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June 22, 2018

Brett Brown's star-powered focus is the biggest takeaway from Sixers' 2018 NBA Draft

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050418-BrettBrown-USAToday Bob DeChiara/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers head coach and interim GM Brett Brown.

Once Bryan Colangelo was handed his walking papers earlier this month, it was anyone's guess how the Sixers would approach the 2018 NBA Draft. Rumors flew in every direction prior to Thursday evening, suggesting they'd stand pat, trade Markelle Fultz to move up, trade back, and every possible outcome in between. Without a clear picture of who was making the final decisions in Philadelphia's draft room, how were we supposed to know?

If Philadelphia's actions in the first round didn't paint a clear enough picture of where the team's priorities are, Brett Brown came and spelled things out quite clearly, and he certainly made it clear who was laying down the law when the Sixers dealt Mikal Bridges for Zhaire Smith and a future first.

"I was the one that approved the final decision," Brown said after the first round was completed on Thursday evening. "We have many people in that room that are aggressively speaking to people, and we acquire information, we put it on a board and we discuss it. And at the end of the day, Josh [Harris] looked at me and I did what I did, we approved the deal, I approved the deal."

And so despite his tag saying interim GM, despite the perils of a coach getting too involved in the front office process, despite all the concerns fans might have come in with, the Sixers did what they have promised to do across multiple management tenures: they kept their eyes turned toward the future and maintained their gaze toward star players, instead of settling for just "good enough."

To be clear — Mikal Bridges would have been an excellent fit in what the Sixers are building, and had a clearer path to being an integral part of the rotation from the get-go. There are long-term and short-term concerns attached to Smith that should not be dismissed off-hand, and like so many of their draft decisions over the last few years, we may look back on this as a make-or-break moment of the "Process" era.

There is a considerable risk here, but that risk has been assumed because the Sixers believe there are larger forces and opportunities to worry about. Brown called Bridges and Smith 1A and 1B on their board and said it was only the presence of such a valuable pick that made their decision possible.

"I’m going into my sixth season with the Philadelphia 76ers," said Brown, "and so what is best for the organization and how do you win a championship, how do you acquire things that can attract stars or develop stars? That pick might be the key to all of this, that pick might be the thing that links a possible trade."

There has only been one trade on the mind of Sixers fans over the last few months, and that's one for San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard. 

Miami's 2021 first-round pick might seem like a small piece of ammunition in the grand scheme of things, but it's ammunition all the same. Keep this in mind: 2021 is the year when the one-and-done rule might evaporate, according to internal memos from the league, which could end up inflating the value of the asset as more talented players flood the draft pipeline. Unprotected picks are worth their weight in gold anyway — this is the cherry on top.

Leonard's alleged preference for Los Angeles notwithstanding, the Sixers are big-game hunting, now and moving forward. They believe they have the core pieces to put themselves firmly on the map, and are not as concerned with hitting singles as they are home runs.

And by the way, that has been the organizational ethos since Brown himself walked through the door in 2013. It was the driving force behind trading Jrue Holiday for unknowns in the draft, for continuing to draft big men in spite of criticism, for trading a Rookie of the Year in his second season to the chagrin of people within your own organization.

At the end of that trade, as it turns out, was another trade, flipping the more "sure thing" for a player with more star upside, and yet another draft asset to help replenish the war chest. It's what a franchise does when it's worried about winning consecutive championships and building something special instead of just praying a magical run falls out of the sky.

"It’s not a mystery and the time is now," Brown said of the timeline to acquire a star. "As I said right when I sat up with Josh, we will be aggressive, and I hope that we will be smart, and I think that we have been. The human side of tonight is disturbing, but the process and how we grow the program and the thoughtfulness and studies that we have put in I feel like is wise for the program."

Absent a move for a star, this trade also gives the Sixers a better shot at one than they probably had with Bridges. Smith comes with warts, no doubt, and I remain dubious of his fit developmentally alongside Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. But there are indicators everywhere suggesting he can prove the organization smart.

Unlike the usual high-flying wing who captures your attention on YouTube, Smith is a hyper-intelligent player. He leverages his athleticism well on both ends of the floor, picking and choosing his spots to go flying through the air for dunks and blocks. His understanding of time and place is excellent, and his awareness within Texas Tech's system manifested itself in so many ways outside of the highlight reel.

At a moment's notice, Smith would go from being a screener or a roll-man to cutting away from the ball, or blowing by slower opponents off the dribble. Smith's progression from a three-star recruit to the first-round target suggests it's not out of the question for him to continue adding elements to his game. 

The intersection of physical tools, intelligence, and production is real. Whether he's ultimately able to put those together in this specific setting is another question entirely, of course. 

But that seems to be beside the point. The overarching takeaway from Brown's big night at the draft is that not much has changed from the time he took the job in 2013, even as regimes have ended around him. With two future stars already in place, the Sixers are not content to settle there, and their quest for high-end talent continues.

"That [Miami pick] could be the thing that flips it with us having more assets to enhance a realistic trade for a star," said Brown. "We are star hunting or we are star developing, that's how you win a championship and the emotion of what we have all been through is painful. But as I said at the start, [the focus is on] what’s best for the organization and how do you win a championship, and since I’ve looked at you all I haven’t pivoted out of that once."

The song remains the same, even if the powers that be have shifted. And that adds meaning to all the things the Sixers have been telling you to believe these past few years, for absorbing the fallout of discarding the local product when no one would have blamed them for simply playing it safe.

"Trust The Process" is a lot easier to blurt out when it's a catchy slogan to chant at a game. It's a much different story when you have to act on that idea, continuing to pursue optimal decisionmaking even if it drives some of your fanbase temporarily bonkers.


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