Leading up to the 2014 NBA Draft, many felt the pick would be the culmination the the first portion of Sam Hinkie’s grand plan. By drafting a star with the top pick, the Sixers would be well on their way to finally improving, and eventually competing, after several years at the bottom of the standings. However, things did not quite work out that way. By taking a chance on an injured center – who may have been the third of three stars in the draft – the team may now play their second full season without their 2014 first round pick. Adding to this setback was K.J. McDaniels’ contract debacle which led to the team’s second draft pick being traded to Houston when the team could not lock him up beyond a year.
It takes a certain amount of luck to find success in the draft, so there will always be occasional misses, but the front office has struggled to find players who they feel are long term fits for the team. By the end of last year, there were no players drafted by the team in the first round on the active roster, and even though Hinkie has been able to collect future draft picks and build salary cap room, they continue to play the long game when it comes to their high draft picks. Although the Joel Embiid pick will be an albatross around the Hinkie’s neck until the big man steps foot on an NBA court, this draft may determine the future of the team and the success of this current long term strategy.
When the draft order was decided on May 19th, and the Sixers stayed in the third spot for the second year in a row, there was some disappointment. This draft does contain four or five projected stars at the top of the draft, but with the Sixers finally trying to acquire players who should contribute in the long run, the team needs to consider how players will fit with their other emerging talent.
In many ways, the Sixers seem to be working from an outdated blueprint. Considering the new NBA Champion won with a starting lineup that lacked a traditional post player, the Sixers are stockpiling bigs at a time when the game is being pushed out to the perimeter. With Tony Wroten hurt and Michael Carter Williams in Milwaukee, the team got little perimeter production outside of Robert Covington, who is a role player at best. They need to strengthen their guard depth to compete, even if they plan to buck trends and play inside out. This is what makes D’Angelo Russell so valuable to this team; Russell can not only play both guard positions, a skill most of the top guards in the league have mastered, but he is also able to make plays off the dribble and shoot at a time when elite shooting is more valuable in the league than ever. The other top-five guard, Emmanuel Mudiay, currently lacks the shot that separates players like Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook and could face the same issues that pushed Hinkie to trade Carter-Williams last winter. There are plenty of potential contributors on the perimeter later in the draft, but Russell could end up being the one transcendent guard in this big-men-heavy draft.
But what happens if Russell is gone, or if Hinkie is sending up smoke screens as he looks at some of the other prospects? There is a decent chance Russell goes to the Los Angeles Lakers at two as they try to look to a future without Kobe Bryant. In that case, the Sixers would definitely go with the other player with whom they have been linked: Latvian Kristaps Porzingis. Rumors are emerging that they have him above Russell on their board, so there’s a chance they go with the versatile stretch big man even if Karl Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor go one and two. If they do decide on Porzingis, you may see Hinkie move down a pick or two so he can grab another asset and still get the player he wants. Also, if they do like Okafor and he drops, it would not be completely out of the realm of possibility that the Sixers draft the low post player, trade Noel, and wait to resolve the Okafor/Embiid issue until Embiid is ready to get on the court. The fortunate thing about being so bad is that you have a lot of flexibility in terms of what you can do in the draft and free agency.
The Sixers also have one of the largest inventories of draft picks ever assembled by an NBA franchise, which means they could be moving around some in the draft. It would not be surprising if the team decides to package a few later picks to get another pick in the first round. The biggest move could involve getting a second top four pick from the New York Knicks who are looking to start a rebuild that would require numerous players and draft picks. Considering they do not have a first round pick in 2016, the Knicks may be looking to flip this pick for a few more assets in the long run. Picking up Russell and Porzingis would fill two holes with prototypical players for the new NBA.
Even if they decide to set their sights a little lower in terms of obtaining another pick, the Sixers have a lot of options in the late first round and early second round. Players like Jerian Grant and Justin Anderson may lead Hinkie to use one of the stockpiled picks to move up a little to fill out the roster, but understanding that he treats players and picks as assets he may be content to wait until the second round to see who drops. Regardless, the team has a lot of options outside of just their top pick to add talent to the roster.
Fans have put a tremendous amount of faith in a GM with no experience, and as the team enters the third year of this rebuilding experiment the franchise is clearly approaching a breaking point. Supporters will only tolerate this embarrassing level of losing for so long, and the fact that the one potential star they did draft (who is still on the team) could be traded at any moment makes it hard to not only market the team, but to build the chemistry necessary to grow into a contender. It takes three or four years to develop young players to help lead a contender, so even if they are able to sign a free agent or two, their drafted players may need until 2020 to be ready to contribute significantly. Very few teams have been able to compete with no homegrown stars, and if the Sixers are truly going to take the next step, this draft is an important place to start.