Just four years ago, the Philadelphia 76ers had a ton of picks, lots of promising young players, and unlimited flexibility. How did they end up here?
When Sam Hinkie resigned as the Philadelphia 76ers’ general manager in April 2016, the team was wrapping up one of the worst seasons in NBA history. They would finish 10-72, and in a testament to how unsettled practically everything was with the team that year, 15 different players started at least one game for them that year. But what they lacked in stability, they made up for, at least in theory, with a plan — an overarching strategy to return to contention after several years of tanking in the hopes of maximizing their chances to obtain a star in the draft.
Yet, at this point, only half of that strategy had worked. Their lottery picks the last few years — Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, and Jahlil Okafor — had not displayed legitimate star potential. Embiid and Saric had yet to play a game for the Sixers while Carter-Williams had already been traded for another first-round pick even though he had won Rookie of the Year less than a year prior to his being shipped to Milwaukee.
How did the Philadelphia 76ers spend all their valuable assets?
But they still had a bevy of draft picks and other intriguing young players that might turn into something. Philadelphia was quite far from being a good team, though a blueprint to becoming one was firmly in place. Yet in the four years since, while they have certainly improved and made the postseason three years in a row, they now appear stuck in the same cycle of mediocrity they were so desperate to escape when the Process began. Here’s a look at the moves and decisions that brought them to this point.
The Sixers won the lottery and predictably selected Ben Simmons. They also signed Jerryd Bayless, Sergio Rodriguez, and Gerald Henderson in the hopes of providing the team with some veteran leadership. The signings limited the team’s flexibility but weren’t really bad moves in light of how much cap space they had. What would turn out to be less wise was allowing Christian Wood to walk away after his rookie season. Granted the Sixers were already log jammed in the frontcourt, he should have been the type of player the team was prizing — a young player with the potential to be a solid rotation player, if not a starter, someday. And that is exactly what he has become for the Pistons.
Nov. 1, 2016
That fall, Coalengeo traded Jerami Grant to the Thunder. Grant had been fine, though unspectacular in his two years in Philadelphia, though he has truly blossomed in the years since, transforming into an above-average 3-point-shooter as well as a multidimensional defender who can protect the rim and also guard more athletic wings. In return, the Sixers received Ersan Ilyasova, who was with the team for 53 games before being dealt to the Hawks for two second-round picks and Tiago Splitter, who played eight games with the team before undergoing hip surgery and announcing his retirement.
Feb. 23, 2017
After working to deal both Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, neither of whom had really panned out and had become immediately redundant the moment Joel Embiid was healthy, the Sixers finally found a taker for Noel in the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks sent back Justin Anderson, two second-round picks, and Andrew Bogut, who was immediately waived. It was a paltry return for a player they had drafted so high just a few years prior, and it was a situation that would repeat itself two more times in the near future.
Prior to the draft, the Sixers traded the third pick and a 2019 first to the Celtics in order to move up two spots so they could select Markelle Fultz. While it’s easy to second guess this trade now in light of how good Jayson Tatum — the player the Celtics selected with the Sixers’ pick is — and everything that has happened with Fultz since, at the time it made perfect sense. Fultz looked like the best point guard to enter the draft in many, many years. He also filled a lot of needs for the team, as a player who could shoot, penetrate, create plays, and initiate the offense all with great skill. Of course, things did not work out that way.
Dec. 7, 2017
After trying to find a taker for Jahlil Okafor for a long while, the Sixers were finally able to move on from 2015’s third overall pick, though not without having to sweeten the deal a bit. The Brooklyn Nets sent back Trevor Booker in exchange for Okafor, Nik Stauskas, and a second-round pick. Booker played just 33 games for Philadelphia before being waived later in the season. This deal was as much an admission of defeat as it was anything else.
June 21, 2018
After drafting Mikal Bridges 10th overall, the Sixers almost immediately traded him to the Phoenix Suns in return for Zhaire Smith and Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round selection. While Bridges looks to be a promising wing for the Suns for many years to come, Smith has only played 13 games for the Sixers in two seasons due to a variety of health and injury concerns.
July 20, 2018
Richaun Holmes was traded to the Phoenix Suns for cash, giving up a young and viable back-up center for nothing of on-court value.
July 25, 2018
In order to help facilitate the four-team deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City, Justin Anderson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot were traded to the Thunder. The Sixers received Mike Muscala for the trouble.
Nov. 18, 2018
If you’re looking for a specific moment when the mindset of the Process definitively vanished, any one of these next three deals would be a fine one to pick. They all show the Sixers selling off assets to acquire a bigger name, or abandoning a player they had previously invested in because they no longer wanted to invest in his development. The future had been forsaken in order to go all in on the present moment. Winning now had become paramount. Here, they traded Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and a second-round pick for Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton. It was a definite inflection point for the franchise, one that would set the stage for much to come even though Butler would leave the team the next summer.
Feb. 6, 2019
The Sixers made another big splash by trading with the Los Angeles Clippers for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, and Mike Scott, giving up rookie Landry Shamet, Mike Muscala, and Wilson Chandler along with two first-rounders, including Miami’s unprotected 2021 pick, and two second-rounders. While Harris and Marjanovic were becoming free agents, the Sixers wanted to ensure they had the best chance to sign Harris in the summer and gave up a lot in order to do so. Marjanovic would leave after the season to sign with Dallas.
Feb. 7, 2019
The Markelle Fultz saga came to an end as the Sixers dealt him to the Magic for Jonathan Simmons, a second-round pick, and a top twenty protected first-rounder (so likely another two second-rounders). They admittedly sold a bit low on Fultz, but the team was just eager to move on at this point and opted to go with the same strategy that they had with Noel and Okafor in prior years. And like in those deals, the Sixers returned practically nothing of value in return as Simmons played just 15 games for the team before being packaged with Admiral Schofield and sent to the Wizards for cash.
In free agency, the Sixers predictably re-signed Tobias Harris to a five-year, $180 million deal and unexpectedly signed Al Horford to four-year, $109 million contract. It was a massive overpay for Harris, but one the Sixers sort of forced themselves to make by giving so much to acquire him just five months prior. The Horford deal made sense in a vacuum — if you have the chance to sign him, you take it. He had made every team he was on better, was a good defender and had become a solid shooter. But for this particular team, it made a lot less sense. He played the same position as the team’s best player which forced Horford to play out of position at the 4 which also forced Harris to play out of position at the 3. They had invested nearly $300 million in two players whose fit with the rest of the roster was questionable at best, though at the time, it made sense to assume that talent would win out.
They also did a sign-and-trade with the Heat in which they gave up Butler in order to receive Josh Richardson as a replacement starting two-guard. Richardson was a solid acquisition, though it was a massive downgrade, one the Sixers chose by prioritizing Harris and Horford over Butler. He may have not re-signed with the Sixers no matter what, but the team never seemed to take seriously any chance of doing so which was a massive mistake.
The Sixers ended the 2016 season as a bad team, but with a lot of flexibility. Four years later, they end the 2020 campaign as a decent team that appears to be stuck where they are. While in one sense, they are in an enviable position — they do have two young stars on long-term contracts after all. In another sense, their situation is as bleak as any’s in the league. While no contact in the NBA is ever truly unmoveable, it’s hard to imagine what Philadelphia could attach alongside Harris or Horford to find takers for them.
It’s truly astonishing to see how many of these assets just turned into dust for them this quickly. Three top six picks were all traded for essentially nothing of value, and other solid players were essentially turned into bad contracts. If Philadelphia had held on to some combination of Shamet, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Mikal Bridges, Markelle Fultz, Richaun Holmes, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot instead of dealing all of them in less than one year then they would still have the flexibility to improve in the long-term while also being a more balanced team in the present. Instead, the front office’s patience wore out and they tried to do whatever they could to win immediately with no seemingly thought to the ramifications of the deals they were making. If Sam Hinkie prioritized long-term thinking to a fault, then it appears that his successors have course-corrected a little too much. A path to championship contention may still be there for the 76ers, but it appears far murkier than it did just two years ago.