professional sports. Most years, once you get outside the top 7 picks, the draft becomes a crapshoot. While it’s very easy to look back on a draft and say what a team should have done, the truth is that it was far from a given that the steal of that draft was going to become the star he turned out to be. However, this leeway should not be given to a team that completely disregards the other resources they have at their disposal and solely focus on the draft. Former general manager Sam Hinkie and the 76ers organization, and soon thereafter their fans, fell into this belief that a team in their market will not be able to attract free agents like other teams do and there is no point in being in the middle of the pack, so they needed to tank and build through the draft. The first problem here is this incorrect notion that Philadelphia is a market that is equivalent to that of Milwaukee or Minnesota. This is a city with a lot of history in basketball, with an attraction similar to that of the Boston Celtics. They erased this possible attraction with their methods of team building in the past few years. While it is true that you don’t want to be stuck as a 6-8 seed for a sustained period of time due to low lottery picks and first round exits, it could also help young players develop by having them play more high pressure, meaningful games; furthermore, a free agent could see a team like this showing signs of life and decide to join the club to help get them even further. A plan of building a superteam exclusively by tanking sounds good in theory but is just too difficult to implement in reality. Player development does not always run as smooth as people hope and injuries can derail this fragile plan immediately, which is why a team should not completely ignore their other resources. It made sense for Phila to trade for assets in 2013 and start rebuilding that year, but if they surrounded some of their young talented players with a good supporting cast instead of 2nd rounders and undrafted castoffs, there could have been more development and promise for players like Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor.
Speaking of Noel and Okafor, there have been several picks that a team centered on drafting should not have whiffed on. While the 76ers were not the only team to pass up on the following players, the times they consistently missed on players that were not only best available, they would have fit a need:
Nerlens Noel over Kentavius Caldwell-Pope and C.J. McCollum; Michael Carter-Williams over Steven Adams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Dennis Schroder; Dario Saric over Zach Lavine (although Saric shows promise and could potentially be more valuable than Lavine, there is still chance of logjam at the 4 and 5 with him, Embiid, and Simmons. Lavine would fix their guard problem); Jahlil Okafor over Kristaps Porzingis (Myles Turner was also the 11th pick in that draft, but taking him 3rd overall at the time would have been unreasonable).
Just for fun, let’s look at 2nd round picks that look painful now:
K.J. McDaniels over Nikola Jokic; Jerami Grant over Jordan Clarkson; Richaun Holmes over Josh Richardson.
Looking at this, we might need to rethink the idea of taking the “best player available”, as that is what was done over these 4+ years by Philly. The organization let the best player available and positional need continue to pass them by. 1st rounders like Noel and MCW become losing trades, and Okafor was basically untradeable at the deadline; moreover, they have completely ignored their guard and wing positions. Phila created a logjam in the frontcourt with players in other positions already showing their value and potential.
It is not bad to obtain assets, but it is bad to obtain assets with a flimsy plan centered on an easy way to deflect blame by simply pointing towards a future that continues to get pushed back further and further away. Amazingly, it seems that a solid portion of 76er fans are misguided to the point where they could see moderate success in 15 years and shout “Look! The Process works!” Sam Hinkie’s plan was suspect to begin with, and he made it even worse with draft mishaps. There are positives that this team can build on, such as Embiid, Simmons, Saric, and coach Brett Brown. They are still far away from observing the payoff of this extreme tanking in the wins column, and they need to become more consistent with their draft day decisions this drastic plan to come to fruition. Philly is not the only team to miss out on surprise players/picks, but they’re only team tanking to this extreme of stocking “assets” like 2nd round picks and late 1st rounders. If you put all your eggs in one basket, that basket better work out.