November 09, 2020
There's not a more hopeful occasion on the NBA calendar than draft night, where all it takes is one guy to potentially change the future of your franchise. The Sixers, fresh off one of their most disappointing seasons in recent memory, will have their first chance to begin fixing this collection of misfit parts when draft night rolls around next week.
Daryl Morey, the guy charged with leading that operation less than a month after taking a job with the Sixers, is under no illusion that this is a one-man show.
"[GM Elton Brand] has been working hard on those five picks. We were in Houston, even though we didn't have a pick this year, we actually talk about it — it's actually more prep for the draft when you don't have a pick," Morey said at his opening presser. "Because you're maybe buying a pick in the second round, or going after undrafted guys, including some famous ones that ping-ponged between us and Philly and Minnesota. So I do think, we haven't even had a meeting yet, but we'll be ready. They're ready, and then obviously we were prepping for 6 months before, and during, the bubble as well in Houston, and that's still in my brain hopefully."
The draft, as Morey alludes to in that quote, is an all-year operation that is arguably the most collaborative part of pro sports. Teams rely on the wisdom of their scouts, trips on the road from their executives, input from coaches, understanding of their current players, and the words and wisdom of people around the prospects to judge them. With ownership of five picks in this year's draft, the Sixers have the ammunition to do almost anything they want — trade up, trade back, trade out, or perhaps combine them as part of larger, roster-altering deals we've discussed all offseason.
But what exactly do we know about the draft history of the remaining Sixers staffers vs. Morey from his time in Houston? That's where we start our next two weeks of draft coverage.
It's a bit difficult to pin down a singular strategy for the old front office because there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and not much time to reflect on their moves. After Sam Hinkie hit the road in 2016, Bryan Colangelo only oversaw two drafts before skipping town, and Brett Brown was the decisionmaker with final say in at least one of those years (2018).
Still, the last two drafts have featured a pretty consistent approach to the back end of the first round, where the Sixers will pick again this season. Philadelphia targeted productive upperclassmen with the idea being they could contribute right away, and that worked out for the Sixers in both 2018 and 2019, despite the draftees being wildly different players.
Landry Shamet and Matisse Thybulle did share something in common outside of being upperclassmen — they were brought in to fill very specific roles and not do much else beyond that. While Shamet was an off-the-catch shooting specialist and Thybulle was a disruptive defender, both slid into easy-to-define roles immediately because they had a readymade skill to offer the team. It goes beyond that, as both men have the right mental approach to embrace and thrive in that role, something the Sixers certainly valued when evaluating both players during the process.
In some small way, picks like those are an indication of where the team saw Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, at the time and projecting forward. The Sixers believed their two young stars were capable of being the anchors for Philadelphia as creators and defenders, honing in on guys who would slot into secondary roles alongside them.
The exception there is Zhaire Smith, the toolsy prospect they traded for on draft night 2018 while picking up an extra first-round pick for their troubles (though it should be noted Mikal Bridges fit the upperclassmen profile). At the time, while Philadelphia certainly talked up their admiration for Smith, they doubled down on how important they thought the extra first-round pick from Miami might be.
"I’m going into my sixth season with the Philadelphia 76ers 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," Brown said on draft night, "that pick might be the thing that links a possible trade."
At the time, the Sixers were still in their "star hunting" phase. Conflicting reports about their interest in then Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard bounced around, but that's the sort of big fish they were after, and the sort of deal that would necessitate the inclusion of an extra first-round pick. Unfortunately, they would end up surrendering that pick (and Shamet) in the Tobias Harris trade, an overpay that looks worse over time as a result of the bloated contract they gave Harris.
On the trade front, the Sixers have been relatively active in the draft over the past few seasons, but predominantly to either turn picks over to future years or to sell picks for cash. The former is a perfectly legitimate strategy if there's not a standout name on the board — considering how hard it is to find second-round talent that can contribute, turning one pick into two future picks is smart business. It's the latter approach that has angered fans in the past, and after an offseason of front office splurging, it will be interesting to see if the team continues that tradition in 2020.
In recent years? Not much of anything. The Rockets have not made a first-round pick since way back in 2015, when they took Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker at pick No. 18. Dekker is out of the league now, having most recently suited up for Turk Telekom in the Turkish Super League.
The biggest difference between Morey and any of the executives the Sixers have had over the last seven years or so is his willingness to trade first-round picks in search of immediate upgrades. If we assume there is some level of uncertainty with all draft picks, Morey's approach could perhaps best be summarized by the old adage, "A bird in the hand is worth two of the bush," the bush being the vast pool of amateur players one has to choose from.
The Chris Paul trade, for example, was built on the surrender of multiple picks over multiple years — Morey traded Houston's 2017 first-round pick (and Philly favorite Corey Brewer) to acquire Lou Williams at the 2017 trade deadline, then flipped Williams as part of the package to acquire Chris Paul from L.A. that summer, adding a 2018 first-round pick to close the deal.
When Morey has had picks, he hasn't necessarily gone for clean fits over the best talent. In 2014, Dwight Howard was coming off of his final All-Star season when Morey selected Clint Capela late in the first round, a move that proved prescient as Howard declined physically and clashed with James Harden.
Early in his tenure, Morey showed very little fear of cycling through guards if he thought he could either upgrade his backcourt, add more picks to his collection, or perhaps even accomplish both. At the deadline in 2009, with Houston in the midst of a playoff push, the Rockets traded away starting point guard Rafer Alston in order to open up playing time for Aaron Brooks, drafted by Morey in 2007, in addition to acquiring a young Kyle Lowry. When Brooks blossomed, Morey traded him to Phoenix for a protected first-round pick and Goran Dragic. Lowry would eventually be traded for Gary Forbes and a first-round pick, the latter of which helped Morey close the trade for James Harden.
The Brooks draft pick is instructive in the same way the Capela pick was, with Morey opting for a player that ostensibly didn't fit with the current starter(s) in Houston. His bet on Brooks' talent ended up being the right one, and the start of a long series of transactions that turned into a legitimate superstar.
Morey's pick in the 2018 second round, De'Anthony Melton, fits the mold of what many people came to think of as a "Sam Hinkie pick" in Philadelphia — a metrics darling in college with questions about his shot. Traded away by Morey later that summer in a deal for Brandon Knight, Melton has since gone on to be a solid bench contributor for the upstart Grizzlies in Memphis.
That chain of trades illustrates the downside of the Morey philosophy — stripping down some of the extras, Melton was turned into Knight, who was turned into Iman Shumpert, who the Rockets parted with a 2019 first-round pick in order to bring in. That pick was given up for a player who appeared in just 28 games for Houston and was not with an NBA team for most of last season.
It's difficult to pin down an overarching philosophy on Morey's end because of how active he has been on the trade market since acquiring his star in James Harden. But perhaps that is the defining message here — Morey has been on a quest to surround his star with seasoned contributors who he has higher confidence can contribute immediately. Beyond that, Morey's work on the margins in the second round and free agency has empowered him to trade his more valuable picks, knowing he can make up for it elsewhere.
I wouldn't categorize any difference of opinions/philosophy on the draft as "concerns" at the moment, at least until we see what Morey gets up to during his first draft in charge of the Sixers. While there have been some high-profile misses in the draft for Philly over the last half-decade, they have largely done a good job of finding contributors even when they haven't had premium draft picks. With Morey proving many times over that he can turn draft wins into continued upgrades and asset accumulation, the base for a successful partnership is there.
What we're likely to learn on draft night this year, however, is just how desperate the Sixers are to clear the books of the Al Horford and/or Tobias Harris contracts. Once picks from the 2020 NBA Draft turn into real players instead of theoretical ones, their value is more rigid and more team/context-dependent. If Morey is in a rush to move on from old organizational mistakes, we will probably get an indication of that on or before draft night, when the iron will be hot enough to strike.
Another subplot — how does Prosper Karangwa factor into the decision-making process? The former Magic Director of Scouting was reportedly a big advocate for Auburn wing Chuma Okeke during the 2019 NBA Draft, with Okeke taking a redshirt season last year after a major knee injury late in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. It's the sort of pick a team like the Magic, stuck in the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, can afford to take a risk on. There's a different sort of calculus, however, when you have name-brand talent and expectations like the Sixers.
Then again, there is perhaps no better time than this moment for Morey and Co. to take risks in player acquisition. They will never have more job security than they do right now, all on fresh contracts with an opportunity to turn this thing around.
The exciting part about Morey's addition to the franchise is the level of unpredictability it gives the Sixers heading into draft night. Their intentions are hard to pin down less than two weeks out from the big night, setting up for what could be a big evening. And most critically, they have a singular voice leading from the top down for the first time in a while. If nothing else, it gives us a lot more clarity on who gets the credit and blame.
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