Sixers Future Comes Back Into Focus After Lottery Luck
Much of the debate — that never-ending debate — over the merits of the Sixers rebuild has centered around the uncertainty of it.
Three years in and the 76ers had little certainty over how their future would look, over who would lead them, over which prospect made all this losing worthwhile. Uncertainty which, to many, represented a lack of progress. A lack of progress which represented failure.
That’s the trap of measuring the progress of a rebuild in a snapshot of time.
The thing about the Sixers rebuild is it always had the chance to turn on a dime. That one stroke of luck — luck that is required for any plan, of any team, trying to go from bad to great to be successful — and the view of the rebuild, of the entire future of the franchise, would look entirely different.
That stroke of luck finally arrived on Tuesday night.
That top pick that has eluded the Sixers in the previous two lottery drawings finally fell into the Sixers’ lap. And, while Sixers’ management struts around touting their ability to somehow improve the fan experience by placing a league-approved patch on their jersey, and acting like karma earned them the No. 1 pick in the draft, it’s important to remember exactly why the Sixers are in the position they currently are.
Or, as some might say, the longest view in the room.
The Sixers’ rebuild wasn’t one of ingenuity or creativity*, at least not with regard to getting the top pick in this draft. Losing in the NBA to get the best shot at the best players has been a legitimate strategy for 30 years. What made the Sixers different was their patience, their narrow-minded focus, and their belief of what represented true progress.
(*Note: That’s not to say there weren’t very creative parts of the Sixers rebuild. One look at the Sixers’ future draft picks will reveal that).
If you took a snapshot of the Sixers’ progress at any point over the past three years, it was easy to come away disappointed. Luck, the kind of luck needed to get transcendent players, the kind of luck needed to move the needle forward into truly sustainable progress, is inexact in when it will be doled out. An open acknowledgement that luck is necessary was deemed by many to be a skirting of responsibility, a cop-out to explain a lack of progress, a failure.
Yet here the Sixers are, sitting in an enviable position, with two of the most talented prospects in recent memory either already under their control or within their grasp, the most cap space in the league, and a torrent of high-value draft picks in the coming years that, after the winning of the No. 1 overall pick and the clarity that provides, turned from “kicking the can down the road” to “man, the Sixers have a lot of options going forward.”
It’s the kind of situation that only comes as a result of tedious planning and attention to detail. By acquiring enough high-value assets to be able to pounce when Lady Luck does show her face. To have optionality when ready to move on to phase two.
While nothing has yet to materialize into wins and losses — another example of how ones view of uncertainty can drive the narrative — it’s impossible to look at the collection of talent the Sixers have the chance to bring in and not be intrigued. As someone who also covers the NBA draft, for publications not related to the Philadelphia 76ers, I’m also tasked with ranking, evaluating, and projecting these future NBA players before they enter the league.
Perhaps that responsibility makes me more willing to live with the uncertainty of players who haven’t yet “proven it” in the league, but it also forces me to evaluate the quality of those players prior to their donning of 76ers red, white, and blue.
With that perspective, I look at Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons not as players who have yet to accomplish anything, but as two of the three most talented prospects to enter the league over the last four seasons, with only Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns eclipsing them from a pure talent perspective. And even then, I think there was an argument to be made between Embiid and Towns with regard to their basketball talent heading into the league. Embiid’s star shines that brightly.
It’s of course impossible to count on Embiid in that way, a future that even the world’s most renowned doctors would say is uncertain, much less some basketball scribe who doesn’t know his navicular bone from his patella or his femur.
That, in part, is the beauty in the luck the Sixers received on Tuesday night. Everything else comes into focus. Those high-value draft picks turn from “yeah, the Sixers are always waiting on luck,” to “man, these give the Sixers a tremendous amount of flexibility.” Embiid goes from the hope of a fan base to a potential catapult, a 7-foot-2 trebuchet capable of launching the Sixers to great heights. An uber-talented powerball ticket, except one with far greater odds of changing the Sixers’ fortunes than the 1-in-292,201,388 chance you have when donating money to that fine Multi-State Lottery Association.
Prior to Tuesday, the Sixers lacked certainty. The certainty that Jahlil Okafor‘s defense would ever improve enough that he’d actually be the impact player some project based on his 1-on-1 offensive game. The certainty that they’d ever get lucky in the draft lottery. The certainty of whether Joel Embiid would ever be healthy.
The Sixers now have that player to build around. Such was the point of “the plan.”
Great teams are almost always propelled by something unexpected happening: Michael Jordan returning from his own navicular bone injury, Stephen Curry falling to No. 7 and staying healthy despite serious concerns about his recurring ankle problems, the Clippers landing Blake Griffin in the draft and having the league overturn the trade which would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers. Those expecting something being built without ample amounts of luck along the way are living in a fairy tale world.
But the Sixers are now in a position to not only capitalize on whatever luck comes their way, but to make their own luck as well. Step one is complete, which is getting lucky in the right lottery. Step two can come in one of many forms, from trading some of the excess front court talent, to cashing in some of the high-value draft assets the team holds, or the simple lack of a setback to Joel Embiid, the most talented basketball player the team has drafted since Allen Iverson.
When looking at the enviable situation the Sixers suddenly find themselves in, it’s important to remember how they got here. Management can talk about Colangelo Karma, about process to progress, whatever that means, and they can pat themselves on the back for selling an advertisement on a jersey all they want. But the Sixers are in a position to catapult this rebuild into something meaningful because they lost.
Because, after years of writing about how the worst team rarely gets the No. 1 pick in the draft, it’s now happened two years in a row, an I-can’t-believe-this-is-actually-necessary indication that 250 chances (or, in the Sixers case, 269) at the No. 1 pick is better than having 88.
Because, as was always the point of “the plan,” if you have the fortitude to stick out the hard times, and work to try to maximize your chances, you will eventually get that one stroke of luck to capitalize on. That, combined with planning and foresight, such as that required to get an unprotected draft pick from the Sacramento Kings, would open up the door to a bright future.
The timing of the luck is relatively fortuitous for Sixers fans, as management seemed to finally start to show signs of blinking, of caving to the pressure mounting around them. With the Sixers poised to “move forward”, seemingly irrespective of the results of Tuesday’s lottery and whether they had the high-level talent necessary to actually sustain any immediate progress, the luck may prove to be incredibly well-timed.
For most, at least.
It’s hard to look at Sixers management and not think they walked away with a sweetheart of a deal, something which probably isn’t all that rare to those who make their living in the private equity sector. They got their high-value talent, the kind of young players who typically only come around to teams that lose at a high volume. They did so by trying to game the system, to carry on despite fan and media backlash, to acquire as much talent as possible, to provide them with enormous upside, and to diversify their risk by carrying on for multiple years.
But, in the end, they get to disassociate themselves from the moral and competitive outrage by the media. They not only get their cake, but they get to eat it, too, casting aside the villain and being left with just the rewards he accumulated.
Regardless of how the Sixers did or did not get to the position they are, of whether they want to acknowledge the role that Sam Hinkie‘s “nefarious” plan to accumulate high-upside talent had in their fortuitous future, the team is well-positioned to move forward in a meaningful way. They finally have the clarity that has been lacking over the previous 2.5 years, the reward that should make it all worth it.
The future may not yet be crystal clear, but if Ben Simmons becomes what some think he can, if Joel Embiid can get just a tiny bit of luck in that surgically repaired right foot, the Sixers could be on the cusp of the most exciting basketball this town has seen in quite some time. After well over a decade of toiling away in basketball irrelevancy, three years is a small price to pay for the upside this rebuild is now brimming with.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.