Look at the top four teams in the Eastern Conference, the ones that are standing in the way of the Sixers’ quest for a home playoff series.
What do you see?
Do you see rosters that have been turned over three times in less than two years? Or do you see rosters that have been developed, and nurtured, and tweaked, and refined?
Do you see replacement-level youngsters asked to offer more than they have to give? Or do you see burgeoning cores of players outperforming the capital invested in them?
Do you see rosters that lack a knock-down shooter? Or a player with an elite handle? Do you see centers playing forward, and forwards playing on the wing, and no one who seems 100 percent sure of what he is supposed to do?
Or do you see obvious roles, and obvious players who are filling those roles, and the obvious collective identity that brings?
Four years ago, the Sixers had reached a point where it seemed they could not mess things up.
They had a 22-year-old generational talent at center who was quickly emerging as one of the best big men in the game. They had the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, which they would use to select a player who would become an All-Star in his second season. They had an additional eight first-round picks over the next four drafts, one of which would fall in the top five, and two in the top 16. And they had enough cap space to pay at least two veteran players the NBA maximum, with more than enough left for additional upgrades.
On Thursday night, four years after ownership thanked Sam Hinkie for his service and handed the can’t-miss stockpile he’d amassed to the supposed adult in the room, the Sixers took the court with their season on the ropes.
The night before, they’d suffered a 108-94 thrashing by a team that had entered the game with a 16-47 record. They were mired in fifth place in the conference, losers of seven straight on the road. The absence of their two young superstars revealed a dilapidated roster of veteran players who were not earning their money and replacement-level novices and journeyman who never should have been expected to.
There were plenty of potential excuses, multiple bearers of the blame. The two injured cornerstones. The embattled head coach. The $108 million center-turned-forward-turned-center and the $180 million wing. But if the question was who had failed most at his job, it makes sense to start with the men who brought them all together.
For four years, this Sixers ownership group and its hand-picked decision makers had been out-drafted, and out-developed, and out-negotiated, and outmaneuvered. And now, with their two gargantuan tanked-for talents no longer around to provide cover, the consequences of complete organizational failure were obvious for all to see.
In Toronto, you see Pascal Siakam, drafted one pick after the Sixers took Furkan Korkmaz and three picks after they took Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. You see Fred VanVleet, signed that same season as an undrafted free agent.
You see O.G. Anunoby, drafted 22 picks after the Sixers selected Markelle Fultz, and two picks before they drafted Anzejs Pasecniks. You see Terrance Davis, signed as an undrafted free agent this offseason, when the Sixers sold multiple second round picks for cash.
That’s five non-lottery players acquired and developed since Bryan Colangelo replaced Hinkie as Sixers general manager. All are among the top seven in minutes for a team that entered Thursday 6½ games ahead of the Sixers in the standings.
In Boston, you see Jayson Tatum, drafted two picks after the Sixers took Fultz. You see Daniel Theis and Brad Wanamaker, a couple of seasoned European pros signed out of Germany in back-to-back offseasons. You see Grant Williams, drafted at No. 22, and Semi Ojeleye, drafted at No. 37.
Of the top 10 minutes-getters on the team, eight were drafted or signed as rookies by the Celtics, six of them since Colangelo’s arrival in Philly.
In Milwaukee, you see four veterans combining to average 43.7 points per game and shoot 36.5% from three-point range at a combined price tag of $39.3 million, which is $32.5 million less than the Sixers are paying for 44.6 points per game and a 33.8 three-point percentage out of Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Josh Richardson.
You see Donte DiVincenzo, drafted one pick after the Sixers proxy-selected Zhaire Smith at No. 16, averaging 22.8 minutes per game and shooting 34.0% from three-point range. That’s five players added to complement a couple of homegrown centerpiece stars, all since Colangelo replaced Hinkie as general manager in Philly.
Down in Miami, you see that Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo were drafted at No. 13 and No. 14, and that Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn were signed as undrafted free agents, all since Colangelo replaced Hinkie. You see the way the skills of those young players blend with those of Jimmy Butler, and Andre Iguodala, and Jae Crowder, all veterans acquired since last summer.
As the Sixers limped home from Cleveland, here is what you did not see. You did not see Fultz. You did not see Luwawu-Cabarrot. You did not see Pasecniks. You did not see Zhaire Smith. You did not see Landry Shamet. Five first-round picks. You did not see Jimmy Butler, whom the Sixers had acquired for a package that included a player in Robert Covington who earlier this month was traded for what was effectively two first-round picks.
You see a payroll on the verge of the luxury tax, a starting lineup that still has two veterans making $25 million-plus and a third making $10.8 million. Behind them, you see a cupboard that is empty, and no capital left to fill it.