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June 21, 2019

The Sixers delivered on a promise to Matisse Thybulle, and they paid for it

No one would come out and say the word "promise" when discussing Matisse Thybulle's discussions with the Sixers during the pre-draft process. But it did not take a lot of reading between the lines to figure out that he was target No. 1 for Philadelphia in the mid-'20s, because Thybulle told reporters himself that the Sixers had made it easy for him to shut down his pre-draft process.

"I actually didn’t work out for anyone," Thybulle told reporters on a conference call Thursday night. "Philly showed interest early, and we just trusted them and decided we were going to put our faith in them and just kind of shut things down and see what happened on draft night. They stayed true to their word, and yeah, the rest is history.”

There is not a lot of competitive value in promising a player you'll draft him. That fact is especially true the further down the draft board you go, because you have no idea who is going to slide and what sort of values you can get your hands on by just standing pat.

But as long as you can keep that promise quiet and mask your intentions, you can get away with it. Unfortunately, the Sixers appeared to do a pretty bad job of hiding their hand.

Regular readers will remember an excerpt I shared from Sam Vecenie of The Athletic regarding a potential arrangement between the Sixers and Thybulle. Vecenie does excellent work covering the draft and staying on the pulse of what people around the industry are thinking/saying, and he connected the dots as early as June 7th, almost two full weeks before the draft.

I’ve done some process of elimination asking around that would seem to take a few teams off the board there (I haven’t confirmed them necessarily though, so I’m going to refrain from listing them here). But I haven’t heard much about Philadelphia being a team that has been eliminated from the potential promise list. Additionally, with picks 33 and 34, it’s easy for Philadelphia to mask the promise by bringing in players who could be in the mix at No. 24, as those same players could potentially be in the mix at No. 33. [The Athletic]

If Vecenie was able to deduce that from the outside, you can bet that teams had figured it out by the time draft night rolled around on Thursday night. All it takes is one GM who is willing to draft your guy and dangle him in front of you to kneecap you at the negotiating table. Danny Ainge did exactly that.

It only cost the Sixers the swap of first-round picks and No. 33 to move up for Thybulle, but giving up a second-round pick at the top of the round did not need to happen. The Grizzlies and Thunder exchanged picks No. 21 and 23 for the measly cost of a 2024 second-round pick just minutes after the completion of the trade for Thybulle. Those are the kind of deals you can make when you still have some leverage.

In the aftermath of the draft, Brand was questioned on whether this promise to Thybulle had tipped their hand and impacted negotiations. I will include his full quotes on the subject for the sake of context because they are not particularly inspiring.

REPORTER: It was publicly speculated that you guys were the team who promised Thybulle pre-draft, and Matisse confirmed that to us tonight. Do you feel like that hurt your leverage with the Celtics in negotiations?

BRAND: There's conversations with agents all the time, and the draft is so volatile, you don't know if you're going to get who you want to get. So as far as tipping our hand, who we like, we did like other players also for sure.

REPORTER: To follow up, what came down to the decision for Matisse to not participate in draft workouts? Was that something you guys urged him to do, did he do that on his own, and similarly, do you think that may have tipped your hand there was a promise there?

BRAND: His representation, Aaron Goodwin, they decided that decision. Whatever they want to do, they knew we had a lot of interest because I needed a player like that. So, yeah.

Those are basically non-answers. "We liked other players" is not a response to the question "Did your leverage suffer?" "Thybulle's agent knew we really liked him" is also not a response to "Do you think your hand was tipped?"

In the grand scheme of things, dealing the No. 33 pick to acquire Thybulle may end up being a complete non-issue. The hit rate on second-round picks is low across the board and top to bottom in the NBA, and if Thybulle's defense translates the way Philadelphia hopes it will, this move could easily fade into the background. But even if it does, it is symptomatic of the biggest organizational problem the Sixers have had for years now. 

The Sixers have made it a routine to be at odds with the value chart whenever they make moves. They gave up a haul to bring in Tobias Harris for what may end up being a half-season pact. They dumped another second-round pick with Jonathon Simmons, who they sought out for help at the deadline, in order to clear a measly $1 million off of the books this summer. 

Philadelphia has not carried itself like a big market organization that is on the verge of going deep into the luxury tax to pay for a star-studded team. They routinely sell second-round picks that other contenders have turned into reliable contributors. Golden State, a team that has been shelling out an insane amount of money to keep their core together, reliably purchases second-round picks to attempt to replenish the pipeline. A team that has scaled the mountain keeps trying to get more cracks, while the Sixers, who have won exactly nothing, go the exact opposite route.

Brand offered an explanation behind the decision to keep moving and selling seconds on Thursday night.

"Championship aspirations, a lot of young guys, youth movement, I don't see that team winning a championship. But [the salary] cap, we need flexibility, I need every dollar that I can get," Brand said. "So that's what a lot of those trades were about, making sure we have enough money so we can go into free agency and get the players we need.

"We need talent, and we actually pushed picks into the future that are very valuable. There are some trades we can't talk about yet, but we got some really great value out of those and it'll make sense soon."

If you made a generic draft value chart, Philadelphia's swap of No. 34 for three second-round picks might be "great value" on paper. But is there are a time when Philadelphia's second-round picks will be more valuable to them than they were on draft night 2019? That seems unlikely. 

Think of it this way: because of Jimmy Butler's age and mileage concerns, the Sixers' best shot to win a title will probably come in the next three years. Drafting a player at No. 34 may not produce anyone who can help during that timeframe, but it would at least give you a chance to get a contributor while your window is open. Picking up a 2023 second-round pick does nothing to help you during that timeframe, and though the Sixers also picked up a 2020 pick in that swap with Atlanta, even that defers the decision another year, which delays the theoretical development of a prospect and leaves you thinner than you could have been otherwise.

The idea that the Sixers are deep enough to just throw these chances away is absurd on its face. They effectively had seven playable guys on the roster by the time they reached Game 7 of round two against Toronto. They signed a backup center in freaking April who was forced to play minutes in both series the Sixers appeared in. And one of those rare bench contributors, James Ennis, was basically only gifted to Philadelphia because the Rockets' owner wanted to save a few dollars.

As great as the high-end talent is on the Sixers, title contention is not just going to drop out of the sky and into their laps. It takes organizational strength to accomplish that goal — ownership willing to foot big bills, management that can master the margins, and an understanding of the cause-and-effect of each step of the process.

Thybulle might end up producing great results in Philadelphia, and we will judge him on his own merits soon enough. But the Sixers came out of the draft looking naive, and that is a worrying sign on the verge of the biggest offseason they've had in two decades.

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