Processing the Process (Conclusion)

          In Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of my review of the “The Process,” I have covered the Philadelphia 76ers’ rebuilding process beginning with their multi-season tank job and leading up to their return to the playoffs in the 2017-18 season. Last season brought the culmination of the Process, as the Sixers went all-in with two major trades that cashed in most of their draft assets acquired during the Process. In this final part of my analysis, then, I will review the Sixers’ moves in the 2018 offseason and during the 2018-19 season, followed by a brief overview of the Process on the whole.

          The 2018 draft was busy for the Sixers, with two first round picks and four second rounders. Their first pick, number 10 selection Mikal Bridges, was sent to Phoenix in a draft-night trade for no. 16 pick Zhaire Smith and Miami’s 2021 first rounder. Bridges got plenty of run for the Suns this year, but his production rate was near the bottom of the league. Zhaire Smith, on the other hand, was injured for most of the season, so it is not yet clear how Philly fared in this trade. Smith did not have enough data after returning from injury last season to draw any significant conclusions in either his brief rehab stint in the G-League or in his 111 minutes of NBA run. He played fairly well in the Las Vegas summer league this summer, improving his TS% from 39.3% in his first summer to 53.9% this summer.

          Philadelphia used the number 26 pick on Wichita State guard Landry Shamet, who far exceeded his draft position with 2.3 wins on 48% efficiency at a perfectly respectable .061 wins per 48 minutes. The Sixers’ second round picks ended up all going out in trades. The return from those trades was Shake Milton and three future second round picks. Milton did not get much NBA playing time last year, but played very well in the G-League and was an effective and efficient scorer in college at SMU.

          During the summer of 2018, the Sixers resigned Amir Johnson and J.J. Redick, as well as trading for Wilson Chandler. Wilson Chandler has generally been a reliable rotation swing, but underperformed last season relative to his previous history. Redick has been a key contributor in both seasons with the Sixers, and on relatively affordable and team-friendly contracts. Redick generated 11.2 wins across his two seasons with the Sixers at far above average production rate and efficiency, so he was a good signing by any measure. Amir Johnson played rarely, but provided a reliable big man off the bench when called upon.

          In a couple of minor moves, the Sixers also traded Richaun Holmes to Phoenix for cash (which I would consider a negative move), and traded Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot in the Carmelo Anthony trade in which they received Mike Muscala. Since neither TLC nor Muscala is a legitimate NBA rotation player, the trade was largely irrelevant for the Sixers.

          With Philadelphia sitting n a stockpile of draft picks, new GM Elton Brand shook the league with not one but two megadeals. The first was a trade for Jimmy Butler, who was vocally discontented in Minnesota. The Sixers traded Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless, and their 2022 second round pick to Minnesota in the swap. Although we now know that Butler did not ultimately stay in Philly, he undoubtedly raised the Sixers’ ceiling last season (and they did come within one basket of defeating the champs).

          The question is, did Philadelphia give up too much to acquire Butler?

The performance history of the players Philadelphia gave up in the trade are laid out in the tables above. Jerryd Bayless has contributed less than two wins total over the last three seasons, and was included as an expiring contract to balance the salaries. As you can see, the Sixers gave up about 9 wins’ worth per season in trading Covington and Saric (note that injury prevented Covington from playing a full campaign last year, but his per 48 minute production rate was essentially identical to his previous rate).

          In addition, Saric has a team option for next season, so the Sixers were technically giving up a season and a half of Saric. Covington is under contract through 2021-22, so Philly was surrendering 3 ½ seasons’ worth of value from Covington. If we calculate Covington at 5.0 wins per season (his average in his last three healthy seasons) and Saric at 3.8 wins per season, Philadelphia traded away about 23.2 total wins over the entire span of the two players’ contracts.

          In order to know if Philadelphia gave up too much or not, though, we need to know how much they got back.

Jimmy Butler had his least productive season in sample last year, but Philadelphia could have legitimately expected him to be worth 8.9 wins in a season (his previous average). Butler’s normal production rate is around 170% of league average, far better than either Covington or Saric. Covington and Saric combined, however, are about 200% as productive as league average for one player. This analysis overstates the impact of giving up Covington and Saric, however, because it depends upon the per 48 minute production of two players as opposed to one. When we compare the per-game production rate, we find that Butler was indeed superior to the two combined in 2016-17 and was nearly identical to the pair (.129 to .130) in 2017-18.

          On a game-by-game basis, then Philadelphia came out ahead in trading two starters for a superstar. The long term is where this deal will hurt, as Philadelphia only got part of a season and one postseason run out of Butler. While their likelihood of winning a playoff series was substantially larger with the one player who produces 130% of league average wins per game as opposed to two players who combine to produce that much value, the Timberwolves are likely to enjoy around 15 wins from Robert Covington in the seasons to come.

          Philadelphia’s second super-trade was more oriented toward draft compensation, as the Sixers included two first-round picks and two second-round picks in the trade in addition to the players listed below.

If the players had all been expiring contracts, this deal would have been a huge win for Philly. In fact, however, Landry Shamet will have three more seasons on his cost-controlled rookie contract, as will both of the players selected by the Clippers with Philadelphia’s 2020 first round pick and Miami’s 2021 first round pick. Given Shamet’s performance as a rookie, it seems reasonable to estimate that he will generate at least 7 more wins before hitting restricted free agency. If we anticipate slightly weaker players to be selected with the picks included in the trade, we can estimate 8 wins for each first rounder and probably about a win total from the second rounders, which would give us a guestimate of 24 future wins from the assets sent out in the trade.

          While all three players the Sixers received were expiring contracts, Tobias Harris and Mike Scott have resigned with Philadelphia. Harris is likely to provide about 26.4 wins in his five-year contract based on past performance, while Scott should be good for about 4.4 wins over his two-year contract. If we include these players’ future wins in our evaluation of the trade, then it looks like Philadelphia got better (though the monetary price is high). In fact, it is fair to include the future value of Harris, as it appears that acquiring Harris’ Bird rights, and thus the ability to offer him a five-year max contract, was critical in Harris deciding to resign with Philly.

          Evaluating the two major trades, I applaud the Sixers for going all-in. They cashed in a lot of their chips and built a team that was a legitimate contender. This summer may have a cast a different light on the trades, since we now know that a) Jimmy Butler left and b) Tobias Harris signed a five-year max. You can believe that the Sixers are paying too much for Harris, but still have a positive view of the trades. After all, it is not at all clear that Philadelphia would have been able to attract a free agent better than Butler or Harris in the summer market. What actually transpired was that the Sixers signed Al Horford with their room. If that level of player is the best you can attract, then the best way to build a contender is to trade for a superstar and a complementary starter. Put more simply, if Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving weren’t signing with Philadelphia, then the best they could hope for was to trade for Jimmy Butler and hope to retain him, and then have a class-B star as their Plan B.

          The Sixers also made two smaller trades at the trade deadline that serve as illustrations of the completion of the Process. In one trade, they reinforced their position as buyers by paying a second round pick swap for James Ennis III in a salary dump. In the other, they moved Markelle Fultz in exchange for Jonathon Simmons, a first round pick, and a second round pick. With the Process having reached fruition, Philadelphia no longer had time to develop Fultz.

          Both trades were depth-building moves; neither Simmons nor Ennis was really expected to move the needle on winning playoff games, but Philadelphia was sorely in need of wings after depleting their bench in the two mega-trades.

As you can tell, both players are garden-variety backups, and both were having their worst seasons on record, allowing Philadelphia to acquire them cheaply.

          You know the rest … Philadelphia lost to Toronto on Kawho Leonard’s Game 7 buzzer-beater, then Jimmy Butler left in a sign-and-trade that brought Josh Richardson back to Philly. The Sixers signed Tobias Harris and Al Horford to huge contracts, then extended Ben Simmons. The Sixers core is going to be in place for the foreseeable future, and they have certainly achieved their goal of building a contender. We are left wondering, however, whether or not the Process was a good way to build a contender, or even the best possible way to build a contender given the state of the 76ers when the Process began.

          From a PR standpoint, the Process had its drawbacks. Philadelphia has yet to sign a true premiere free agent, even as they enter their phase as contenders. It was popular up until a year ago to say that no free agent would sign with the Sixers because of the optics of tanking for multiple seasons, though we hear less of that now. Since Philadelphia is not a preferred location for elite free agents, the Sixers need to chase every advantage they can (thus the trade for Jimmy Butler ahead of free agency). Building a contender by blatantly tanking for multiple seasons and causing a stink around the league probably hurts their chances on the free agent market more than it helps, even if this factor has been overblown in previous discussion of the Process.

          From an evaluation point of view, the Process was based on a solid and well-attested theory that the picks at the top of the draft tend to produce more fruit than the picks lower in the draft. The problem is that you still have identify the players that will become most valuable out of the draft class. In spite of drafting at the top of the lottery for years and years, it is probably fair to say that the Sixers third or fourth best draft pick during that time was Landry Shamet, picked at number 26! As I mentioned previously, Philadelphia had great success in identifying contributors in the second round and in the undrafted free agent bin. Unfortunately, their accuracy with the lottery picks that they tanked for was less than stellar. So, tanking may guarantee you a high pick, but not a good player; that part is up to the front office

          If we want to evaluate the method, though, it might make sense to run through what the Sixers could have done with those picks. The table below is the alternate universe version of the Process, wherein the Sixers make the best selection, but the selection must be defensible given the information available at the time (so no going back in time and drafting Giannis).

The table brings out one final point: even if you make the best pick possible based on the available information, not every draft class has the same amount of quality players. The picks that Philadelphia used on Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, and Dario Saric could not have yielded significantly more valuable players; the Markelle Fultz and Zhaire Smith picks were both artificially deflated injury. The change in total wins with the players Philadelphia “should have” drafted is 40.6 wins across 4 seasons. Realistically, though, getting better players earlier in the Process may have made it less likely for them to be in position to draft Ben Simmons.

          With the disparity between draft classes in mind, one could argue that it is better to tank for multiple seasons if you’re going to tank. Despite missing on several high lottery picks, they did get two foundational stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Was the Process worth it? The Process delivered a contender, but the Sixers paid a heavy price to build it. For teams willing to pay that price, the Process was a good rebuilding method. For teams with more conservative ownership groups or better location for attracting free agents, multi-season tank jobs are likely to be too costly relative to the value provided.

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