The 2016-17 season represented a major inflection point in “The Process,” the Philadelphia 76ers multi-season tank job engineered by Sam Hinkie and widely praised and criticized by nearly everyone with any stake in the league. The beginning of the 2016-17 season saw the Sixers enter with a young core of nine players all drafted or signed under the Hinkie regime. For reference, here is those players’ performance across the subsequent seasons:
|Nerlens Noel||3.7 Wins, 73% Eff., 1047 MP||0.8 Wins, 55% Eff., 472 MP||4.0 Wins, 56% Eff., 1056 MP|
|Joel Embiid||3.8 Wins, 55% Eff., 786 MP||8.1 Wins, 54% Eff., 1912 MP||10.6 Wins, 50% Eff., 2154 MP|
|Dario Saric||3.9 Wins, 46% Eff., 2129 MP||4.7 Wins, 50% Eff., 2310 MP||3.1 Wins, 47% Eff., 2022 MP|
|Jahlil Okafor||2.2 Wins, 45% Eff., 1134 MP||0.6 Wins, 46% Eff., 353 MP||1.8 Wins, 48% Eff., 935 MP|
|Ben Simmons||7.3 Wins, 54% Eff., 2732 MP||6. Wins, 53% Eff., 2700 MP|
|Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot||1.6 Wins, 45% Eff., 1190 MP||1.1 Wins, 40% Eff., 806 MP||0.6 Wins, 52% Eff., 669 MP|
|Furkan Korkmaz||0.1 Wins, 36% Eff., 80 MP||1.3 Wins, 47% Eff., 679 MP|
|Jerami Grant||2.6 Wins, 45% Eff., 1531 MP||3.7 Wins, 51% Eff., 1647 MP||4.8 Wins, 48% Eff., 2612 MP|
|Richaun Holmes||2.7 Wins, 54% Eff., 1193 MP||1.8 Wins, 52% Eff., 746 MP||1.8 Wins, 49% Eff., 1184 MP|
|Robert Covington||4.9 Wins, 52% Eff., 2119 MP||5.6 Wins, 47% Eff., 2532 MP||2.4 Wins, 51% Eff., 1203 MP|
|T.J. McConnell||3.4 Wins, 56% Eff., 2133 MP||2.9 Wins, 49% Eff., 1706 MP||2.7 Wins, 50% Eff., 1470 MP|
The fields in italics denote seasons in which the player finished the season elsewhere. As you can see from the table, the Sixers traded two members of their young core during the ’16-’17 season. Jerami Grant was traded to OKC for Ersan Ilyasova and a top 20 protected 1st round pick in the 2020 draft, which we can now confidently affirm will convert to two second rounders since the Thunder are pivoting toward a rebuild this week. Then, at the trade deadline, Philly traded Nerlens Noel to Dallas for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut, and two second rounders.
In Part 2, I discussed briefly the Sixers’ frontcourt logjam. This situation is likely what led to the two trades above. Ersan Ilyasova was a veteran on a highly movable contract who was a far superior shooter to Jerami Grant, so the Sixers traded a young prospect for two assets that fit better (a stretch forward and a future first round pick). Similarly, Nerlens Noel could not function alongside of Joel Embiid, so Philadelphia traded him before he reached the end of his rookie contract and entered restricted free agency. Justin Anderson was a wing prospect who was generally considered to be of lower caliber that Noel, while Bogut was on an expiring contract and was bought out. Essentially, the trade was for Anderson and two second rounders.
Since Ilyasova was later traded for a second round pick and a second round pick swap, we can summarize the trades as follows: the Sixers traded Jerami Grant (originally a second round pick) for three second round picks and traded Nerlens Noel (originally the no. 6 pick) for two second round picks. It is easy to argue that Philadelphia got poor returns on both trades; Grant was just traded for a first round pick after a bit more seasoning, and Noel has become a bit of an analytics darling as a low-usage backup big man. Considering also that Jrue Holiday was the price the Sixers payed to move up to select Noel, getting a pair of second round picks for him is quite disappointing. The Sixers also tried to move Jahlil Okafor at the trade deadline in order to address the logjam at center, but the Pacers balked at giving up a first rounder. In this vein, it is important to remember that the Nerlens Noel trade was advertised as including Dallas’ first round pick, although the protections on the pick (for the 2017 draft) meant that it was highly unlikely to actually provide a first round pick. As such, the result of Philadelphia’s decisions to use lottery picks on players with overlapping and non-complementary skill sets was the loss of some of those players at below market value.
With the problem clarified, Philadelphia’s next step became clear. The Sixers entered the 2017 Draft with the number 3 pick (obtained by exercising their right to swap picks with Sacramento) and a clear need for a perimeter shooter and playmaker. The top of the 2017 draft class featured three prospects who were considered likely to develop into this type of player: Markelle Fultz of Washington, Lonzo Ball of UCLA, and Jayson Tatum from Duke. Philadelphia made a blockbuster trade with the Boston Celtics to move up to the top spot in order to select the player considered to be the best shooter of the trio – Markelle Fultz. Fultz made 52 of 126 college 3-pointers in his lone season at Washington and contributed 5.9 assists per game despite playing on a team devoid of talent. Jason Tatum, by comparison, made only 34.2% of his college 3-pointers and had more turnovers than assists. Though his high free throw percentage did indicate an excellent shooting stroke, Tatum’s jumper looked less polished than Fultz’. Lonzo Ball’s accuracy on college 3-pointers (41.2%) was widely viewed as suspect due to his unusual and erratic shooting motion. Though Ball was far and away the best passer of the class, most analysts felt that Fultz was the best overall prospect.
You all know what came next … thoracic outlet syndrome turned the Sixers’ designated jump-shooter and playmaker into a non-shooter. While I do fault the Sixers for drafting a bunch of post scorer/rim defender big men in consecutive lotteries who could not possibly play together, it is difficult to lay much blame on them for trading up to get the guy who was ostensibly the best player in the class. They badly needed a lead guard, and they made a move to get one. Injuries are unpredictable, and injuries to 19-year-olds can easily derail even the best of rebuilding efforts.
The 76ers had four second-round picks in the 2017 draft. They were able to identify good prospects on two of the four selections, picking Jonah Bolden with the 36th pick and Sterling Brown with the 46th pick. Unfortunately, Philly ended up trading Brown to the Milwaukee Bucks for cash later that summer.
The 2017-18 season was the Sixers’ return to the playoffs and in some ways the culmination of the Process. For the first time in the Process, Philadelphia signed veteran free agents to play significant roles – J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson. With the move into contention, the Sixers could no longer afford to devote significant minutes to development. As a result, Philly traded Jahlil Okafor and “second draft” prospect Nik Stauskas along with a second round pick to the Nets for Trevor Booker.
As with Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia got precious little return for the draft capital expended on Jahlil Okafor. Of the three centers selected in consecutive lotteries, only one of the three (Joel Embiid) became a contributor for the Sixers. In many ways, I see this as the defining failure of the Process. The justification for tanking across multiple seasons was that the top of the draft is the best and easiest way to acquire top-shelf talent. What actually happened, however, was that only two out of five lottery picks during the Process produced reliable rotation players. The Process led to the accumulation of copious second round picks and plenty of roster space for undrafted free agents, which led to a better than normal hit rate on the bargain bin. Unfortunately for the Sixers, however, the picks that they actually tanked for – the ones at the top of the draft – were not as useful in the rebuilding effort. This raises the question of whether or not it is actually worthwhile to tank for multiple seasons in order to acquire the picks, if there is in fact an insufficient reward for the risk. This exact question will occupy a great deal of our attention in the conclusion to this series, when we will review the 2018 draft and the trades made during last season that vaulted Philadelphia within one basket of knocking off the eventual champions. Stay tuned for the conclusion!