What questions should the Philadelphia 76ers be asking themselves as they hone in on a first round talent?
“Knowledge is literally prediction,” said Morey. “Knowledge is anything that increases your ability to predict the outcome.”― Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds
The Brooklyn Nets have deferred so the Sixers will pick at no. 23 in the coming draft. So what should the team’s priorities be over the coming weeks as they continue scouting the late round prospects?
In these instances, what the front office decides their goals are or should be can be very helpful, but they can also sometimes have devastating consequences.
For example, if you were Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder back in 2008, sitting at pick no. 4 and you asked yourself “which position fits best with newly acquired centerpiece Kevin Durant?” you might have selected Brook Lopez. Lopez was one of the top bigs on the board and the team strongly considered taking him to pair as a two-way anchor alongside KD. When they asked themselves who is the highest upside player on the board, regardless of fit, the answer they came up with was Russell Westbrook. They decided the latter was the more pertinent question and never regretted going “best player available” (or upside) over what they deemed a more seamless fit with the 4th pick.
Things are a little different towards the backend of a first round. The opportunity cost of picking “wrong” doesn’t tend to torture you for the next decade or more like it can at the top. Still, the Sixers may not want to focus too heavily on one trait like “shooting” or “athletic wing” if that thinking could cause them to overlook the next Robert or Grant Williams (like it may have in the past).
On the flip side, perhaps if a team with the 11th overall pick in 2013 asked themselves “who is the best player available?” or asked themselves “who has the best combination of reasonable ceiling with a sky high floor where if we totally whiff, we can still net a mega haul via trade?” The answer to those questions might have led Sam Hinkie, Sachin Gupta, and Ben Falk to pick guard Michael Carter-Williams.
Had they asked “which prospect on the board has the highest grand-slam ceiling outcome, even if he is rather unlikely to reach potential?” that might have led them to spend even more time studying that now legendary grainy footage of a rangy teen from Athens, Greece.
But that question can also lead you to value someone like Kansas’ Josh Jackson, who was regarded by many as “a jump shot away from stardom” over Donovan Mitchell in 2017. So there’s no fool proof question to ask and answer. You need a system that weights multiple variables like a good daily fantasy lineup. Do I have my “safe” picks and my “upside” plays mixed in? Do I want to be contrarian?
Sidebar. Michael Lewis wrote a great book called “The Undoing Project” and I highly recommend it. There’s basically a full chapter of cool stuff about how Daryl Morey, then with the Rockets, saw the NBA Draft and the myriad cognitive traps executives and scouts can fall into.
For example “to combat the endowment effect, he forced his scouts and his model to establish, going into the draft, the draft pick value of each of their own players,” writes Michael Lewis, also the author of “Moneyball.”
“The Undoing Project,” which highlights the relationship of two brilliant psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, also includes a hilarious anecdote about how Marc Gasol was smashing Morey’s models ahead of the 2007 NBA draft. But the Rockets scouts had already nicknamed him “Man Boobs.” The team, a room full of bros, Morey has joked, ultimately passed on the future two-time All-NBA player and champion. As Max Croes wrote “The body-shaming scouts ignorantly had Marc Gasol wrong. The analytics and data had it right. After that draft Daryl Morey banned Rockets staff from using any nicknames in the future, including “Man Boobs.”
Daryl also apparently banned same-race comps, because he noticed that somehow every European player was the next Dirk Nowitzki, and mixed-race guard was seen as the next Steph Curry.
Now you try, pick your favorite prospect for the Sixers and think of a comp of a different race….it’s a challenging exercise and forces you to see the player as unique. Maybe a lesson there for society, I don’t know.
So what if the the 76ers now ask themselves what Elton Brand and Vince Rozman asked back in 2019? Perhaps something like “who is the best older player that can step in and help right away, someone we won’t need to spend three years developing?”
— Garry Cobb (@GarryCobb) May 14, 2019
“That’s hopefully somebody that can come in and contribute right away,” Rozman, the Sixers’ then Senior Director and now Vice President of Scouting, said before the team traded up a few spots to select now two time All-NBA Defensive Second team member Matisse Thybulle.
That question probably shouldn’t have been asked quite so publicly, however. The Boston Celtics sniffed out precisely who they wanted and wrangled an early second rounder out of them for telegraphing:
That’s not great. pic.twitter.com/FIzmSp8lJF
— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) June 21, 2019
Under Morey’s reign the team has been more discrete and maybe more open to alternative scenarios. They didn’t pigeon hole themselves into deciding they needed a shooter to play alongside Ben Simmons in 2020. They didn’t predetermine they needed a three-and-D wing or a backup center just in case they might trade Al Horford. They didn’t hone in on older guys who could help right away. And that openness let them simply thank the heavens 20 year-old Tyrese Maxey (and his reasonable-at-the-time shooting concerns) fell to them at no. 21. The other line of thinking may have led them to a player like Desmond Bane, though, and that wouldn’t have exactly spelled disaster. But it also could have led them to Payton Pritchard, and the idea of seeing Maxey in leprechaun green nauseates.
For what it’s worth, Morey mentioned in a podcast with The Ringer’s Bill Simmons, recorded back in 2019 that “older college players were definitely overlooked [when he was a new GM]. I still think that’s an an area of opportunity, which is guys who are extremely good players in college, you bring ‘em in, and you know they’re probably not gonna be a super star but you get ‘em on a good value late in the draft.”
Have a listen:
It will be interesting to see if he still feels that way three years later as names like E.J. Liddell, Tari Eason, Jalen Williams, Wendell Moore Jr., Marjon Beauchamp, David Roddy, Ochai Agbaji, Justin Lewis and others are all over 20 years-old and loosely projected to fall in the Sixers range per mocks.
In 2021, before they selected 18 year-old Jaden Springer, it seems likely that the team was asking themselves questions like “is there a player with a plug-and-play skill set where we can develop the rest of his game, available at pick 28?” Or “if we trade away Ben Simmons is there a pro-level defender on the board to fill that defensive gap?” Or maybe more likely, “is there a very young, three-and-D wing any number of rebuilding teams might be excited to mold in case they trade a Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal?”
Thinking like that, with their own immediate needs, a dash of upside, a splash of floor, more than a dollop of market value in mind, is probably where they’re at again today.
(Although, they may want to adjust whatever algorithm led them to prioritize defense but still pass on Herb Jones).
And with all of those lessons, and so so many more in mind, how do they scout? How do they weight their models? How hard do they work the phone lines for trade? Is there a taker out there for Danny Green’s $10M option or will he be let go? It’s possible this pick could be on the move in the days, hours, or minutes after the Sixers make their pick.
If someone wants Green or if there is a draft day taker for Matisse Thybulle (the Chicago Bulls are reportedly interested) maybe the Sixers pick is on the move before dude even gets to wear the hat. In instances like that, the Sixers probably wouldn’t even be the ones making the pick, they’d just do it for an acquiring team as part of the swap. It’s worth shopping now since the pick will lose value once its made. Being able to call a team and say “you can choose whoever you like when we’re on the clock,” certainly has to be an easier sell than “we’ve selected player X, what do you think?”
In other scenarios, this player could become involved in trade talks that extend deeper into the summer. It’s awkward to spend weeks or months hashing out a rookie contract when you’re not even planning on keeping the prospect but that world exists, just ask Andrew Wiggins. Could their player eventually be on the move with someone like Tobias Harris? That might be a late offseason move when some teams’ free agency plans have gone awry and they opt to pivot. Would the Sixers ultimately decide to keep their rookie heading into the season because no quick fix presented itself?
Could they stash him overseas like they did last year with Filip Petrušev? Is F-Pet ever coming over?
If they want to keep their pick, they can use reliable shooting. Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton weren’t sufficiently reliable open-shot shooters this season. Georges Niang was a one-way offensive player whose shot left him by the second round.
They can certainly use some athleticism on the wings, as noted. With Thybulle’s issues as a shooter, coach Rivers didn’t feel he could rely on him much in the playoffs. Milton, Niang, Korkmaz aren’t strong defenders, so if their shot isn’t dropping, it can bite you.
Maybe they could use a reliable backup big. With their youth and inexperience, Doc didn’t feel he could ramp up Paul Reed until the playoffs, or Charles Bassey at all last season.
They know they have a head coach who is unlikely to experiment much with lineup rotations, particularly with younger players.
So maybe they need to ask themselves certain questions with Rivers’ tendencies in mind; which could be good or bad if he’ll have an important voice in the pre-draft process:
Another league source re-affirmed that Rivers and the Sixers are aligned on his future with the franchise. He’s been heavily involved in offseason coordination with Daryl Morey, Elton Brand, & ownership.
— Austin Krell (@NBAKrell) May 26, 2022
With Rivers back for another year, the chances of the team eyeing another high-upside bet like Maxey was would seem to dip a bit. To be fair, there simply isn’t much time to take on a two-three-year development project in Joel Embiid’s prime.
All in all, my hunch would be that this player is going to be traded, and probably before the season begins. Jas Kang and I talked about this in more depth on the recent Sixers Daily pick no. 23 edition.
But let’s hope they’re asking the right questions as they study film and data. And if there’s a high-upside guy who isn’t a fit because he plays Maxey’s position, won’t be ready for another year, and maybe even has man boobs, they should still try to keep an open mind.