To illustrate the potential value that the Sixers acquired on Thursday night in the form of the Miami Heat’s unprotected first-round pick in 2021, consider the following question:
If you were an NBA general manager and your goal was to qualify for the playoffs in 2021, which current Eastern Conference roster would you less like to have than Miami’s?
The Nets and the Hornets, for sure. Probably the Cavs, provided LeBron skips town. I won’t quibble with the Pistons. So call it four teams. Four out of 15, in a conference where the bottom seven end up in the draft lottery each year.
Of the remaining 11, you have six teams that seem unlikely to leave the playoff conversation anytime soon (Celtics, Sixers, Raptors, Pacers, Bucks, Wizards), one major-market team with a centerpiece player in Kristaps Porzingis and a reputation as a free-agent destination (Knicks), and three teams that have laid significant foundations in their rebuilds with more to come over the next two drafts (Hawks, Bulls, Magic). It’s easy to envision a future in which the Knicks, Hawks, and Bulls have all managed to complement their homegrown core with significant free-agent additions.
And then you have the Heat, who are on the hook to pay $18 million-plus per season to Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson and Goran Dragic over the next three seasons, with total salary commitments exceeding the salary cap in both of the next two seasons. That payroll figure plummets after 2019-20, which could make the Heat players in the elite free-agent market before the 2020-21 season. But barring the assemblage of another South Beach super team, the Heat will have to be awfully fortunate in their drafting over the next two offseasons to raise their ceiling further than the current anti-Process mediocrity they’ve seen since LeBron left town.
They might be too good of an organization and too attractive a destination to completely bottom out, but missing the playoffs is all that might need to happen for that pick to end up in the top 10. The Lakers seem unlikely to be in the lottery in 2021. The Suns look like a team on the rise. That’s a lot of projection, but that’s partly the point. There’s a reasonable chance that the pick the Sixers just acquired ends up with as much or more value than the one they used to draft Mikal Bridges, and a less-than-distant chance that it ends up being worth significantly more.
That chance is what the Sixers now have to sell to a team that is fielding offers for a veteran star. Maybe that team is the Spurs this season. Maybe it is a team with next summer’s disgruntled star. The latter scenario is probably more likely, given Kawhi Leonard’s reported preference to play in Los Angeles. If the Sixers lose out on all fronts to the Lakers this offseason, that just means they will have one less team to compete with the next time around. The only certainty is that there will be more Kawhis, and Paul Georges, and Chris Pauls.
The important thing is that the Sixers have the wherewithal to formulate an offer that, at worst, is competitive, and, at best, can’t be beat.
That would not have been the case if Brett Brown and his front office had elected to draft Bridges and stand pat. The Sixers’ rotation would have been stronger today, but would it have been strong enough to overcome the firepower that the Celtics will only continue to improve? If the answer to that question is no, then the answer to the one that Brown and his front office faced on Thursday night almost had to be yes.
Had they kept Bridges, their portfolio would have consisted of Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and years’ worth of first-round draft picks that are likely to max out in the mid-to-late-2020s. Saric and Fultz could both improve their value next season, but that would also make it more detrimental to trade them away.
Now, throw into the mix a first-round pick from a cash-strapped team that has been in or on the fringes of the lottery for the last four seasons, and you have the kind of tantalizing value potential that an opposing front office can sell, both to itself and its ownership.
“That pick might be the key to all of this,” Brown said. “That pick might be the thing that links a possible trade.”
That’s not an easy thing to sell to a lot of people, particularly those still operating on the dated logic that a championship-caliber team can be developed organically in today’s NBA. It doesn’t work like that anymore. Look at this year’s conference finals participants and identify the team that did it the old-fashioned way. The Cavs traded for Kevin Love. They traded away Kyrie Irving. The Celtics signed Al Horford and Gordon Hayward and traded for Irving. The Warriors signed Kevin Durant and traded for Andre Iguodala. The Rockets traded for James Harden and signed Chris Paul.
You still have to draft, and develop, and do all of the things that you always had to do. But in this era of talent consolidation, you have to be willing to deal. You also have to be able. It might not be the basketball of the ’80s, but it is an arms race. And on Thursday night, the Sixers made a move that could keep them from getting left behind.