Sixers Mailbag #9: What Does the Ish Smith Trade Signify?

In our weekly Philadelphia 76ers mailbag, we take a look at the Ish Smith trade, why it was made, and what it means about the changing dynamics of the 76ers front office.

The Philadelphia 76ers acquired point guard Ish Smith from the New Orleans Pelicans for two second round picks | Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers acquired point guard Ish Smith from the New Orleans Pelicans for two second round picks | Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This week we continue our 76ers mailbag series, where we discuss some of the pressing topics around the team.

The 9th edition of our Sixers mailbag, we take a look at what the addition of Ish Smith means for the team, how the Sixers’ pieces might fit next year around Joel Embiid, and whether there’s likely to be more moves before February’s trade deadline.

You can read previous editions of the Sixers mailbag here. If you want to submit a question for a future mailbag either shoot me a message on twitter or send me an email.

Note: any opinions expressed here are my own opinions, and not reports or expectations based off of inside information, unless I explicitly state that a statement is based off of inside information.

Kevin Pelton (@kpelton):

“How much should we read into the Ish Smith trade as far as how decisions are now being made in the 76ers front office?”

Even outside of the report that Mike D’Antoni was a driving force behind the Smith acquisition, I think you have to look at it as a change in how the Sixers operate.

It’s not so much the acquisition of Smith that is different. Sam Hinkie did, after all, acquire him last year, and I’m told that there were discussions — with both I AM Sports and, later in the offseason when Smith changed representatives, with Dutt Sports — for Smith to return.

There was, at least at some level, interest from both sides for a potential reunion. I could see Hinkie looking at the situation in front of him now, recognizing what Smith gave them last year, recognizing the value in putting his big men in a better position to succeed (both for development and, perhaps just as importantly, evaluation) and basically admitting a mistake by not stepping up his offer for Smith during the offseason.

And the Sixers are approaching the point where filling out the roster with second round picks was no longer really tenable. With the potential for up to 4 first round draft picks, plus the possible additions of Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, the Sixers could find themselves in much more of a precarious situation with regard to roster spots and playing time next year than they have at any point of this rebuild to date, so losing two picks isn’t the end of the world.

But if the Sixers were going to treat these 2016 and 2017 second round picks as currency, it’s hard to say they got great value for it. Smith is a guy with only 3+ months of team control, and his playing time, and thus New Orleans’ leverage, was rapidly diminishing.

Time PeriodGamesMinutes Per Game
Oct 27 -> Nov 28th1730.3
Dec 1st -> Dec 12th514.4
Dec 13th -> Trade56.0
(Ish Smith's playing time with New Orleans was declining rapidly before he was traded to the 76ers)

With Jrue Holiday‘s minutes restriction finally lifted, and both Tyreke Evans and Norris Cole returning to the Pelicans’ lineup earlier this month, it also wasn’t a situation that was going to resolve itself anytime soon.

What strikes me as a change in operating procedure is the Sixers making a deal from a position of weakness. Had they waited a couple of weeks, done this deal closer to the deadline, and not traded from such an obvious position of weakness, you have to think the cost to acquire Smith would have been less. Teams pay a premium to acquire a player months before the deadline. The Sixers being willing to pay that premium to fix a temporary, even if legitimate, problem certainly seems to be a change in how they operate.

And, while the Sixers may not have had roster space or playing time to continue to develop second round talent in the way they have up to this point, keeping one (or both) of the picks to use for draft day trades, or on potential draft-and-stash candidates, still had value.

If you’re reading the tea leaves, trading from a position of weakness and overpaying to fill an immediate need is the most likely indication that there is a changing dynamic in the Sixers front office, not so much the targeting of Smith specifically.

(Note: Kevin does tremendous work for ESPN. Go read some of his stuff).

Cody Spence (@SpenceMakeSense):

“Looking ahead to the 4 big men –Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Dario Saric — Assuming Embiid is healthy, who are the best fits in this group?”

In terms of sheer style of play, Dario Saric‘s game, especially with the continued development of his perimeter jump shot, is the best stylistic fit.

And that jump shot has been a huge development in his game. The jump this year might look unsustainable — with a progression over the last 4 years from 29.9%, to 32%, to 32.9%, to 40% this year — but the improvement really started halfway through last year, and Saric has now shot 37.6% on his last 178 three point attempts. When talking to scouts across the league leading up to the 2014, many thought that Saric’s form on his jump shot was further along than his results indicated, and the past year has certainly indicated that to be the case.

Add in Saric’s improvement on the defensive glass, his uncanny ability to push the ball in transition off of a rebound, and his plus court vision, and Saric, at least offensively, is a great theoretical fit next to Joel Embiid. Defensively has always been the biggest concern with Saric, but Embiid would be a good fit to help cover that up.

That being said, the thought of Nerlens Noel playing next to Embiid does have some intrigue on the defensive side of the court. We’ve spent quite a bit of time this year (and justifiably so) talking about how playing power forward has diminished Noel’s defensive impact, and it’s true. But when you slide Noel to the power forward spot to make way for another big man in Embiid who has the potential to be an elite defender near the rim, then Noel’s defensive versatility becomes a real plus. The havoc those two could cause on the defensive end is certainly intriguing, and being able to stagger Noel and Embiid’s minutes to always have an elite rim protector would give Brown quite a bit of flexibility.

As for Jahlil Okafor and Embiid, a lot will depend on whether Okafor has any real chance at guarding power forwards, and how much of an impact that would have on the team’s defense. It’s part of the reason why I wouldn’t mind seeing head coach Brett Brown try it out now, while keeping Noel near the rim defensively.

Offensively, if both Embiid and Okafor can develop (in game) jump shots out to 15′-17′, having two post scorers could actually be somewhat interesting. If you’re going to go against the grain — and right now, running out two post-oriented big men would be against the grain — the only real way it can work is if you can impose your will on the other team and force them to change how they want to play. With Okafor and Embiid, at the very least the other team would have to throw out there two capable post defenders, which would limit how much they could go small ball themselves.

Josh Steinberg (@PhillyStein_, with a similar question from @Outsider_Msft):

“Any chance we make a significant move at the trade deadline?”

Well, there’s always a chance. I think we learned that last year with Michael Carter-Williams. Especially if Sam Hinkie comes to a conclusion on Okafor and Noel’s long-term potential, and viability of them as a duo, perhaps before the market catches up to what he believes to be their long-term potential, then a potential move was always in the cards, even if not necessarily likely.

Does the addition of Jerry Colangelo make it more or less likely that a deal is made? I think Colangelo’s presence probably makes it more likely that a trade is made, but maybe less likely that a major trade is made. If I had to guess, rather than using their cap space to acquire a future pick(s) like they have in previous years, or ridding themselves of veterans who may not have a place on the team’s long-term future, the Sixers might take on another team’s excess salary in return for a veteran who could help them this year.

Matthew Joseph Agin (@MathAgin):

Was Ish Smith acquired to a) win games, b) help Okafor and Noel develop, c) improve their trade value, d) all of the above?

If B and C are true, then A likely happens as a byproduct, which means the answer is D.

I think the Smith acquisition was likely driven by a desire to place Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel in a better position to succeed, both for their own personal development, and also for the front office’s ability to evaluate them. If that turns out to be the case, then they’ll naturally start winning more, which I’m sure they do view as a positive at this stage.

Jason Bracken:

“Do you think the choices the Sixers have made under Hinkie so far can be justified irrespective of the improved draft position that comes with a worse record?”

I get where you’re coming from — keep cap flexibility, give young guys playing time, grow organically until you’re ready to take the next step forward — and to a lesser degree, I think there’s some truth to it.

But while the general philosophy might be sound irrespective of the draft benefits, the degree to which they’ve taken it is, in my opinion, largely a result of feeling it necessary to hit in the draft.

If the draft wasn’t as much of a core component of the philosophy, I think they’d be using free agency as more of an avenue to get undervalued players, and likely play the rebuilding game similar to the way Daryl Morey did in Houston, which included signing players who he thought could outperform their contract and become a more valuable trade commodity in the future. That, in turn, would make the Sixers more competitive in the short term.

I do think getting young players playing time is incredibly important, but that doesn’t necessitate the lengths the Sixers have gone. I do think the draft is a big reason for the extreme nature of the rebuild.

J.P. Melle

“Do you think it would be worthwhile at this point to invest any of our resources in improving the team in the short term to give Okafor & Noel a more functional workplace, so to speak?  If so, what level of assets would you be willing to part with and what types of players would you seek?”

Sure. And I certainly think the Ish Smith trade was the start of that process.

The level of the assets you’re willing to give up is the key part of the question. Giving up two second round picks, both likely to end up in the 30’s on draft night — a place where Hinkie has shown the ability to find at least intriguing projects in Jerami Grant, K.J. McDaniels, and Richaun Holmes — is not something that will handcuff the team long-term.

I said earlier in the mailbag that the Sixers cap space, as this is really the last trading period where that is a competitive advantage for the Sixers, is something they could use to try to cut down a team’s luxury tax bill, while getting a veteran or two that could help in the short term in return. I think it’s even possible that the Sixers could trade the Miami or OKC picks for the right player.

The Lakers pick? A Sixers pick? I would hope that’s something only available in a trade to land an impact player, and one who could be here long term, and that’s something I’ve always thought was in the cards, even before the 2-30 start to the season and the addition of Colangelo.

Noah Goodman:

“If you were to aggregate the 2014, 2015, and 2016 NBA Drafts, would you consider Ben Simmons to be a better prospect than Karl Anthony-Towns, Joel Embiid, and Andrew Wiggins? Putting Embiid’s injury aside, how would you rank those four propsects?”

My order would be: Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Ben Simmons, Andrew Wiggins.

I would have Joel Embiid in the top tier by himself. His ability to dominate on both ends of the court, his natural athleticism, his imposing physical attributes, and the almost unbelievable rate that he was improving before his injury would place a healthy Embiid at the top of most pre-draft rankings.

The second tier would be Towns and Simmons, and within that tier I would give Towns the edge, mostly because he’s a (pretty significantly) superior team defender. I do think Simmons is a better prospect than Andrew Wiggins: with Wiggins projecting as a better individual scorer (and perhaps wing defender, even if that hasn’t yet translated to the pro game), but Simmons as a far more well-rounded contributor, and Simmons’ elite passing and shot creation something I value more highly than Wiggins’ individual scoring.

George (@TheOrigCatfood):

“Should the 76ers be punished for intentionally tanking and screwing with the integrity of the league by giving out free wins?”

I have no sympathy for the league in this instance. It’s a situation they created: they stacked the deck in favor of teams retaining their own stars, created a salary structure which limited the impact of cap space, and forced desperation on teams that have not yet been able to find star players in the draft.

If the NBA wants to eliminate tanking, they can fix their financial landscape. Until then, if they’re willing to reap the benefits of the economic system they’ve created (dynasties, rivalries, and all the other dynamics that generate interest and are a direct result of the league’s financial rules), then they have to deal with the actions of desperate teams, a desperation they’ve created.

Tanking is a reaction. Fix the problem, or ignore the reaction, but don’t punish the reaction.

That will wrap it up. Once again, If you want to submit a question for a future mailbag, either shoot me a message on twitter or send me an email.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.