During the three seasons in which Sam Hinkie steered the 76ers ship serenely into icebergs, the strategy was both obvious and intentional. He wanted the team to play badly enough to accrue high draft picks. In that, if in no other tangible way, it was a successful albeit painful course.
On Thursday night, after a season in which both Hinkie and the premium on losing were gone, the Sixers again hold the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. It will be the fourth consecutive draft in which the Sixers have selected among the top three and the second straight time they get the top pick.
Getting the first selection this time wasn't part of the plan, however. It was a combination of circumstances, some very unlucky, which still conspired to produce what appears to be a fortunate ending. If the franchise has seemed to be star-crossed regarding the health of key players — with it taking several years for some stars to uncross — the events that put the Sixers in position to add guard Markelle Fultz could be the sign that luck is finally evening out for them.
"Things happen for a reason," Bryan Colangelo, the team's general manager and president of basketball operations, said this week. "This wasn't by design, not by plan."
Had Ben Simmons not suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot on the last day of training camp, and if Joel Embiid had avoided the meniscus tear that shut him down for the last 10 weeks of the season, what would the team's record had been? If you want to throw in the loss of guard Jerryd Bayless, a free agent acquisition who required wrist surgery, go ahead. Even with all of that misfortune, the team was 28-54, an improvement of 18 wins over the previous season. With a healthy season, what would they have done?
"Last year, coming in having won 10 games the previous season, I didn't really know what to expect," Colangelo said. "You could make the argument that if both [Simmons and Bayless] had been healthy, we would not be sitting here talking about acquiring the number one pick, or having the number three in the first place. A few more wins and we might be sitting in the 9th, 10th or 11th spot and it would have cost a lot more to get up to number one. A lot of things are lining up."
They might be lining up like stars aligning rather than being crossed. The 28 wins gave the Sixers the fourth-worst record in the league. Would it be reasonable to say that just by adding Simmons for the entire season the team could have won a mere seven more games to finish at 35-47? Sure, why not? That record would have been 11th-worst in the NBA, one of those mediocre lottery picks that gets teams nowhere.
As it turned out, even that could have swung in their favor since the Sixers held the right to swap picks with Sacramento, a generous sprinkling of Hinkie dust left over for good luck. That option moved them from fifth to third in the real world, but there's no guarantee the same would have happened in the what-if world. Moving around the order of teams in the lottery would change the ping-pong ball combinations assigned to all the affected teams. The odds would still favor moving up with help from the Kings, but, based on probability, only a few spots would have been the likeliest outcome.
The bad luck of being without Simmons, and the others to whatever extent, did conspire to produce a positive result, particularly when Colangelo was able to jump from No. 3 to No. 1 by dealing one of Hinkie's hard-earned future first-round picks to Boston.
Drafting in the murky middle of the first round gets you nowhere, which was the real basis of Hinkie's philosophy. From the 2007 draft to the 2013 draft, when Hinkie inherited a 34-48 team, the Sixers picked 12th, 16th, 17th, 2nd, 16th, 15th and 11th. No wonder the team was mired in mediocrity. If the roster core that has now been assembled succeeds as planned, the Sixers will eventually be drafting in poor position again, but last season got them what amounted to a free year at the top of the lottery and they took full advantage.
"At number one, you control it, and I'd rather always control that decision than sit back and wait for everything else to fall into place," Colangelo said. "I feel really good about the decision we've made because it puts us in the position to grab the guy we think is the best fit, has the most talent, and probably brings the most to this organization as a whole."
A lot of what has happened with the 76ers in the past four years has been carefully thought out and planned. Getting Fultz doesn't fall into that category. Being smart is great, but there's nothing wrong with dumb luck, either. The Sixers were due for some.
"Again, it is somewhat circumstantial that we're here," Colangelo said, "but nobody's angry about being here."