It’s a little weird being a week out from the NBA draft and feeling thirsty for compelling material. Used to be, the regular season was little more than an 82-game preview show for this time of year. The Sixers haven’t been great at many things over the last 35 years, but they have been among the best in accumulating high-value draft picks. They’ve also been among the best in squandering them. But, man, did this month used to be fun.
Now? Turns out, the downside of having a good basketball team in town is that it saps all the fun from the draft. There’s a reason Daryl Morey hasn’t made a first-round pick since the Houston Rockets were the Houston Catapults. It’s hard to find meaningful talent at the end of the first round, which often means a draft pick is more valuable as a trade asset.
Given that there aren’t many compelling arguments to have about the direction the Sixers should go at No. 28, it might be a little more fun to argue about the direction they’ve gone in the past.
For instance, who would go first in a hypothetical Sixers re-draft: Joel Embiid or Allen Iverson?
It’s the most interesting question that arose as we crunched the numbers in an attempt to identify the best Sixers first-round draft picks of the lottery era. But it wasn’t the only one. When evaluating a pick, it’s impossible to separate the player from the position where he was drafted. You might take Ben Simmons over Thaddeus Young, but which is the better pick: Simmons at No. 1 overall or Young at No. 12?
To offer some clarity, we looked at the 36 drafts in the lottery era and used Basketball-Reference.com’s Win Shares metric to calculate the average career production (on a per-game basis) for each of the 30 draft slots in the first round. We then looked at each of the Sixers’ first-round picks in the lottery era and zeroed in on those whose production exceeded the average for their draft position. Factoring in some qualitative variables, we arrived at a playoff rotation’s worth of picks that we ranked as follows:
1. Joel Embiid, No. 3 pick in 2014
Embiid and Iverson have one thing in common apart from their superstar status. Neither has won a title. The difference is that Iverson played 14 seasons in the NBA, while Embiid has played five. The unknown is what gives the big man the edge. It’s rare that a three-time All-Star has a breakout season, but that’s exactly what Embiid did at the age of 26, playing his way into MVP consideration while averaging 28.5 points and 10.6 rebounds with career-best efficiency numbers. But it’s his all-around game that makes him the pick at No. 1. The only reason he isn’t a defensive player of the year finalist every year is that defense is hard to quantify. No player makes more of a consistent impact on that end of the court than Embiid. You can dock him some points for his injury history, as well as the fact that he sat out his first two seasons. But consider this: Embiid has averaged 57% more win shares per game than the rest of the No. 3 picks in the lottery era. Even when you factor in his two missed seasons, his expected career win shares as a No. 3 pick would be 33.4 over seven seasons. Embiid currently has 31.6 over five.
2. Allen Iverson, No. 1 pick in 1996
The counterargument to using win shares as a metric is that Iverson deserved 100% credit for all of the Sixers’ wins during his peak. He invigorated the city of Philadelphia like few athletes before. He also gave us something to talk about besides the draft in the summer months. From a value standpoint, though, the big knock on him compared to Embiid is that the Sixers could have done better at No. 1 overall. Definitely with Kobe Bryant (No. 13). Arguably with Steve Nash (No. 15). And you can probably find someone who would suggest Ray Allen (No. 5).
3. Andre Iguodala, No. 9 in 2004
It isn’t just that Iguodala has outperformed his draft slot win shares by about 22%, or that he has won a Finals MVP, or spent 17 years in the league. It’s that the Sixers found such a player with the ninth pick in a first round that barely produced nine starting-caliber players. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that a redraft would see Iguodala go No. 2 overall behind Dwight Howard. Al Jefferson (No. 15) had a nine-year stretch in which he put up solid numbers, but he was a big man who shot just 50% from the field and never won a playoff series. Kevin Martin (No. 26) had a nine-year stretch when he averaged 20.2 points per game and shot .388 from three-point range, but he only made the playoffs once during that stretch. The conversation certainly would include Josh Smith (No. 17) and Luol Deng (No. 18). And the draft did produce some solid role players (Trevor Ariza, Devin Harris, Jameer Nelson, Tony Allen). At the end of the day, though, Iguodala ranks behind only Howard in win shares, and the next closest player is 24 behind. Even if you limited the sample to the eight seasons Iguodala spent with the Sixers, the pick was a resounding success. He averaged 15.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists with an eFG% of .500 in 37.7 minutes per game while leading his team to the playoffs in five seasons.
4. Jrue Holiday, No. 17 in 2009
Holiday did not blossom into an All-Star until after he left the Sixers, but that doesn’t change the fact that Ed Stefanski snagged arguably the third-best player in the draft in the middle of the first round. We use the word “arguably” here for good reason: a redraft of the 2009 crop would depend largely on what year you redrafted. Two years ago, Blake Griffin would have gone third behind Steph Curry and James Harden. But Holiday is just now reaching his peak, averaging 19.4 points and 6.9 assists with a .534 eFG% over the last three seasons. He might not be the scorer that DeMar DeRozan is, but he’s a better all-around player. Right now, Holiday ranks eighth in his class in win shares, but he’ll almost certainly climb to No. 5 within the next couple of seasons. However you rank them, he’s averaged nearly 44% more win shares on a per-game basis than the historical average for his draft position. That makes him one of the Sixers’ best picks of the lottery era.
5. Ben Simmons, No. 1 in 2016
There are likely to be a lot of lists in the coming years that rank Simmons as one of the Sixers’ worst picks of all time. The arguments will contend that a redraft of 2016 would see Simmons go no higher than third and potentially as low as sixth, depending on how the critic in question ranks Jamal Murray, Pascal Siakam, Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, and Domantas Sabonis. At this point, though, that sort of thinking is nonsense. Simmons might be a frustrating player, but he is still a three-time All-Star, a defensive player of the year runner-up, and the starting point guard on a team that has come within a game of the Eastern Conference finals on two occasions. He leads his class in win shares, averaging about 9% more per game than the average top overall pick. Simmons might be disappointing, but he is still one of the better picks the Sixers have made in the lottery era.
6. Thaddeus Young, No. 12 in 2007
To fully appreciate Billy King’s decision to draft Young, you first need to look at the rest of the players who were still on the board at that point. Apart from Marc Gasol, who went at No. 48 overall, no available player is within 10,000 minutes of Young’s career total. Only Gasol has averaged more than his 13.1 points per game. And, besides Gasol, no player who was still on the board is within 23 career win shares. Apart from Gasol and a trio of stars who went No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4, there was no better pick in the draft than Young. He might not be Kevin Durant, Al Horford or Mike Conley, but he averaged 13.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game with a .517 eFG% while helping the Sixers make the playoffs in four of his seven seasons in Philly. For his career, his average win shares are 1.5 times the average No. 12 pick on a per game basis. At 32 years old, he’s still a rock-solid rotation player with a lot of years left.
7. Jerry Stackhouse, No. 3 in 1995
Give him credit for longevity, a decent peak, and an NBA Finals berth with the Mavericks. Dock him credit for getting drafted immediately before Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett.
8. Nikola Vučević, No. 16 in 2011
Vučević’s illustrious Sixers career spanned a total of 812 minutes. And he’s the poster child for the danger of using win shares as a metric. His box score and efficiency numbers have been fantastic since he moved on to Orlando. But he hasn’t won a playoff series in 11 seasons, and has played in one only three times. Still, numbers count for something, and these ones say that Vučević has accumulated more career win shares than all but four Sixers first-round picks in the lottery era. So there you go.
One thing all eight of these players have in common: They were not on the board at No. 28.