The 76ers exited the NBA draft last week with three players, none of whom is expected to contribute mightily in the upcoming season; a future first-round pick, and two future second-round picks.
From a distance, the haul resembles what you would expect of an elite, championship-caliber team that doesn’t need much help at present or of a team entering a deep rebuild that must focus entirely on a distant future.
The Sixers, of course, are neither of those. They are close to serious contention but desperately need additional pieces to ascend into the thin atmosphere of true greatness. In that regard, it became an odd draft night once the team elected to surrender local product Mikal Bridges, who is a plug-and-play prototype for the versatile, floor-spacing swingman the Sixers covet.
Bridges, however, is not the only 3-and-D star in the sky. With that first-round pick in hand, the Sixers have made no secret they intend to put together a trade package designed to land soon-to-be-27-year-old Kawhi Leonard from San Antonio, or, failing that, they will use their deep pockets to entice a similar fit from the free-agent market. At the top of that class, beyond the fantasy of landing LeBron James, the best playing partner for Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid is Paul George, who is 28 and at the top of his very wonderful game. George is what Bridges has a good chance to become someday, and what first-round pick Zhaire Smith will need significant improvement to even approach.
So, it isn’t as if the Sixers are ignoring their present tense. They are simply choosing a different method – more assured in some ways, less in others – of augmenting it.
“The timeline is now. We feel … we can play with the best and we need some help,” said Brett Brown, the coach and unlikely general manager. “I’m here to win a championship. We are star-hunting or star-developing and you’re not going to win a championship any other way. To use that [unprotected first-round pick acquired in the Bridges-for-Smith trade] to instigate a trade is gold. You need assets if you’re going to trade for a star. We will be aggressive and active in the free-agent marketplace. It’s not like we don’t have resources to attract people financially.”
The difficulty with star-hunting in the NBA is not in identifying the prey, but convincing it to be taken by you. There are plenty of hunters in the woods and they all have suitcases full of money and varying levels of appeal in terms of competitiveness, playing style and location. Never, never underestimate location. If the Los Angeles Lakers were in Cincinnati, they wouldn’t be linked at the moment with every notable free-agent signing or potential trade.
“We have a story to tell and an amazing set of young players and assets,” Brown said. “So, if it doesn’t happen – the star-hunting – this year, we will continue our pursuit of star-developing and focus in on what we do have.”
In other words, even with the chips necessary to trade for Leonard, that means nothing if Leonard doesn’t agree to a long-term deal with a team that hasn’t won anything yet, is a long way from his California roots, and whose front office is, to be kind, in a bit of disarray.
Similarly, just staying with George as a free-agent example, is he more likely to join James in Los Angeles (his hometown is just up the road in Palmdale) or to replant himself on the East Coast for the opportunity to join a bunch of highly touted kids who appear very impressed with themselves but might never really coalesce? That’s not the view from here, naturally, but it might be the view from elsewhere, and the suitcases of money are all the same.
Brown said the organization will be ready to pounce when verbal commitments can be announced at one minute after midnight on July 1. That was the case a year ago when Brown and JJ Redick shook hands on the court of the practice facility in Camden at that very moment. It was an impressively timed signing by the Sixers, but, in fairness, for $23 million a year, most NBA players would shake with Edward Scissorhands.
“You start thinking about what you do at 12:01 a.m.,” Brown said. “You have to look at … who we are going to talk to first and how are you going to spend your money? We are completely on track about what you are going to do to sell your program. Sometimes, it is in-house and sometimes you have to travel and go mobile. As an example, go to Los Angeles and deal with a family, an agent, the player, and try to attract them to come to the city of Philadelphia.”
Maybe he tossed off the L.A. reference as nothing more than an example of the legwork that must take place before Sunday, but it didn’t sound like that. He’s also been in Los Angeles twice in the last week, ostensibly to observe workouts by Markelle Fultz and Embiid, and to attend Monday’s NBA Awards Show with award candidates Simmons and Embiid.
Undoubtedly, there was some side campaigning going on during those trips, too. Leonard and George, very high up the trade and free-agency wish lists, are both from there. (More likely, perhaps, is a pursuit of 32-year-old Trevor Ariza, a still very serviceable 6-8 veteran swingman who grew up in Westchester, Calif., and played at UCLA. Stop me if you’ve heard too many damn Australian connection stories, but Ariza’s stepfather played for Sydney when Brown was head coach at North Melbourne.)
Brown injected a touch of realism – and maybe just a little foreshadowing – when he said the team might not reach its bag limit of stars this year. That would be disappointing and would add another season to the process, but the fact is that none of the players he is chasing is obligated to come here. They will have other options.
That’s not the case for draft picks. Those have to show up. For the Sixers to take the path they did on Thursday night was entirely defensible, but not without risk. They had a bird in hand – one who will be getting a lot of minutes for the Phoenix Suns this season – and decided instead to go for bigger birds. The trick, of course, is convincing them where to land. Fairly or not, Brown will be judged by how that goes.