The Colangelo and Brand Era: All The Wrong Moves
This is pretty long.
Adam Aaronson, whose legal name is Sixers Adam (@SixersAdam on Twitter), covers the Sixers for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez. He has been legally banned from covering the team in person, but that ban will be lifted in March of 2020. He is brought to you by the Official Realtor of The Process, Adam Ksebe.
Last week, I shook things up and actually took a look at what Sixers management has done right over the last four years (excluding the summer when Brett Brown was in charge). And now, it’s time for me to buckle up for a much longer writing session, because here come the bad moves.
2016 Free Agency
After drafting Ben Simmons to pair with Joel Embiid and failing to trade either of Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor on Draft Night, Bryan Colangelo and co. entered the month of July looking to bolster their roster with veterans who could help the young pieces compete at an NBA level. But looking back, all they did was waste cap space. They signed Gerald Henderson, who was a positive presence in the locker room but not on the floor. They got creative and signed Sergio Rodriguez, who was fun to watch but not in a way that was conducive to winning at all. And the one that hurts most is Jerryd Bayless, who was given a three-year, $27 million contract that was fully guaranteed. Three years seemed like clearly too many at the time, even for someone who theoretically fit in well as a combo-guard. Any chances Bayless had of panning out in Philly were zapped by injuries that cost him time and athleticism. But even then: three years? $27 million? Jerryd Bayless? This was the beginning of what became a pattern with this front office: consistently missing out on value on the margins.
2017 NBA Draft
[Sigh] Here’s where I have to talk about Markelle Fultz. Every aspect of Fultz’s tenure has been relitigated recently -- including in my column last week and Sunday’s podcast -- so I’ll just remind you of the end-result of the trade: the third overall pick in 2017 (became Jayson Tatum) and the 14th overall pick in 2019 (became Romeo Langford) for the first overall pick in 2017 (became Fultz). And let’s be fair: most of us believed Fultz was the perfect third wheel next to Embiid and Simmons. Maybe he was, but just never got to show it because of the shooting issues that came up later on in the summer. But just look at that final tally. A budding superstar (yes, Tatum is a budding superstar) and a lottery pick for a guy who got traded for Jon freaking Simmons in his second season. Good lord.
Guess what, folks? That’s not all! On this day it appeared the Sixers had locked in three future stars for the foreseeable future. And by the end of the night, they had done such a poor job that fans were still furious.
First, they traded a future first-round pick to the Orlando Magic for the 25th pick so they could select… Anzejs Pasecniks. The team never even deemed Pasecniks worthy of consideration to bring over to the NBA, so when he was ready to come to America, they simply renounced his draft rights and set him free. Hilariously, he has now caught on in Washington after a slew of injuries gave him an avenue to playing time.
Looking back, the 2017 Draft had a damn good second-round class. The Sixers entered the night with four second-rounders. They ended up selecting one player who played in an NBA game for them, and it was Jonah Bolden, who just got released while on his rookie contract. They took Bolden at #36, which was an interesting bet on his tools that ultimately did not work out. And then the Sixers, who have been almost impressively bad at accruing depth, elected to *sell* the 39th pick (to the Clippers, who took Jawun Evans) and then sell the 46th pick (to the Bucks, who took Sterling Brown). And then to cap it off, they used the 50th pick on Mathias Lessort, a French forward who has never been worthy of NBA consideration and whose rights are now held by the Clippers. The best part about the Lessort selection is that with the very next pick, the Nuggets took Monte Morris, who has become one of the best backup point guards in the NBA on a miniscule contract. Picks #25, #36, #39, #46 and #50… all down the drain.
2017 Free Agency: Amir Johnson
As highlighted in last week’s piece, the Sixers entered 2017 ready to compete for a playoff spot, and capitalized on their financial flexibility by signing JJ Redick to a one-year balloon deal that did not inhibit their future plans of adding another star. Redick helped Embiid and Simmons develop offensively and fit perfectly within Brett Brown’s motion-based offense. Redick filled an obvious need.
Amir Johnson, on the other hand, was a more head-scratching signing. Signing a trusted veteran to back up Embiid seemed like the reasonable play, but not if you’re paying $11 million in one year to Amir (who I love and was a fan of). Like the Bayless signing, for example, this specific move did not crush the Sixers’ chances of winning a championship, but it was one of many in which the Sixers lost out on value.
2017-18 season: trade with Brooklyn
After trying and failing multiple times to deal Okafor, often holding out for more value, Colangelo’s hesitance to pull the trigger came back to bite him. Sitting on the bench in Philly, clearly unhappy, Okafor’s league-wide value was plummeting and the Sixers had no leverage in any discussions. We all assumed that the Sixers would get something in return for Jahlil, just not anything major. Well… they had to pay to get rid of him. They dealt Okafor, Nik Stauskas and a future Knicks second-round pick to Brooklyn for Trevor Booker, who was a decent player at the time but a brutal fit in Philadelphia because of his inability to knock down threes. And that second-round pick? Well, it turned out to be pretty damn valuable -- in fact, the most valuable a second-rounder could be. It was the 31st overall pick in 2019, which the Nets used to select Nic Claxton. Another loss that isn’t debilitating, but does hurt in the long-run.
2018-19 season: the Tobias Harris trade // 2019 Free Agency: the Tobias Harris contract
I’ve already written extensively about Harris, so I’ll refer you to an excerpt of my piece from the end of February about his disappointing Sixers tenure that addresses both the trade and contract:
“We all talk on a regular basis about how bad the Horford contract is, but I don’t think anyone (other than AU) is spending enough time thinking about what this team paid to acquire and retain Tobias Harris. As if Landry Shamet and draft picks weren’t enough, the Sixers then handed Harris a five year contract worth $180 million, firmly cementing him among the league’s highest-paid players when he is… not one of the league’s best players… for someone who fetched superstar assets in a trade, and got a superstar contract, I’m not sure there’s a case that he’s more than just a quality starter. Quite honestly, I don’t think we’re far away from considering Harris to be immovable altogether. He’s a nice player, but man, $180 million dollars is a lot of dollars for a player who is just fine.”
2019 NBA Draft
Whenever I do these types of pieces, there is always one classification I know I will get pushback for. Today, it is my determination that the same draft that the Sixers nabbed Matisse Thybulle in was a failure. And that is not a knock on Thybulle, a wonderful prospect who was well worth his selection. But think about it this way: the Sixers had just lost a playoff series in which they could not find a third reliable bench player. They were also about to become a perennial luxury tax team in need of inexpensive contributors. They entered a draft rich with role players holding three top-35 picks. They finished the night with one player. That is unacceptable.
2019 Free Agency
The weeks leading up to free agency were spent filled with debates over whether or not the team should “Run it Back” and re-sign Butler, Redick and Harris. Redick was important and Harris is a good player, but the important call was about Butler. It is still unclear what the team’s exact level of interest in bringing him back was, but most reporting seems to indicate that he was not in their long-term plans. The argument for letting him go remains justifiable: as I wrote for Liberty Ballers last year, “Jimmy had what was somewhat of a frustrating season with the Sixers -- he often coasted on defense, went through bizarre stretches of not shooting three-pointers, and simply seemed checked out at times. While it is undeniable that Butler is an excellent player, the case that it will do more bad than good to bring him back is at least arguable.” While I wasn’t out on him entirely, I had many more reservations about a long-term commitment to Butler than most. But even then, I still can’t shake the memory of Simmons (and Embiid, to an extent) not being ready to take over against Toronto and Butler getting the job done (well, except for in Game 7!). Watching this year’s team struggle so much to create offense on the perimeter, I find myself confident that they would have been better off doubling down on the gamble of Jimmy Butler.
Some will argue with my stance on Jimmy Butler, but none will argue that Al Horford, who the Sixers quickly pivoted to -- to the tune of a four-year, $109 million contract -- was the wrong choice. Horford has been a brutal fit in Philly, and many believe the Sixers will need to add a sweetener of some sort just to get their hands free of him, let alone actually obtain something in return.
2019-20 Trade Deadline
With all due respect to Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, two players I saw as sensible trade targets, how can you justify this move in hindsight? They were largely ineffective (if not worse), both almost certainly rentals, and this is a team that was so much farther away from championship contention than just Burks and GRIII. And while none of the three second-round picks they gave up are incredibly valuable on their own, giving up three picks for minimal on-court value is a tough blow. And while this aspect of things should obviously not be held against the Sixers, the two acquisitions combined for just 23 regular season games (assuming the regular season won’t be resumed). Trading three draft picks for 23 unremarkable games out of two players is an even tougher blow.
While one could argue that the Fultz trade with Boston was a nail in the coffin, I wager that this piece shows there was no nail in the coffin -- rather, the Sixers died a death by a thousand paper cuts. No one move -- the Fultz trade, the Harris trade / contract, the Horford contract, etc. -- should be held responsible. The Sixers’ standing as a team on the decline, running out of assets, stems from a flurry of bad moves, masked as minor while building towards extinction in the background.