Last time, we reviewed the beginning stages of the Process. The dominant factor in that time frame was the Jrue Holiday trade, which led to the Sixers acquiring Nerlens Noel and Elfrid Payton (who was traded for Dario Saric, who was part of the trade for Jimmy Butler). We left off after the 2014 draft, so Part 2 of our analysis begins in 2014.
The 2014-15 season was another tank job by the Sixers. Shortly before the season began, they traded Thaddeus Young for a first round pick, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Alexey Shved in the four-team Kevin Love trade. Though the motive was clearly to make cap space, the Sixers ultimately did not attempt to sign premiere free agents in the time frame of Young’s next contract. As such, it is not completely certain that they needed to get rid of Young. He was responsible for 22.8 wins in the four seasons stretching from 2015-16 through last year, at about league average efficiency each year. Thus, it seems clear that the Sixers left about 5-6 wins per year on the table by getting rid of Thad Young.
On the other hand, the Sixers weren’t trying to win, so moving a veteran (even for a draft pick that didn’t end up being very valuable) certainly wasn’t a losing move. Philly could have used the future cap space on a free agent, so it doesn’t count against them that they made moves to reduce their payroll. Any rebuilding effort includes reducing payroll; the aspect that made the Process so famous and drew the ire of so many people in and around the NBA was the deliberate losing that went along with the lowered payroll. Trading Thaddeus Young is emblematic of that distinction between reducing payroll and full-on-tanking.
One bright spot in the 2014-15 season was the discovery of undrafted free agent Robert Covington. Covington would go on to generate 4.4 wins on 49% efficiency in the following season (15-16), then 4.9 wins on 52% efficiency in 2016-17, then 5.6 wins on 47% efficiency in 2017-18 before becoming part of the Jimmy Butler trade this past season. Though injuries kept him out for part of last season and kept his total wins to only 2.7, he still contributed .108 wins per 48 minutes (consistent with his previous performance level) on 56% efficiency. Covington appears on my All-Defensive Third Team in 2016-17 and 2017-18, and was an honorable mention in 2015-16 (he lost out to Thaddeus Young, ironically). Of all the dozens of players the Sixers brought in for tryouts, ten-day contracts, and the like, Covington is the one who stuck.
The Sixers continued to get involved in multi-team trades as facilitators for the price of a second round pick, but they also made two fairly significant trades during the 14-15 season. The first came when they traded Michael Carter Williams to Milwaukee in a three-team trade that netted Philadelphia the Phoenix Suns’ 2018 first round pick. That pick became Mikal Bridges, who was traded on draft night for Zhaire Smith … who got injured and missed most of his rookie season. Stop me if you’ve heard the joke about Sixers rookies getting injured before.
The Sixers also acquired Denver’s 2016 first round pick in exchange for taking on JaVale McGee’s contract, which helps to underscore the utility of trading a player like Thaddeus Young. Even though keeping Young would have been worth the salary, the Sixers were able to turn the cap space saved by moving him into a first round pick by taking on dead weight from other teams.
The reward for the Sixer’s tanking was the number 3 pick in the 2015 draft, which they used to select Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor. Similar to 2014, the Sixers had five second round picks, and hit on one of them – Richaun Holmes. The prize pick, Okafor, followed up an underwhelming rookie campaign (2.6 wins, .078 wins per 48, 46% efficiency) with an equally unimpressive sophomore season (2.2 wins, .093 wins per 48, 45% efficiency) before the Sixers essentially decided to move on from him.
Make no mistake: this was a colossal blow. When you tank for an entire season to get the number three pick in the draft, you have turn that pick into some type of value. Philly turned the pick into a non-starter who ended up unable to get minutes once Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel were healthy because there was no way to fit two of the three on the floor at the same time.
On the positive side of the ledger, Richaun Holmes ended up being a decent player (though, like Jerami Grant, a second rounder that Philly ultimately ended up trading). Furthermore, the Sixers rented out cap space to Sacramento during the summer of 2015 and were able to turn their own 2017 first round pick into a 2017 first rounder and a 2019 first rounder.
Following another tankeriffic season in 2015-16, Philadelphia entered the 2016 draft with three first round picks. He number one pick was Ben Simmons, who suffered an injury that kept him out for his rookie season (obviously) but has since accumulated 14.2 wins in his first two seasons at well above-league-average production rate (.120+ wins per 48 both seasons) and efficiency (55%+ both seasons).
The other two first rounders, picks number 24 and 26, became Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Furkan Korkmaz. Luwawu Cabarrot produced 3.2 wins across three seasons at far below average production rate and efficiency, while Korkmaz did not play much until last season. Though he showed some promise early on in the season, Korkmaz finished with 1.3 wins for the season at 44% efficiency. Thus, it appears fair to say that the Sixers other two first round picks were misses.
Perhaps more important than counting up hits and misses, though, is looking at the types of players Philly selected with their enormous draft capital. The Sixers’ first round draft picks during the beginning of the process were nearly all big men with limited ball skills. In order, they are: Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Jahlil Okafor, Ben Simmons, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Furkan Korkmaz. Leaving aside the injury plague which was out of Philadelphia’s control, this is not a core of young players that could legitimately share the floor together. Saric and Okafor both clearly possessed too little foot speed defend on the perimeter. With Embiid and Noel already installed as the team’s presumed interior defenders, this group was never going to play together. Add to that core a supremely talented 6’10” point guard who doesn’t shoot jumpers, and you have a log jam – too many guys who need to be near the basket on offense, and too many guys who need to be near the basket on defense.
Well, what could they have done differently? you ask. In all fairness, the Sixers’ options were limited. Most of the prospects at the top of the 2015 draft were big men. If they hadn’t picked Okafor, they could have picked Kristaps Porzingis or Willie Cauley-Stein or Myles Turner, but none of those picks would have done much to improve the fit. What’s more, none of them were clearly superior prospects to Okafor before the draft.
The only perimeter players taken after number three who could legitimately have been considered as remotely similar to Okafor in value were Okafor’s teammate Justise Winslow (taken at number 10 by Miami) and Louisville’s Terry Rozier (taken by Boston at number 16). Though Rozier averaged 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists a game in his age 20 season at Louisville, his size was a definite question mark entering the league. As such, it is foolish to fault the Sixers retroactively for not reaching for Rozier at number 3 when a high-quality 6’11” prospect who played well in the ACC as an 18-19 year old was on the board.
In truth, the prudent thing would have been to trade one of their young bigs in the summer of 2015. It should have been clear, even at that early date, that Embiid, Noel, and Okafor could never function together. Noel had a limited offensive repertoire, and Okafor shot 66% from the field in college by scoring from the post. The Sixers were never going to maximize the value of all these players. So, if you have a choice between ultimately trading one of them for pennies on the dollar a year or tow down the road, or trading one of them for even money now, you trade one right away.
To recap, by the summer of 2016 Philadelphia had assembled their chosen core through first round draft picks (listed above), second round flyers who worked out (Jerami Grant and Richaun Holmes), and undrafted free agents (Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell). The core was not yet ready to compete, and the process continued on into the 2016-17 season, which is where we will pick up for Part 3 of Processing the Process. See you next time!