You might be tired of hearing the word "asset," and that's understandable. For about 20 minutes, the Sixers looked as if they were right there with you. This was no time to prioritize the future, to spurn the bird in hand and chase the velociraptor in the distance. Not after a 52-win season, with a rapidly-improving core, and a rotation in immediate need of an NBA-ready three-and-D wing. The era of stockpiling assets ended when the Sixers secured the No. 3 seed in the East. Now was the time for cashing them in.
Except, it doesn't work like that, and it never has, and the moment a team starts thinking otherwise is the moment it starts fencing itself in. Given the state of the Sixers front office, and the background of the man currently serving as general manager, it was easy to wonder whether the organization would end up drifting back toward that illusory comfort that perceived certainty can instill. But in a flurry of phone calls, and one bold decision, Brett Brown erased any such fears.
"We are star hunting," the head coach said late Thursday night. "Or we are star developing. That's how you win a championship."
Optionality is another word that you might be tired of hearing, but it's something that every smart businessperson should always be striving to preserve for themselves. And that's exactly what the Sixers achieved for themselves on Thursday night when they acquired a future first-round pick for what essentially amounted to six slots of draft position.
Mikal Bridges would have been a good player for the Sixers. As one of their executives said a few weeks before the draft, the Villanova wing checks off a lot of boxes. The long frame, the solid defense, the catch-and-shoot ability, the NBA range on his jumper … these are things that a playoff team cannot have too much of in its rotation. Had they decided to hold onto him instead of shipping him to Phoenix six picks later, this would have been a column commending them on a job well done.
Instead, this is a column about the reality of the NBA. It is not a particularly heart-warming reality, but, then, reality rarely is. Forget the awkward ending that the Sixers authored in trading away the hometown kid who seemed genuinely thrilled about his chance to play for his mother's employer. Most people can live with that. We've watched professional sports long enough to know that they are not Dennis Quaid movies.
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It's the cold calculation that gets us, the talk of process and value and viewing the game through an accountant's prism. But winning is still the thing, and in order for a team to maximize its chances at doing so, these are the kinds of moves that will always need to be made.
In Zhaire Smith, the Sixers landed a player whom they admired nearly as much as they did Bridges, one of the two they'd hoped to be in position to select once the clock started rolling on the No. 10 pick. If you squint at his scouting report, you can see a player who fits a mold similar to the one Kawhi Leonard cast seven years ago when he entered the NBA out of San Diego State. In fact, that's what Brown himself saw during the two pre-draft workouts he staged for the Texas Tech product. The coach told Smith of working with Leonard during his time with the Spurs, and he later told the media that he thinks the kid has a chance to be similarly great. This wasn't a textbook case of deferred gratification, of sacrificing the present for some potential future gain. The Sixers got a real player back from the Suns, and you got the sense on Thursday night that the organization couldn't be more thrilled.
But they also got something else for their troubles, a very real commodity that has a very real chance of being parlayed into something even more tangible.
"That pick might be the key to all of this," Brown said. "That pick might be the thing that links a possible trade."
See, even if Bridges lives up to his potential, the odds are long that he will ever become the kind of player that will turn a contending team into a legitimate title favorite. Let's not forget, that is the goal the Sixers have always claimed to be pursuing, and it's not the kind of thing that you get with a three-and-d wing. On the court, they would have been more competitive this season with Bridges. But would they have been in the kind of position they will need to be if a trade opportunity arises that leaves them with the kind of legitimacy you can taste? That's another competition they could need to win.
It remains to be seen how much value this new first-round pick holds, but it came to the Suns by way of the Heat, and the Heat could easily be a lottery team by the time the unprotected pick conveys. Maybe that will end up being the case, maybe it won't, but the possibility is what matters on the trade market. And with this pick in their portfolio, plus Smith and Markelle Fultz, the Sixers are in much better position to put together a competitive offer should the opportunity to acquire a veteran star present itself.