It isn’t easy to judge at any given moment where the 76ers stand on the elongated time line designed to take the team from laughingstock to last laugh on the rest of the NBA.
That’s a relative measurement, one that trends upward every time a player develops faster or better than anticipated, and takes a dip downward when the occasional top pick in the draft becomes unable to shoot a basketball. The finish line advances and recedes, but the idea is to keep plodding forward regardless.
There’s no doubt that the past season, with 52 wins and a playoff series victory, represented a large step in, for want of a better term, the Process of developing a champion. The unfortunate truth is that getting the 11 additional wins that eluded them in the postseason might be twice as hard to accomplish as anything they’ve done yet. Still, the team is on its way.
>>READ MORE: Michael Porter Jr. is the mystery man of the draft
If there was any doubt, the events of draft night showed how far the Sixers have come in their approach to building a roster. It wasn’t so much what they did. It was what they didn’t do. And, yes, you know what I mean. They didn’t draft Michael Porter Jr.
Had this been three years ago, the last draft in which Sam Hinkie was at the controls, there is no question Porter would have been the pick if the Sixers held the 10th selection. A little thing like a back injury that required surgery wouldn’t have dissuaded Hinkie if the back in question belonged to a player who had previously been either the No. 1 or No. 2 recruit in the nation, a 6-foot-10 monster with a skill-set comparable to Kevin Durant’s.
If Porter had fallen to the Sixers, he would have been taken, even if he also had fallen getting out of his chair in the green room. Risky to take a guy who played just three games in college? Sure. Worth the delayed gratification of suffering through at least one redshirt year with him? Of course. In fact, make it two. The right move even if he never plays? Yes, that’s the cost of aiming for the highest rung on the ladder. The man is a top-three talent available for the 10th pick. No-brainer.
Hinkie wasn’t scared away by Nerlens Noel’s knee or Joel Embiid’s foot. Without those injuries, each might have been the first pick in the draft. That is what made them value plays for the Sixers. In trading for Noel and drafting Embiid, they got bargains but not guarantees. One worked out (so far) and one didn’t. That’s the business.
This time, however, the Sixers kicked the flat tire but didn’t buy the car.
“That’s not how we have lived in the past,” said Brett Brown, the coach and interim general manager. “We have been risk-takers. As time has unfolded and you start getting what we think are foundational pieces, that notion of just wild swings didn’t seem as palatable this go-round.”
In other words, Brown thinks they are close, or too close to chance getting no value from their initial first-round pick this year. Instead, they hit the ball into the fairway, choosing NBA-ready Mikal Bridges to fill a serious perimeter need, and then trading Bridges to Phoenix for another player they really like, Zhaire Smith, and an unprotected future first-round pick to employ as trade bait for something else. You can quibble about their evaluations, but not about the strategy. Naturally, there will be more quibbling if Porter someday lives up to the Durant comparison.
“We researched it. We looked at it hard,” Brown said. “We just felt … that might not be a path we want to take, and so we didn’t.”
The path was taken by the Denver Nuggets with the 14th pick. Brown, as someone who has lived that experience, tipped his hat to their courage.
“You have to take a swing at guys like that,” Denver general manager Tim Connelly said.
The swing is either going to result in a strikeout or a home run, nothing in between.
“Seemingly,” Brown said, with a smile.
The Sixers were a team that once accepted those odds gladly. (And, to be fair, if Hinkie were still here, he would have done it this year, too.) Now, at least for those calling the shots, the team has progressed beyond that stage. The scales of risk and reward are more balanced than before, even for a potential game-changer as enticing as Michael Porter Jr.
“Time will tell, obviously,” Brown said, “but we talked about it a lot.”
Not that long ago, there wouldn’t have been so much talk. They would have just done it. Maybe this is progress. Maybe it is a hard-earned respect for risk. Either way, it is definitely different.