It still comes down to talent evaluation and talent development. After spending the weekend poring through the entrails of the Sixers’ perplexing performance on draft night, that’s what I’ve decided. That’s what the odds say, anyway.
Five years from now, if Matisse Thybulle turns out to be the player that Elton Brand and his front office envision, the skeptics will look back and realize that the No. 33 pick was a rather inconsequential price to pay to ensure that the guy they needed was the guy they got. If Jonah Bolden turns out to be worth the minutes and reps that the Sixers believe he is, their decision to trade away Bruno Fernando at No. 34 will be an afterthought.
The same goes for Zhaire Smith and Shake Milton. The Sixers are not lacking in lottery tickets, a fact that Brand underscored on several different occasions when pressed to defend his decision to trade away three of the Sixers’ five picks in Thursday’s draft.
“We’re gonna develop Zhaire, Jonah’s developing, Shake is developing, now Matisse is gonna develop,” the GM said. “Too many young guys with a team with championship aspirations does not work.”
In Sam Hinkie’s three drafts as general manager, the Sixers made 12 selections in the second round. Five of those picks came between No. 31 and No. 39. Of those five, two are out of the league (Glen Rice Jr. and K.J. McDaniels), and two spent 2018-19 as reserves on lottery teams (Willy Hernangomez and Richaun Holmes). The only one that would have had a place in the current Sixers rotation is Jerami Grant, who spent one season as a low-cost reserve in Oklahoma City but is now playing on a three-year, $27 million contract.
All told, those five picks combined to produce one-and-a-half seasons of playoff-level production at below-market cost.
Make no mistake: The odds say that the more chances a team takes, the more likely it is that it ends up hitting on a player who returns significant bang for the buck. If the Sixers ended up coming away from the last three drafts with one Grant-level piece out of all of the early-second-round picks they’ve traded away (No. 39 in 2017, No. 38 and No. 39 in 2018, No. 31, No. 33 and No. 34 in 2019), that would be more than what they’ve gotten thus far (with apologies to Trevor Booker).
But there’s a significant complication that prevents general managers from treating the draft like a scratch-off game. A team can only carry 15 players on NBA contracts, and a team like the Sixers does not have the luxury of erring on the side of expected future value for all 15 of those slots. Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Smith, Bolden, and Thybulle will all be under contract for at least the next two seasons by the time the 2019-20 schedule begins. Brand is also including Milton in that mix. The Sixers must also reserve spots for at least three other players — Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, JJ Redick, or their replacements — and potentially two more (Mike Scott or his replacement, and a backup center). That leaves four open roster spots, plus two players on two-way contracts.
“I know we can’t add five young players to this established team,” Brand said. "Fifty-plus wins two years in a row, a few bounces away from going to overtime and maybe the Eastern Conference Finals and beyond. Five young players wouldn’t have worked for that.”
There is a numbers game here, and when you consider the Sixers’ recent draft-day trades from that perspective, they make a little more sense. Next year, they could end up with four picks between No. 21 and No. 39 (Oklahoma City’s first-rounder, top 20 protected; the Knicks’ second-rounder; the Mavericks’ second-rounder; and the Hawks’ second-rounder). There’s a decent chance that two of those picks -- the Thunder’s and the Knicks’ -- are as good or better than the No. 33 and No. 34 picks that they traded away on Thursday. If the Sixers did not value anybody who was on the board at No. 34 as nearly highly as the hypothetical player who could be on the board in that range next year, then it made plenty of sense to trade away that pick.
Again, it all comes down to whether or not their talent evaluations and projections are in line with reality. If Fernando quickly develops into a backup center worthy of a spot in a playoff rotation, it does not mean that they were wrong to trade a second-round pick away for future picks. It means they were wrong about their evaluation of Fernando, and that he was worth the pick that they instead decided to trade away.