February 19, 2015
Recently, I have begun to think that the best way to describe Sam Hinkie’s rebuilding plan is by comparing it to the classic board game “Chutes and Ladders.” Click that link, and there’s a picture of the board waiting for you.
If you never played it before, the game is very simple: The goal is to make it to 100, which is accomplished by rolling a single die and advancing the corresponding number of spaces. Along the way, there are plenty of individual spaces that can help you advance on the board (ladders) or force you to fall back (chutes). For this comparison, let’s say that making it to 100 is winning an NBA title.
On the board, there’s one move (a ladder, naturally) that completely changes the game, the one you can make when landing on number 28. It automatically takes you all the way up to number 84 and places you in a position of power, bypassing all of the craziness that is found on the middle of that board.
Now, think of the NBA in those terms. Hinkie is looking to take that ladder, the major step that will skyrocket his franchise into the league’s elite, and he’s willing to slide down a few smaller chutes at the beginning of the game to maximize the chances of it happening. That’s partly why he traded Michael Carter-Williams today, because he didn’t want to venture too far into the middle of the board. Sure, the middle is more fun for the time being, but if your only goal is to reach the top of the board, the best way to do it is by taking that one giant step. That’s the way Hinkie is approaching team-building, anyway.
Today, the Sixers took a minor step back for the present when they shipped out Carter-Williams to the Milwaukee Bucks and K.J. McDaniels to the Houston Rockets (They also took on JaVale McGee’s salary for protected first-round pick, which I wrote about at length). I’ll tackle each trade individually and eventually hand out some grades:
The Trade: The Sixers receive the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2015 top-five protected pick (via Phoenix). The Milwaukee Bucks receive Michael Carter-Williams, Miles Plumlee, and Tyler Ennis. The Phoenix Suns receive Brandon Knight and Kendall Marshall.
Why The Suns Did The Trade: The Suns gave up one player that was at the very end of the rotation (Plumlee) and another completely out of it (Ennis) for a 23-year-old point guard that is having a breakout season in Knight. On the day, they moved two parts of the three-headed monster they had at point guard (Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas) and replaced them adequately. As far as why they wanted to trade the pick that they acquired for Steve Nash, I’ll touch on that a little further down.
Why The Bucks Did The Trade: This one makes less sense to me. They essentially swapped Knight for Carter-Williams, and I think that’s a downgrade. Shooting is such an important part of today’s NBA, particularly at point guard, and they went from borderline elite to historically terrible in that area.
My guess is that Jason Kidd sees a lot of himself in Carter-Williams, a talented triple-double machine that can’t throw the ball in the ocean early in his career. Still, I wonder how the Bucks are going to compete in a playoff series this year (or any of the following ones) with a lead guard that is shooting 38/26/64.
Why The Sixers Did The Trade: The main reason is that they didn’t think Carter-Williams was good enough long-term. They didn’t view him as a viable “point guard of the future,” so they sold high and scooped up the Lakers pick. I ranked the Sixers’ players, prospects and picks last month, and Carter-Williams only finished seventh overall. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
I really like Carter-Williams and think he does a lot of things well on the basketball court, but he was a historically bad shooter last year and has actually gotten worse this season. Carter-Williams admittedly couldn't practice his jumper much in the summer after shoulder surgery, but I just don't know how a 38% shooter that can't make 3s or free throws is a franchise building block.
Statistically, Carter-Williams has had the opposite effect of Covington on the team's offense. The Sixers score 87.2 points per-100 when he's on the floor, and 96.2 per-100 when he's off it. Yuck.
Carter-Williams deservedly won Rookie of the Year in 2013-14 against an extremely weak class, but his counting stats (aka all of those triple-doubles) were inflated due to the crazy pace the Sixers played at last year and the huge amount of responsibility Brett Brown granted him right out of the gate. I think that the ROY award turned him into more of a bonafide building block in the eyes of the fans than he really was inside the organization. Carter-Williams wasn’t the only reason the Sixers ranked dead last in offensive efficiency the last two years, but he was one of them.
Two of the projected top draft prospects are point guards, China’s (via Congo and Texas) Emmanuel Mudiay and Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell. We know Hinkie has been keeping tabs on the latter, so maybe the point-guard hole is filled with the Sixers’ top pick. Heck, maybe the newly acquired Lakers pick is used to select one of those two guys. Maybe Hinkie uses some of that enormous amount of cap space to lure a stop-gap option in free agency.
I wish the best of luck to Carter-Williams in Milwaukee. He helped the team become more competitive than they should’ve been, and was a hard worker/great person that I really enjoyed watching make the best of a tough situation. Predictably, his immediate farewell was all class:
I can't lie I'm shocked. I love this city thank you for everything. I can honestly say I gave it my all. I wish Philly nothing but the best— Michael Carter-Willi (@MCW1) February 19, 2015
At the end of the day, though, Carter-Williams is already 23 years old and Hinkie didn’t see the improvement in his shot that he was hoping for coming out of college (I call it the “swing skill”). It’s tough to argue with turning the 11th pick in a terrible draft into a potential top-10 selection in a better one.
What about the pick? Via RealGM, the Lakers' first-round is protected for selections 1-5 in 2015, 1-3 in 2016, 1-3 in 2017 and unprotected in 2018. Let’s talk about what that exactly means:
As you can see, there is a little bit of ground between the Lakers, who currently have the fourth-worst record in the NBA, and the Orlando Magic, who are fifth. This makes for a major difference: The team with the fourth-worst record would have an 83 percent chance of landing in the top five and therefore keeping the pick. If the team falls back to fifth, those odds drop all the way to 55 percent. That one spot could be the difference between Stanley Johnson, Justise Winslow or Kelly Oubre and a whole bunch of uncertainty.
Here’s the problem for Hinkie and the Sixers, and likely why the Suns decided to cash the pick in: The Lakers are truly awful, especially after Kobe Bryant’s injury. In their last game before the All-Star break, they ran out a starting lineup of Jordan Clarkson, Wayne Ellington, Ryan Kelly, Tarik Black, and Bob Sacre. If that doesn’t say “Showtime,” I don’t know what does. In the recent ESPN The Magazine article on the Sixers, Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss was quoted as saying, "If you're in tanking mode, I think that's unforgivable." I sincerely hope Jeanie finds peace with herself.
Buss is also missing the point while trying to take the moralistic high ground: The Lakers are smart to take their medicine and tank as hard as they can this year. In my opinion, they’re more of a threat to actually leapfrog into the top-3 selections rather than slide back, which happens to be exactly what they should be doing.
If the pick lands in the top five, the Lakers have around $30 million in cap space to play with this summer (Kevin Love?) and Los Angeles is a major free-agent destination. They’ll also get Bryant and Julius Randle back into the lineup along with their top pick, so they’ll be a more formidable team. Working against them is the lack of truly impact free agents, Bryant’s albatross contract (plus the idea that no big names want to play with him at this stage of his career), and the difficulty they’ll encounter trying to crack the playoffs in the Western Conference.
If I had to make an early guess, the Sixers will get the pick from the Lakers next year, and it will fall somewhere in the 7-12 range.
Verdict: It’s a little bit of a gamble considering the pick’s uncertainty, but I’d rather wager on that than Carter-Williams’ jumper turning around. This is very solid value. GRADE: B+
The Trade: The Houston Rockets acquired K.J. McDaniels from the Sixers in exchange for Isaiah Canaan and the Denver Nuggets' 2015 second-round pick.
Why The Rockets Did The Trade: They gave up very little value for a fairly promising swingman. I’m not sure McDaniels will be able to help them when the playoffs roll around, as his poor shooting and lack of ball-handling aren’t well-suited when the games are primarily decided in the halfcourt, but he gives them another potential athletic defender on the wings. And again, they gave up almost nothing to acquire him.
Why The Sixers Did The Trade: Unlike the Carter-Williams trade, I have a harder time finding the logic here. The McDaniels situation was always going to be tricky after he rejected the Sixers’ offer and signed a minimum contract that made him eligible for restricted free agency after the season. The rookie bet on himself and showed flashes during his time in Philly, and he’s going to receive a nice raise this offseason.
Still, McDaniels was going to be a restricted free agent that the Sixers could’ve just let walk if the offer he received was too rich for their blood. Maybe he expressed privately to Hinkie that he didn’t want to re-sign here. Maybe Hinkie wanted to create more playing time on the wings for Robert Covington and Jerami Grant, who are under team control for the near future. Maybe Hinkie is going to make a run after someone Jimmy Butler in restricted free agency or perhaps a smaller name.
In a vacuum, this is a weird decision. I don’t think you can even make the argument that McDaniels was helping the Sixers win games, because besides Carter-Williams, he was last out of all the current rotation players in win shares per 48 minutes. McDaniels was a good defender and electrifying athlete in transition, but he wasn’t very good once the game slowed down. Eventually, he might have been, though, and that’s why his departure for such little return is puzzling.
Verdict: For now, the McDaniels trade is going to leave a sour taste in Sixers fans' mouths. It’s hard to grade the move today, because the hope is Hinkie made the move strategically for the future. What moves McDaniels and the Sixers make this offseason will be the ultimate way to judge this one. CURRENT GRADE: C-
There’s one more issue that I haven’t touched on yet: Yes, I do think an added bonus of the Carter-Williams trade is that the Sixers could potentially take a step back this season and ensure a top pick in what is shaping up to be a strong draft. I don’t believe that the tanking ramifications were the primary motivating factor in the deal — It was the idea that Carter-Williams’ trade value will never be this high again — but they certainly didn’t hurt.
It will be interesting to see how the Sixers fare down the stretch. Covington, Nerlens Noel, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute are still here, and they’ve been valuable players over the last few months. McGee is reportedly going to play in Philly, which would be interesting to say the least. Jason Richardson is going to return after a two-year absence, which could possibly give the team some extra shooting. There’s a decent chance that even without Carter-Williams and McDaniels, the undermanned Sixers still continue to win their fair share of games.
We’ll see. But as of now, it looks like Hinkie took a step back so he could better his chances to eventually take the all-important leap forward.