ORLANDO – Courtside at the Amway Center on Wednesday night, an hour before tipoff, a man in his mid-20s extended his right hand to Elton Brand, the 76ers' general manager. The man wasn't wearing any official Sixers apparel or paraphernalia, but he did have a red T-shirt on, and that was close enough.
"Thank you," he said to Brand. They shook hands, and the man didn't walk away as much as he bounced away, apparently pleased as punch that his favorite basketball team had just traded for star swingman Jimmy Butler. The Sixers now had what they had long coveted: a third star, the required minimum in today's NBA for a team to entertain realistic expectations of winning a championship.
The Sixers had Joel Embiid. They had Ben Simmons. They had Jimmy Butler. And they lost to the Magic, 111-106, as Embiid spent too much time on the perimeter and Simmons spent much of the second half on the bench, and Butler spent most of his 33 minutes playing cautious, deferential basketball.
The entire night was a well-timed reminder of something Brand said about the trade – and, really, about the entire Process itself – before the game:
"It's still to be determined. The result is still to be determined."
There are a couple of ways to interpret what Brand said. There's the obvious one: no one ever really knows how any trade or transaction or attempt to improve a team will play out. The "result" might be an NBA championship. It might be a three-way feud among Embiid, Simmons, and Butler that prevents the Sixers from meeting even the most modest of expectations.
But the subtler interpretation is this: The "result" is the roster, a collection of players capable of beating the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and Brand and the Sixers' front office aren't finished manipulating it yet. Consider how many Sixers who played meaningful minutes Wednesday, and will play more as the season continues, were in their first season (or game) with the team: Butler, Mike Muscala, Wilson Chandler, Landry Shamet. And that list doesn't include Markelle Fultz and Furkan Korkmaz, both of whom might as well be rookies.
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The reason for pointing out that heavy turnover is not to make excuses for a loss in which the Sixers allowed the Magic to wipe out a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit with a 21-0 run. It's to offer a reminder of how much the Sixers have changed already during The Process – and how much extra work Brand, his staff, and a suddenly-more-involved owner, Josh Harris, have done and will need to do.
"I'm especially proud of the things that were done to put us in a position to attract Jimmy Butler," coach Brett Brown said. "You look back, and there are many people. Sam Hinkie deserves credit. Elton Brand, to close this deal, deserves credit, and the people in between, to enable us to have the pieces to go to Minnesota and say, 'This is a trade where the numbers match.' "
The people in between. Funny phrasing, that. There was just one person, one general manager, in between Hinkie and the Brown/Brand partnership, and many of the Sixers' recent moves and machinations have been born of Bryan Colangelo's mistakes during his two-year tenure with the team.
The groundwork that Hinkie laid is firm enough for anyone who cares to tread on it. He took Embiid, the franchise's centerpiece, with the 2014 draft's No. 3 pick, a call that came with plenty of risk. His willingness to take calculated chances begat the trade for Dario Saric and the decision to sign Robert Covington, and those two players begat Butler. Hinkie's approach also led to three less-than-stellar draft picks – Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams, and Jahlil Okafor – but Brand framed those misses as the cost of taking those chances.
"Part of the wheel-spinning is taking a shot at getting Joel Embiid," Brand said. "You may have a rotation player, but you want to take a shot at an All-Star. Jahlil, Carter-Williams – you're swinging. You're trying to see if you can get that."
Besides, Colangelo's failure to get top-market value for Noel and Okafor – which Hinkie did for Carter-Williams, getting what eventually became the No. 10 pick in this year's draft – was always the bigger error than Hinkie's decision to draft them. For Okafor, he reportedly turned down a deal from the New Orleans Hornets that included a first-round pick, settling instead for sending Okafor and Nik Stauskas to Brooklyn for … Trevor Booker. For Noel, Colangelo got from the Dallas Mavericks a paltry package: Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut, and a protected first-round pick that really wasn't: It had little-to-no chance of conveying to the Sixers and became, instead, two second-rounders. Finally, there was Danny Ainge's Johnny Chan impersonation ahead of Draft Night 2017, when he bluffed Colangelo into giving up a first-round pick for the opportunity to select Fultz at No. 1 – and got a better player, Jayson Tatum, at No. 3 anyway.
The Sixers' player-personnel department, regardless of who actually has final say over any trade, is still picking up the pieces from Colangelo's reign. That's why, even though in this year's draft they made a perfect selection in Mikal Bridges, they traded Bridges to get Zhaire Smith and recoup the first-round pick that Colangelo threw away for Fultz.
That's why adding Butler, in and of itself, probably wouldn't be enough to win a title and might not be the last major move the Sixers make.