The practice of trading away the top pick in the NBA draft, or being caught in the vortex of such a move, is perilous business, and few franchises have more firsthand experience with that than the 76ers.
By Thursday night, we'll know for sure if the potential trade between the Sixers and Celtics, which would send the No. 1 pick to Philadelphia and the No. 3 pick, along with other as-yet unspecified assets, to Boston, becomes a reality. There is still a lot that could derail the deal, including an agreement on the compensation, and the pesky fact that another team sits between them on the draft board with the ability to muck things up.
Having been on both ends before, even if the previous administrations are long gone, the Sixers are playing it cool and keeping their options open. They worked out Markelle Fultz on Saturday after the University of Washington point guard was diverted from Boston like a plane searching for a runway. If Fultz, a ball-dominant guard proficient at the pick-and-roll game that dominates the NBA and the possessor of a very good outside shot, becomes their pick, the Sixers will have to scrap the notion of playing Ben Simmons on the ball. They might accept that readily should they believe Fultz is that good, but there's no question that will be a collateral result.
Seismic shifts always seem to accompany this sort of move. The Sixers made the worst mistake in franchise history when they traded the top pick in 1986 (Brad Daugherty) for Roy Hinson in a draft-day disaster that included packaging Moses Malone to Washington for Jeff Ruland. Even with Charles Barkley on the roster for much of the next decade, it took at least that long to recover – with the selection of Allen Iverson – and in some ways it really never recovered.
The Celtics, by contrast, did pretty well when they traded away the No. 1 pick in 1980, sending it to Golden State along with the No. 13 pick in exchange for the No. 3 pick and center Robert Parish. The third pick became Kevin McHale, while the top pick, Joe Barry Carroll, became a poster boy for failed potential.
The most direct comparison to the current situation, however, was in 1993, when the Orlando Magic, holding the top pick, got into a trade discussion with the Warriors, who were sitting at No. 3. In between, in the position where the Lakers are now, were the Sixers with the second pick.
Let's assume, as has been reported by various Boston sources, that the Celtics are setting their sights on Kansas forward Josh Jackson, but felt they could move back and still get him, figuring on Fultz to the Sixers and UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball to the Lakers. Moving back does several things for the Celtics. It gets them future assets, probably from the sack of first-rounders the Sixers hold, and it gets them a few million dollars in cap relief by not having to pay the top pick. As Boston marshals its funds for free-agent offers – and, sure, Gordon Hayward is a logical bet there – that will be useful.
But what if the Lakers, happy enough to stick with D'Angelo Russell at the point, are planning to either take Jackson for themselves, or take him in order to hold him hostage from the Celtics? Rather than simply selecting Ball, Magic Johnson could grab Jackson and force Boston to draft Ball, swap the players, and then fork over those future picks they just acquired from the Sixers. You can be very sure Danny Ainge, whatever his faults, is not going to walk into that one with his eyes closed.
In 1993, Orlando was stone in love with Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, and Golden State, coached by the iconoclastic Don Nelson, wanted to sneak up and grab 7-foot-6 center Shawn Bradley, whom Nelly saw as a game-changer. I know, I know. Don't get me started. At the time, however, Bradley was touted as freakishly athletic and versatile for a man his size. Frank Layden, the portly Utah Jazz general manager who watched Bradley closely at Brigham Young, liked to point out that Bradley wasn't just an erector set. He could water-ski and play baseball and ride horses. NBA scout Gary Fitzsimmons said, "I don't know what that means. If you told me Frank Layden could ride a horse, I know what I'd do. I'd draft the horse."
In any case, Golden State offered Orlando three future first-round picks if the Magic would draft Bradley and then trade him for Hardaway, whom the Warriors would take at No. 3. That would have worked fine (for a disaster, that is) except the Sixers, with the second pick, very much coveted Bradley and told the Magic that if they took Bradley as Golden State's proxy, they would step in and swipe Hardaway, and the Magic could pound sand. Orlando and Golden State had to alter the terms slightly and the Warriors had to settle for getting future five-time all-star Chris Webber in the swap and the Sixers proudly came away with Bradley.
It's a good reminder to be careful what you wish for, and also a good reminder that a trade between No. 1 and No. 3 takes for granted a very important component, something that won't be lost on Magic Johnson.
Still, the top pick doesn't become available very often, and it is a tantalizing prize. Whether Fultz is a transcendent player is the question – and if so, how can Boston pass on him? – and the answer wasn't found on the court in Camden on Saturday. That will come later. By Thursday night, we'll find out only what comes now.