Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram?
The future of the Sixers is tethered to the decision of which young star to select with the first overall pick in the NBA Draft. Winning the lottery sure does have its benefits, but it also comes with a very, very tough decision.
“We can now make the decision all by ourselves,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said after the Sixers won the NBA Draft Lottery on Tuesday night. “We don’t have to wait and see what someone else does. It gives us the injection we need.”
When the Sixers hired Sam Hinkie as general manager three seasons ago, he was tasked with trying to rebuild a consistently mediocre team into a bona fide NBA contender. Hinkie convinced ownership that the only way to properly do that, given the current draft system and salary structure, was to tear the whole thing down to the foundation and start from nothing.
Hinkie’s logic was that teams need at least one generational superstar to compete for the NBA title, and settling for 7th or 8th in the standings and a first-round playoff exit shouldn’t be good enough. But there are only two ways to get that superstar: convince LeBron James or Kevin Durant to come play for the Sixers, or draft the next one and build around him.
Depending on who you ask, either the Sixers spent three years partaking in one of the most inventive rebuilds in American professional sports history, or they wasted three seasons at the urging of a mad scientist hellbent on landing the top pick at least once.
Can it be both?
Finally, after two years of finishing third in the lottery—and missing out on Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell—the Sixers landed a top pick, now tasked with deciding between LSU’s Simmons or Duke’s Ingram.
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Just as important as who to take, however, is who the team keeps to build around the pick. And with Hinkie out, that task falls on the shoulders of Bryan Colangelo, the two-time NBA Executive of the Year who, in 2006, took Andrea Bargnani first overall over LaMarcus Aldridge. Gulp.
While the Sixers are horrible on the court, it’s not as though Hinkie left the cupboard bare for Colangelo. In addition to the first overall pick this year the Sixers also have the 24th and 26th picks in the draft, as well as their own first round pick next year—with the right to swap with Sacramento—and the Lakers first next year if it falls outside the top three.
The Sixers also have, thanks to Hinkie dumping all their bad contracts over the last three years, nearly $60 million in cap space in 2016, as the NBA cap balloons to $92 million next year and $107 million the year after that.
That’s a lot of money to pay people. And LeBron ain’t leaving Cleveland.
Durant may leave OKC, but he’s not coming to Philly. Still, with a lot of pieces in place with the Sixers now, and adding two big-ticket free agents in the next two years to go with a young and talented nucleus is the way Colangelo will surely go in rebuilding this team. And there are always players out there willing to get over-paid for their services. That’s what got the Sixers in this situation in the first place.
Point is, we can only hope Colangelo finds the right players to bring in and gets value back for those players he doesn’t want to retain. Who is left from the current roster when the rebuild is done will be fascinating.
Brown said twice on ESPN after the draft lottery that he likes some of the young players on the current roster, but failed to name any who have actually played for him, instead remarking that Joel Embiid and Dario Saric will be a part of the team soon. It doesn’t take much to read between the lines that either last year’s first round pick Jahlil Okafor or three seasons ago’s top selection Nerlens Noel will be gone. Soon.
Looking at the Sixers roster from last year and how those contracts extend for the next four seasons, it’s clear the team is chock full of bigs. Not on the above list is Saric, who will join the Sixers after being selected in the 2014 draft, putting him in the last year of his rookie deal, sure to take up some of that cap space in subsequent seasons. This from Sam Vecenie of CBSSports.com:
The 6-foot-9 Saric is expected to be a smallball, playmaking 4 man in the NBA. The most important development in his game this season has been that of his 3-point shot, as he’s gone from 32 percent shooter over his last two seasons to a 37.5 percent shooter this season. The ability to threaten from distance will be key to his game, as Saric excels when he can act as a slashing creator, both for himself near the rim and others with his excellent court vision.
The knock on Saric is his ability to defend at the NBA level, also an issue for Okafor as he transitioned into the league. Noel’s problem was the opposite: a solid rim protector who still struggles to score.
Embiid, if healthy, is supposed to be the best combination of both, making either Okafor or Noel a luxury. If the Sixers draft Simmons—listed at 6-10, 245—they’ve added another similar player to the list of big men who can score.
Does that mean Okafor is most likely to be dealt?
If the Sixers draft Ingram—listed at a rail-thin 6-9, 200—he can play the three, handle the ball and is a better defender right now than Simmons. What does that mean for the four bigs, then? Do the Sixers keep all of them?
Is Noel most likely to be dealt if the Sixers think Ingram can become a defensive stopper on the wing? Or is he less likely to go if Colangelo and Brown want to create a strong defensive core around him and Ingram?
And what to make of Saric? It’s foolish for the Sixers to try to trade him before he ever plays for them, but he was a Hinkie guy, so perhaps Colangelo may want to get something of value for him while he’s still an inexpensive mystery.
Certainly Colangelo is going to do something with those two late first round picks too. With NBA first round money guaranteed, it’s unlikely the Sixers will draft three players in the first round that will join the team immediately. It makes sense for Colangelo to draft-and-stash at least one player overseas with a late first round pick. That, or package the two picks to move up into the middle of the first round this year, or make a deal with another bad team and roll the dice on future picks next year or the year after that.
The Sixers are not trading the first pick, but literally everything else might be up for grabs. And that leads to the Celtics.
Boston has three first round picks as well, plus five in the second round. The Celtics finished third in the lottery, and will most certainly look to deal the pick for immediate help on a team that has rebuilt itself into a contender in the East faster than anyone thought possible. While some in Boston are hoping the Celtics flip the pick to get a player on the level of All-Star Jimmy Butler in Chicago, Boston needs front-court help in a big way, and the Sixers have a lot of it.
Surely a player like Okafor or Noel would interest Boston. Would either be enough to land the third pick? Perhaps not. But packaging something like Okafor, the 24th and 26th picks to Boston for the 3rd and 23rd picks might be worth the move for both teams.
Then the Sixers would pick first and third this season, trading one of the bigs to Boston for the rights to draft either Providence point guard Kris Dunn or Kentucky combo guard Jamal Murray. Trading within the division is often dicey, but this is a situation that could really help the Sixers deal with their glut of bigs and get a top guard in the draft. (Note: that says in the draft. PLEASE don’t deal Okafor or Noel for Marcus Smart, Bryan. Please. You’re better than that.)
Or, screw it. Maybe the Sixers just run Ish Smith—assuming he re-signs with the team—and four bigs out each night, which is basically what Oklahoma City has done to the Spurs and Warriors, and look where they are.
No, Smith is not Russell Westbrook, but he’s serviceable at the point until the opportunity arises to draft a guard next year. The Sixers can select Ingram to play the three basically like Durant does, and roll with Noel in the Serge Ibaka role and Okafor in the Stephen Adams role. The fifth starter for Oklahoma City is Andre Roberson, a defensive stopper with limited offense contributions. That’s basically what Robert Covington would be on a good team.
And coming off the bench in the “we’re going to out-big you” Enes Kanter role can be Embiid, dominating for short minutes until he steps in as the leader of the team in a year or two.
Hell, the same plan kind of works even with Simmons. Though his skills may be less like Durant than Ingram, his upside might be higher. And Colangelo can fill out the roster with free agents looking to cash in. Overpaying a guy like Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore seems like something so obvious for the Sixers and Colangelo to do that it just might work. Then maybe sign impending free agent Randy Foye from OKC—the former Villanova star did just buy Bruce Springsteen’s house at the Jersey Shore—to give a veteran presence and some scoring off the bench.
That team can win. Add one more top guard and another shooter next year and it can contend. And, no, this isn’t to suggest the Sixers will become the Thunder anytime soon. OKC has two of the top five players on the planet and some fantastic role players around them. The Sixers have…the first pick, a ton of young bigs and, uh, not much else.
But if the Sixers draft right, maybe their new cornerstone turns into a top five talent, which was Hinkie’s plan all along. A few smart signings and another good draft next year and this whole thing might work out after all. It’s not a bad five-year plan, especially for Colangelo, who didn’t have to sit through the first three.
Who the Sixers take will be discussed and debated every day until the draft, and probably for years after. Simmons is probably the bigger talent, but Ingram may be the better player. But right now, it almost doesn’t matter who the Sixers are going to pick. What matters most is what the team does around him.