Processing the Process, Part 1

          With the definite turn from building to contending marked by this season’s blockbuster trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, the Sixers have reached the point at which we can profitably and fairly evaluate “The Process,” which began with the hiring of Sam Hinkie in 2013. With Philly having now spent most the draft capital acquired during the Process, it is legitimate to ask how well the tank job worked.  

          The Process began in earnest with the 2013 Draft. Though we identify the primary tenet of the Process as the acquisition and stockpiling of draft assets, the initial trade made by the Hinkie administration was ironically the least return on investment of any trade in the entire … well, process. In exchange for 22-year-old All Star Jrue Holiday, the Sixers acquired Nerlens Noel (the number 6 pick in the 2013 draft) and the New Orleans Pelicans’ 2014 1st round pick. Over the next four seasons, which comprised Holiday’s second contract and Noel’s rookie contract, Philadelphia saw a very modest return on their investment. According to several summative analysis systems, Jrue Holiday was worth 20.4 wins (ESPN Real +/-), 13.1 wins (Win Shares), 18.4 wins over replacement player (Box +/-), or 15.8 wins (Wins Produced). Taking the varying evaluations on the whole, it seems likely that Holiday generated somewhere between 3 and 5 wins per season.

The original injured rookie big man

          Nerlens Noel, by contrast, missed his first season with an injury in what would become a running theme for the Sixers. In the following three seasons his production was evaluated as worth a total of 7.3 wins (ESPN Real +/-), 12.3 wins (Win Shares), 16.1 wins (Box +/-), or 19 wins (Wins Produced). Noel’s effective defense and efficient low-usage offense are favored much more by Wins Produced and Box +/-, while ESPN Real +/- and Win Shares evaluate Noel as a negative on offense. The two “usage friendly” metrics see Holiday as more valuable than Noel, and as more productive than Noel per minute. The two “efficiency friendly” metrics see Noel as somewhat more effective than Holiday. Since Philly had basically no pieces to build with, one would think it clear that having a cornerstone would be more valuable than a highly efficient role player.

          Philly also received New Orleans’ 2014 1st rounder in the trade, but more on that later. The Sixers also had their own lottery pick in the 2013 draft, with which they selected Michael Carter-Williams at number 11. The 2013 Draft was a strange one; the top of the draft was all college prospects, though with very uneven results. The number one pick washed out of the league (Anthony Bennett), the number two pick broke out after being traded twice (Victor Oladipo), the number three pick got a mammoth contract for being a really good third wheel (Otto Porter Jr.). MCW was selected between CJ McCollum and Steven Adams.

The latter half of the first round was composed primarily of international prospects, including Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert. Clearly, the collegiate prospects were deemed to be more NBA-ready than the international prospects in this class, so it is disingenuous to fault the Sixers post hoc for not drafting a player that we now know is a star. Given the information available to them at the time, it is difficult to critique the pick too much. Carter-Williams had a good assist-to-turnover ratio and averaged 5 rebounds a game in his age-21 season at Syracuse, though the shooting struggles which have ended up hamstringing his NBA career had already begun to surface in his 39.3% field goal percentage. The only real criticism I levied against the pick at the time was that the Sixers did not pick Kelly Olynyk (who originally went to Dallas at number 13), though it is/was fair to wonder how much benefit the Sixers might have expected to get out of that pick given that they had just made the deal to acquire Nerlens Noel. Why would you choose a 7-footer with a lottery pick in the same draft you just picked your “big man of the future?”

          In February of 2014, Philadelphia tore down their previous roster even further by trading Spencer Hawes for two second round picks and dead weight, then trading Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen for the artist formerly known as Danny Granger and another second round pick. These moves essentially amounted to clearing the deck, absolving Philly of their primary long-term obligations or potential long-term obligations (in the case of Evan Turner).

          The 2014 draft is the one that may have exemplified the Process better than any other. After tanking, the Sixers landed at number 3 in the draft lottery, a pick which they used to draft then-injured Kansas center Joel Embiid. The pick acquired from New Orleans in the Jrue Holiday trade landed at no. 10. Philly selected Elfrid Payton, then traded him to Orlando for number 12 pick Dario Saric plus a future first rounder and a future second rounder. By now flush with second round picks from the minor deals for which Hinke became famous, Philadelphia selected five players in the 2014 second round. To their credit, they even got a hit on one of the picks (Jerami Grant), though the 2014 second round was unusually ripe with surprises: Joe Harris (pick number 33), Spencer Dinwiddie (38), Glenn Robinson III (40), Nikola Jokic (41), Dwight Powel (45), and Jordan Clarkson (46) all became rotation players in addition to Grant. 

The pick was a slam dunk

          Embiid was widely considered the best player in the draft, and only fell to number three because of his injury history. Obviously, the pick has turned out to have tremendous value. The number 10 pick, the one acquired in the Jrue Holiday trade, is a little more difficult to evaluate. We would like to know how much value in addition to Nerlens Noel (the centerpiece of the trade) Philly received from the pick in order to compare it with the value provided by Jrue Holiday in the following seasons. However, since the player Philadelphia selected with the pick was immediately traded for a player in the same draft class plus two future draft picks, the waters get a little muddy.

While I do not yet have estimates for the 2014-15 season, I do have Elfrid Payton down for 4.3 wins in the 2015-16 season, during which Saric was still in Europe. In the 2016-17 season, which was Dario Saric’s rookie season, Saric was worth 3.9 wins, while Payton was worth 4.1 wins. Their production rate was similar, with a slight edge to Saric. Payton was significantly more efficient, operating at 49% efficiency as compared with Saric’s 46% efficiency.

Elfrid Payton, after being traded by Philly but before having the sickest hair in the league

The following season however, saw an improvement for Saric to 4.6 wins. Payton’s minutes were curtailed and he was ultimately traded, resulting in a total of only 2.0 wins for Payton. While Payton’s efficiency remained near his previous level at 48%, Saric improved to 50% efficiency as he became an integral part of Philly’s young core.

          Last season, Saric was the one traded, and yielded only 2.9 wins. Payton found a new home playing in New Orleans alongside Jrue Holiday, of all places, and generated 2.0 wins for the second consecutive season. This brought Payton’s four-year total to 12.4 wins, while Saric accumulated only 10.4 wins in the three seasons in which he played. If we assume that Payton produced some value in his rookie season as well, the gap in total production would only increase. Conversely, Saric was slightly more valuable per season, so it is certainly defensible to claim that the Sixers won the trade with Orlando (also, remember that Philly received additional draft picks in the trade; even if Saric and Payton are equal, Philly won the trade).

Dario Saric, after being traded to complete the Process

          Adding Saric’s value to the original trade with New Orleans, we see that in the four seasons under immediate inspection – Jrue Holiday’s second contract and Nerlens Noel’s rookie contract, Saric only played in one of them. While he did earn credit for 3.9 wins in that season, the overall picture of the trade doesn’t change much on its face. If, however, we value future control of young assets, it is conceivable that Philadelphia made out well in the trade. Since they could only keep Holiday off the market for four more years, whereas the two lottery picks they acquired in the trade have a total of 16 player-seasons under club control, there was a tactical advantage for Philly in the trade.

          More important for evaluating the 2014 draft, however, were the other picks. These picks were emblematic of the tenants of the process: Philly landed the number 3 pick and was able to select Joel Embiid in large part because they tanked the previous season and tried to lose as many games as possible. Given the value Embiid has provided, it is easy to say that tanking one season to get Embiid was worth it. The Sixers also had a stockpile of second round picks in the 2014 draft (as in several others during the Process) due to the microtransactions that also helped to define the Process. Only one of the picks was a hit (Jerami Grant), though the Sixers actually traded Grant before really getting a chance to evaluate him. If one sets a low threshold for value on second round picks, it is possible to claim that it was worth it for Philly to trade low-value players for these second round picks. Some of the picks cost even cost what amounted to nothing, so it is tough to claim that the Sixers gave up too much to acquire the resource. What we can affirm with respect to the 2014 draft is that the long-term value of those second round picks ended up being very close to zero.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the series, where I will cover the 2015 and 2016 offseasons, followed by Part 3 (2017 and 2018) and Part 4 (reviewing last season’s trades and evaluating the Process as a whole).

 

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