76ers Musings: What Does The Ersan Ilyasova Trade Mean?

What can Ersan Ilyasova bring to the 76ers? And what does the trade signify about how the 76ers will proceed going forward?

Ersan Ilyasova and Joel Embiid react to a call in the 76ers 102-101 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Ersan Ilyasova and Joel Embiid react to a call in the 76ers 102-101 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

This week we continue our 76ers musings column, where we focus on a couple of (relatively) quick-hitting thoughts on topics being discussed about the Philadelphia 76ers. This week we’ll focus on the trade that brought in Ersan Ilyasova and a potential future first round pick for Jerami Grant.

You can read previous entries in the “Sixers Musings” series here.

With every move that new general manager Bryan Colangelo makes, 76ers fans around the Delaware Valley will be trying to read into the move to decipher what Colangelo’s future intentions are for the team going forward.

Colangelo’s latest trade — Jerami Grant for Ersan Ilyasova and a protected first-round draft pick that can’t convey until 2020 at the earliest — is perhaps the biggest sign that things are different now than they had been in previous years. But is that a bad thing? And was the philosophy going to change anyway?

Ersan Ilyasova can shoot, and that is important
If there’s one thing that is known about this trade, it’s that Ersan Ilyasova can shoot.

A career 36.9 percent three-point shooter, with nearly 30 percent of his field goal attempts coming from three-point range, Ilyasova has been a threat from deep throughout his career. In fact, outside of a blip in the 2013-14 season where he shot just 28.2 percent from three, Ilyasova’s been remarkably consistent of late, going 45.5 percent from three in 2011-12, 44.4 percent in 2012-13, 38.9 percent in 2014-15, and 37.1 percent last season. Ilyasova connected on 51.3 percent of his unguarded catch-and-shoot jump shots last season, one of the best rates for any player in the league, regardless of position.

That kind of consistency creates a certain gravity around Ilyasova that will help the Sixers out offensively, especially for a team that runs so much of their offense through Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor in the paint. It’s not just post-ups that Ilyasova’s shooting will help with, but also Embiid pick and rolls, Embiid on the offensive glass, and Embiid facing up and taking his man off the dribble will all benefit by the opponents power forward being pulled 23 feet away from the rim. For a team that has spaced the floor so poorly over the last few years, and who has finished with the worst offense in the league three years running, it will be nice to see the team, and Brett Brown, come even just a little bit closer to normalcy.

Did Jerami Grant have a long-term future with the team?
In many ways, Jerami Grant is a player who has become synonymous with The Process over the last few years, selected by previous general manager Sam Hinkie in the second round of 2014 draft in the hope that they could grow his jump shot and unleash the latent talent hidden within one of the NBA’s best athletes.

But that jump shot never really came. After shooting 30.9 percent on all shots beyond 15 feet as a rookie, Grant followed that up by shooting just 24.1 percent in his second season in the league. Grant had one real month where he showed promise from the perimeter (February 2015, 37 percent on shots greater than 15 feet), but has by and large been a detriment to the Sixers floor spacing and ball movement outside of that brief period of time.

That becomes a bigger problem now that the Sixers are clearly building around a post presence (Joel Embiid) and a slashing playmaker (Ben Simmons). Beyond that, with the addition of Embiid (by way of health), Simmons, and Dario Saric, along with the development of Richaun Holmes, minutes are scarce for project players in the Sixers front court.

Grant is simply a bad fit with Simmons and Embiid, and maintaining development time for those kinds of players is tough because of that.

Was the Sixers’ philosophy going to change anyway?
What this trade seems to represent is a fundamental shift in organizational philosophy, away from using numerous roster spots and playing time to develop edge case athletes in the hopes that they can round out the remaining parts of their game to exceed their pre-draft expectations.

That philosophy was not only used on elite athletes such as Grant, JaKarr Sampson, Tony Wroten, and others, but also on undervalued players who needed a shot to prove their worth. Guys like Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell were given bigger roles, and thus more chance to prove themselves, on a roster barren of talent prioritizing the search for superstar building blocks. With no franchise player and little established players the Sixers could weed through flotsam and find the players capable of being complementary pieces to the core they would eventually build.

While that philosophy was built towards capitalizing on a very temporary situation, it, in many ways, became a supposed defining ethos of Sam Hinkie and his regime. If you’re not using the end of your bench to evaluate fringe NBA talent with a low probability of working out, you’re doing it wrong, or at least that’s what the narrative became. In reality, the philosophy was always likely to be very temporary in nature and would have likely changed even if Sam Hinkie and his crew had remained to steer the ship.

The Sixers are in a much different situation now, with Joel Embiid on the court and very obviously showcasing the kind of potential to build a team around, while also having this Australian kid named Ben Simmons, who drew some fanfare as well, waiting in the wings. Previously shunned role players, who may not have a long-term future with the team but could provide some calming sense of normalcy while also allowing the 76ers to evaluate their franchise players in the role they’ll be asked to fill down the line, were likely to be targeted regardless. Looking like a “normal” team also provides the benefit of showcasing a team on the rise, and one more attractive to free agents. With the core now in place, making free agency a more realistic avenue to find supporting pieces becomes a priority, and leaguewide perception matters more than it did before.

Moving forward was only potentially damaging to the rebuild if the franchise players weren’t in place prior to doing so.

Take the group of potential role players the early years of The Process uncovered (Robert Covington, Jerami Grant, Richaun Holmes, T.J. McConnell), pick one or two that complement your foundational pieces in Simmons and Embiid, and move on. All of them being a long-term fixture of the organization, and continuing to use 5, 6, 7 roster spots to find more, was likely never part of the future plan, regardless of which GM is calling the shots.

It’s almost a disservice to Sam Hinkie and his staff to suggest that the plan wasn’t going to undergo significant alterations in its core philosophy as they progressed to different stages of the rebuild, and having Embiid and Simmons on the court is very clearly a new stage. It’s a somewhat weird tactic for Process Trusters, and ostensibly those who supported Hinkie and his regime, to cling to because of that.

Why was the move made?
The question of why the move was made was addressed above: to make the Sixers a more functional NBA offense.

President of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo came out and implied that the teams offensive struggles during preseason and the first few games of the regular season were contributing factors to the decision, which itself isn’t necessarily a negative. If Jerami Grant is the cost of becoming a more functional NBA team, it’s a small price to pay.

The concern is more of what happens if in a month or two the Sixers still look like a mess of an offensive team. Are there more reactionary moves that will be made? At this point I’m not even talking about the Nerlens Noel trade that feels inevitable at this point. But would Colangelo move one of the Sixers’ upcoming picks in a trade to improve the here and now? Are the Sixers so desirous to appear “different” than the previous regime, and previous seasons, that they’ll mortgage a bit of the future?

So far, Colangelo has avoided this. But it’s still something that is always going to be left in the back of your mind. Joel Embiid is healthy, and looks like he’s on the path to being dominant. Ben Simmons, your primary initiator and another player with immense potential, should be returning in another two months or so. Add in a plethora of high value picks and whether the team is winning close games or not, whether they’re 2-8 or 0-10, remembering what’s important, and not mere window dressing, is a key for the 76ers and the moves that they make.

What does this mean for Dario Saric?
While the impact on Embiid (and, eventually, Simmons) is the primary concern of the trade, the trade will impact fellow rookie Dario Saric as well.

In fact, Saric is leading the rookie class in minutes played, averaging over 26 minutes per night so far with the Sixers. Will that continue?

For now, head coach Brett Brown says Saric will remain the starter, although he doesn’t seem to be throwing out the possibility that could change depending on how Ilyasova, Saric, and the team around them perform down the line. Regardless of if he starts or not, Saric should continue to get a decent amount of minutes, especially with Embiid and Okafor on 24-minute playing time restrictions, which should keep both at their natural center position for the foreseeable future.

The bigger question comes when Ben Simmons returns, especially since at that point both Embiid and Okafor should have their playing time increased, not to mention the potential, however small, that Noel could be playing as well. With less minutes available at the power forward spot that could push the Sixers to experiment with Saric at the three, something Brown has already talked about doing, not in the starting lineup but selectively throughout the game when matchups present themselves.

While the spacing with Saric and Ilyasova at the forward spots should be fine, and there’d be decent passing and ball movement, the lack of ability to create off the dribble between the two would be tough to overcome. Even more pressing would be the potentially disastrous defensive matchups Saric would find himself tasked with trying to manage.

It’s one thing for Brown to experiment with Saric at the three for very brief periods of time, but if the Sixers need to regularly put Saric at the three in order to get him significant minutes it could put the rookie in a tough situation to succeed. Defending the three is likely not in Saric’s future.

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