Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.
76ers Musings: The 2014 Draft Set The Sixers Up
We continue our weekly “Sixers Musings” column, where we focus on a couple of (relatively) quick-hitting thoughts on topics being discussed about the Philadelphia 76ers.
You can read previous entries in the “Sixers Musings” series here.
Fit is now a bigger priority
This seems a little bit contradictory to what I said last week, where I implored the Sixers to not let fit be a driving consideration with their #1 pick, so let me explain.
Fit, or need, should not determine the Sixers’ top selection. 99 percent of the time, when you have a team that lost as much as the Sixers did last year, you don’t have the talent to dictate that. If you’re still searching for that bankable star, that transcendent, franchise player, passing on one because you have a team need for shooting is shortsighted.
But when you do get that franchise player, ignoring fit is counter-intuitive.
For so many of these players, even in the 3-10 range, much less the 24th and 26th picks in the draft, how they fit with the focal point of your franchise will have a significant impact on their success or failure. Context is very important, and while it’s something we as Sixers fans have been largely ignoring over the past three years during the pursuit of a franchise player, it now becomes a huge deal.
Devaluing Okafor or existing players not what Sixers should be concerned about
There has been some talk of, essentially, is Ben Simmons enough of an upgrade in talent over your existing front court players, and over Brandon Ingram, to further the logjam in the front court, put you in a position where trading one of your existing front court players (likely at a discount) is almost mandatory, and “kick the can down the road”, so to speak?
There’s an incredible opportunity cost to passing up on elite talent. They don’t come around in every draft, you don’t win every lottery, and there’s a mental fatigue to being in a position to do so. If there’s any fanbase that should realize this, it’s Sixers fans.
At the top end of the spectrum, even slight differences in upside have drastic impacts on team building. Top 5 players in the NBA are exponentially easier to build around than 5-through-10. That divide continues to grow as you get down to top-20, top-30, and so on.
Devaluing a “good” prospect to get a “great” prospect isn’t much of a concern. Passing on a “great” prospect to make room for a “good” prospect is much more damaging.
The goal of the Sixers’ rebuild was never to walk away with a team built around five top-5 picks who all complement each other. The goal was to always find one or two legitimate building blocks to then go out and find supporting pieces for.
In many ways, that was the philosophy behind the Jahlil Okafor selection last year. I don’t think anybody, perhaps even the Sixers’ front office, expected Okafor and Nerlens Noel to fit together long term. But you took Okafor* because of his offensive talent, and if on the off chance he improved his all-around game enough, or gave you confidence he would improve his all-around game in time, resolving that logjam, even if you didn’t get equal value, was a much better position to be in than not having elite talent to begin with.
This Jahlil Okafor/Nerlens Noel/Ben Simmons situation is similar in that regard.
(*this is to support taking the best player available, not necessarily that Okafor was the best player available, which is a different discussion).
“Small ball” isn’t going away
There’s been a lot of talk that small ball is a byproduct of Steph Curry‘s (and Draymond Green’s) unique skill set, and trying to duplicate that is a fools errand.
Small ball isn’t a reaction to Steph Curry or the Golden State Warriors. It’s the evolution of the game driven by rule changes.
From the mid-90’s on, the NBA has made a series of changes to hand checking and illegal defense designed specifically to open up the lane, give perimeter players easier access to the hoop, and force defensive rotations. These rotations then caused perimeter shooting to become more valued, in part because it opened up the lane for those guards we just talked about who now had a distinct 1-on-1 advantage, but also to benefit from the rotations teams would inevitably make when those guards got into the lane.
Teams then went to smaller front court players because it’s typically easier to find perimeter shooting and quick rotations from a 6’7″ player than a 7′ one.
That’s not to say that “big men” are dead. As John Calipari said last year, everybody loves small ball until you have a 7 footer that can shoot from the perimeter and move his feet like a guard. It’s part of the reason that Dragan Bender is such an interesting prospect.
But what the small ball revolution does show is that having immobile big men who struggle to defend in space is extremely difficult to overcome. It’s not the post offense that is out of place in today’s NBA — teams have gotten more skilled at denying entry passes and limiting the amount of time a post player has to operate, but that can be mitigated with the right schemes and personnel — but the immobile big man.
People point to the Oklahoma City vs Golden State series as proof that “big ball” can still win. But when you look at what Oklahoma City did, their defensive scheme was heavily based on switching ball screens at virtually every opportunity. Yes, they had tall guys — Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant — but all of them could switch out onto a guard and hold their own, and their defensive rotations were always crisp. What they didn’t do much of is Enes Kanter, who averaged just over 12 minutes per game in the series.
All that series proves is that size, if athleticism and quick rotations come with it, still has a role in the NBA.
Big ball isn’t dead. Post scorers can still have a role. It’s immobile big men who struggle to defend in space who are on life support. And that’s not a fad; that’s a direct reaction to the impact rule changes had on the game.
Trading a prospect early isn’t being impatient
Another common argument against making a trade at this time is that the Sixers have been so patient over the last three years, it makes no sense to deviate from that path and make a major move now. That trading a big man would be considered a “win now” move, or “trying to build a team overnight”.
But patience in terms of player evaluations has never really been part of “the plan”. The patience required was that the plan was the best way, for a team in the position the Sixers were in, to acquire an elite talent. If you had patience, the odds of having that opportunity would get better and better. Don’t make snap decisions to lower those odds*.
(*see the next section below for an example of this)
Patience for player evaluations was never guaranteed. There’s a real, tangible benefit to making evaluations early, to arriving at a conclusion before league-wide consensus has caught up. It’s part of the reason why the Michael Carter-Williams trade was such a success.
There’s a cloud of optimism around young players. It’s treated almost as fate that their weaknesses will be corrected. “Once he corrects that jump shot, he’s going to be an impact player”. “Once he gets in shape, his defensive rotations will improve”. “Once he’s gotten more experience under his belt, his defensive recognition will improve”.
Except, that’s not always the case. Not every jump shot improves. Not every poor defender improves to being a positive defensive presence.
If in nine months down the road, the flaws are still there, that fog of optimism gets peeled back, and value drops. It happened with Carter-Williams’ jump shot and decision making. Combine that with the struggles to properly evaluate all of Embiid, Noel, Simmons, and Okafor if they’re on the roster at the same time, the real probability that Okafor will get less offensive touches because of Simmons/Embiid’s presence, and the natural minutes problem, and it is anything but a guarantee that Okafor’s trade value will go up over the next nine to twelve months.
Remember that time when Domonic Brown was considered untouchable? When Michael Carter-Williams was the point guard of the future? When there was an actual, honest debate about Larry Hughes for Tracy McGrady?
Really, when people say “be patient with Jahlil Okafor”, what they mean is “I have more confidence he will improve his potential fatal flaw than you do”, or “I don’t think his flaw is as damaging as you do”. Those may or may not be true, and to be honest, it’s a topic that has mostly been beaten to death. My point here is that patience, by itself, isn’t necessarily the right course of action. The key is in the correctness of the evaluation.
The 2014 draft set the Sixers up for their success
If there’s one decision that defines the Sam Hinkie era, both by his supporters and detractors, it’s the 2014 draft.
The decision to draft Joel Embiid, despite his obvious injury risk, and to acquire Dario Saric in a draft day trade, even knowing that he wouldn’t come over for at least two years, has as much to do with the Sixers current situation as anything.
For those who do not approve of Sam Hinkie’s plan, the decision to “punt”, as it’s not-so-affectionately been referred to, set the franchise back. Aaron Gordon, or Marcus Smart, or whoever, would have actually contributed and made the team more competitive. Made it look more like an actual team rather than a collection of assets. Would have been “progress”.
The thing is, selecting Aaron Gordon or Marcus Smart could have prevented the Sixers from getting Ben Simmons, especially if you then factor in the other major criticism of the Sam Hinkie regime: sitting out free agency.
By selecting Joel Embiid, the Sixers not only have the chance, whatever percentage that may be, that Embiid is able to overcome his injury concerns and become a dominant force in the league, potential that nobody else available at that spot had. They also put themselves in place to draft Ben Simmons, another player with superstar potential. If Embiid works out, recovers from his injury, and plays the 2015-16 season, great, you have a franchise player. If he suffers a setback, you’re still in position to draft the franchise player you need.
Not only did I believe that the decision to take Joel Embiid over Marcus Smart, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon, et al made sense based on the merits of that individual talent evaluation — that’s how highly I thought of Embiid’s upside — a hill I’ll die on to this day, but it now set the Sixers up for where they are now.
Had they drafted Smart, gone out and pursued free agents in the 2014 and 2015 free agency periods, and won 30 games this past year, that progress people so desperately wanted them to show, they would be in line to have 0 franchise players* rather than the potential to have 2 (and, yes, I realize it’s potential, not certainty).
Nobody wants to admit that losing set the Sixers up, but immediate progress, without being fueled by a potential franchise player, absolutely could have been a deterrent to greatness. Patience was the key that unlocked the trap of mediocrity, as one might say, and they’re in a better position now because they were willing to take those gambles in 2014.
The chance at two potential superstars trumps whatever “progress” could have been made by selecting somebody who could “play now” in the 2014 draft and being more active in free agency.
(*Yes, I know, in theory, there was the possibility of using Smart + other assets to acquire a superstar, but that’s always a tricky situation, one fraught with uncertainty of its own. Trading for a superstar requires not just the assets to acquire that superstar, but the assets remaining on your roster to convince that superstar to remain here after their current deal expires. That’s incredibly difficult, and unlikely. It’s why we always say that you need a top-20 player to acquire another top-20 player).