The Big Board Isn’t The Full Story

It’s fascinating to imagine all of the Sixers options at the third pick in the 2017 draft. Listening to draftnik podcasts and reading scouting reports is the methodone to my Tankathon addiction.

Focusing solely on 3rd pick options, or trade-down scenarios is checkers, real straightforward linear thinking. Some GMs are serious park bench checkers masters. When you start considering three-team trades and multi-year strategies, when you embrace optionality, you start teaching yourself Sam Hinkie-level chess. More than learning the chess moves, I had to learn a whole new vocabulary, and new math, to understand how the engine runs.

To give myself a chance to better understand the board, I created my own grammar, likely reinventing the wheel, in an attempt to arrive at deeper understanding. Starting with the thesis:

Championship teams assemble sustained success around superstar talent.

The Sixers from 1981–83, the Celtics from 83–86, the Lakers from 85–88, the Pistons from 88–90, the Bulls from 91–93, the Rockets from 94–95, the Bulls again from 96–98, the Lakers from 2000–02, the Spurs from 2003–07, the Lakers again from 2008–10, the Heat from 2011–14, and now the Warriors from 2015–17 all describe sustained success. Two to four year runs, typically marked by multiple championships. Once assembled, these teams often enjoy staying power, over a three year window.

Additionally, each of these teams focus around a superstar player, often complimented by another superstar, or at minimum an elite all-star compliment. Dr. J. and Moses Malone, Bird and McHale, Magic and Kareem, Isaiah and Dumars/Lambeer, Jordan and Pippen (and Rodman), Olajuwon and Drexler, Shaq and Kobe, Duncan and Parker and Ginobli, Kobe and Gasol/Bynum, Lebron and Wade and Bosh, and Curry/Durant/Thompson/Draymond.

There are exceptions, but the best recipe for title success in the NBA is to acquire a superstar. Better yet acquire two or more, and build a team around them and go all-in for a two to four year push. This is the core of the Hinkie Process rebuild strategy: Provide as many opportunities to draft or acquire a superstar or more, with flexibility* to keep that group in tact through the primes** of their careers.

*The Thunder are a great example of not being able to keep the Durant/Westbrook/Harden core in tact long enough.

**The Barkley/Drexler/Olajuwon Rockets are a good example of assembling talent too late past their prime.

Committing to this core thesis, organizing the way I see the league through this lens is clearer. It’s subjective to how certain players and prospects are graded, but the basic rules inform how you can view the game board.

The Options

The list of current Superstars in the league is short, but distinguished. These are the guys capable of being the focus of a championship team over the next few years, if the right pieces are assembled around them.

Obviously LeBron has demonstrated what he can do partnered with Kyrie (a perennial all-star), and Golden State is a model for combining multiple superstars (Curry and Durant) with all-stars (Thompson and Draymond).

Is Aldridge the piece Kawhi needs? Can anyone coexist with Westbrook? Is Capella the solution next to Harden? We’ll find out in the next few years. Superstars should be un-acquirable. The league-wide seismic repercussions of Durant moving to Golden State illustrate how uncommon it is for Superstars to move.

The next most important group are the players who appear to be the next crop of Superstars. These assets may be even more important than current Superstars, because unlike their forebears, these players have team-friendly contracts that offer a lot more flexibility. Again, these players should be un-acquirable. The point of team building (the draft, trades, free agency) is to find the next Giannis. What can teams offer that’s better than the ceiling he represents? The short answer is nothing.

Finally, there are the Questionable Future Superstars. These are players with Superstar ceilings, but for various reasons their futures are more obscured than their Future Superstar counterparts. Anthony Davis and Embiid struggle with injury histories than cloud their otherwise glorious future prospects. Porzingis and Jokic are 100% on the right track, but need a little more sample size to earn a penciled-in spot on the 2020 ALL-NBA Team alongside Giannis, KAT, and Gobert. Simmons hasn’t stepped on the NBA hardwood yet, but his ceiling is higher than any other prospect drafted over the last three years not listed above.

The jury should be in for all of these players in the next one to two years. Until then, consider them untouchable too.

Of the incoming 2017 draft class Fultz is likely not as epic a prospect as Embiid, KAT, or Davis coming out of school, but rates as a Simmons-comparable prospects. We’ll equate him to the Questionable Future Superstars, again like Simmons, because he hasn’t played a minute yet.

The goal then necessarily becomes acquiring one or more of the fifteen (including Fultz) above-listed “un-acquirable” talents, or positioning in the draft to acquire a Suture Superstar, because without them you have only a 15% chance of winning a title.

Who is Available?

If you’re the Sixers, you’re smiling because you have two of the fifteen “un-acquirable” players under team control for the foreseeable future. Granted, they’re the unproven variety, but it beats the alternative (good luck Stan Van G!). If the Sixers can add a third player from this list of fifteen, they’re in a 2012 Thunder-like pole position in the Eastern Conference.

Superstars

LeBron: Too old. Embiid and Simmons will peak in another three to four years. At that point LeBron will finally start to decline, I swear. In the meantime adding Lebron to the current Sixers roster is unlikely, as LeBron will likely seek a surer thing given the control he has over his own contract/destiny.

Kawhi: He’s under contract for another 2 years 2019, and there’s no chance the Spurs trade him. The Spurs team culture also makes it unlikely he leaves at that point, unless Pop retires. If Pop retires, Kawhi is the reason to angle for cap space in 2019, but it’s a long shot.

Curry: No way he leaves Oakland. If he gets stiffed out of the contract the universe demands he receive next year, maybe there’s an opening, but that’s beyond unlikely.

Durant: At this point in his career, KD is not coming to a young squad like the Sixers. He’ll re-sign in Oakland, or land somewhere else closer to contention. He’ll max out and be a less desirable option when his next contract expires.

Harden: The Rockets offense is designed to keep Harden drunk on crazy stats for as long as he’ll have it. He’s not going anywhere willingly, and there’s no better fit for their system.

Westbrook: Because OKC seems like such a purgatorial market, Westbrook remains the Superstar most likely to wiggle lose. After all, the only Superstar player to move recently (KD) fled the same team. Russ seems a little more bought in. It also seems impossible that OKC would let him go, even in a trade for an embarrassment of riches (for example if the Sixers offered all five of their first round picks over the next three seasons, plus Convington and Dario). Losing Durant, Harden, AND Westbrook is an outcome they can’t ask fans to stomach.

So, Kawhi is a reason to keep an eye on 2019 salary cap space (and Pop’s retirement plans), but beyond that slimmest of slim chances, the top six on this list remain un-acquirable.

Future Superstars

This is an easy one. None of these players are moving. Period. Hard stop. Even if Gordon Hayward splits Utah, that only deepens the Jazz’s focus on Gobert, and building a team around him. That’s it, there’s nothing out there worth trading KAT or Giannis for.

Questionable Future Superstars

Here’s where it starts to get interesting. There are four players on this list not already in Philadelphia: Davis, Porzingis, Jokic, and Fultz.

Jokic: Denver committed to Jokic when they traded Nurkic. He’s as dug in as KAT or Giannis. Additionally, he’s not an ideal fit next to Embiid, they’re both centers and we know what too many centers looks like, so let’s rule him out.

Davis: Ooooh baby. Davis at power forward next to Embiid is…compelling. Give me a minute to collect myself. The hitch is that he has the same kind of durability concerns as Embiid. There’s a worst case scenario version of a post-trade world where Embiid and Davis are stuck on IR at the same time. So while you could probably sweep New Orleans off their feet with a trade offer, Davis seems like too risky a prospect to unload the assets truck on next to JoJo.

Porzingis: You try to make this move. Again, put Porzingis next to Embiid and watch the Celtics cry themselves to sleep for five to eight years. Porzingis seems ripe to explore bolting NY with no plan or hope in sight in their front office, even if it means leaving money on the table. You explore everything short of trading Embiid or Simmons to get Porzingis. It’s all on the table. Make it happen.

Fultz: Boston has the first pick, so he’s not readily available. Additionally, offering the Celtics picks for Fultz makes no sense for Boston. The best draft outcomes they can hope for with those picks is that the lottery balls bounce the way they did this year, and they have an opportunity to pick a player like Fultz.

To add Fultz the Sixers would need to build a three-team-trade that nets Boston an immediate difference maker (Westbrook, Thompson, Paul George, Butler, etc.) and sends some of the Sixers’ draft pick resources to a team ready to restock.

Again, if this trade is out there, you move heaven and earth to make it happen.

You can only hope for a three player core as good as Embiid-Simmons-Porzingis, Embiid-Simmons-Fultz, or Embiid-Simmons-Ball to materialize over the next few draft classes. You can’t really hope you’ll draft much better. If you can sacrifice picks to secure certainties, you make the move.