By Bryan Toporek
For the past 14 months, Philadelphia 76ers team president Bryan Colangelo has largely been haunted by the specter of his predecessor, Sam Hinkie. Though Colangelo dodged major landmines during his first offseason—he nailed the 2016 draft and resisted the temptation to splurge in free agency last summer—the “what would Hinkie do?” sentiment has remained pervasive throughout his tenure.
But after agreeing to trade this year’s No. 3 pick and a protected 2018 Los Angeles Lakers first-rounder to the Boston Celtics for the top overall selection, Colangelo has emerged from the Puxatawney Phil-esque shadow of Hinkie.
Assuming the Sixers select Washington point guard Markelle Fultz as expected, they’ll supplant the Minnesota Timberwolves as the team with the NBA’s best young core. Though the price to move up was high—the 2018 Lakers pick will convey if it falls between Nos. 2 and 5, according to Sixers beat writer Derek Bodner; otherwise, Philly will instead send the Sacramento Kings’ unprotected 2019 first-round pick to Boston—it’s the exact type of gamble the Sixers needed to make.
Had the Sixers stood pat at No. 3, they faced a plethora of somewhat unpalatable options. Kansas forward Josh Jackson profiles as a strong, versatile defender and the theoretical “best player available” at that spot, but his shooting woes wouldn’t make him a strong fit alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox is defensively tenacious, but his shooting stroke is likewise concerning. Duke forward Jayson Tatum would only further clog Philly’s logjam at the forward spots. Kentucky’s Malik Monk could be a microwave scorer next to Embiid and Simmons, but at 6’3″, he lacks ideal size for the 2-guard spot. Florida State forward Jonathan Isaac has a tantalizingly high ceiling with a terrifying low floor. Outside of Fultz, each other top prospect has enough warts to raise questions about their long-term NBA potential.
While no prospect in this year’s draft class is a surefire 10-time All-Star, Fultz is the closest thing to it. Though his Washington Huskies were abysmal this past season, it’s no fault of his own, as he averaged an eye-popping 23.2 points on 47.6 percent shooting, 5.9 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 2.1 triples, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks in 35.7 minutes per game. Fultz drilled 52 of his 126 three-point attempts on the year (41.3 percent) and shot 43.8 percent on two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.com, despite being assisted on only 11 such shots across his entire freshman campaign. Had his teammates knocked down more of the open looks he provided them, his assist numbers could have been far higher, as his floor vision and ability to run a half-court offense would be a welcome addition to any team.
For the Sixers, it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect fit. They’ve repeatedly emphasized their plans to use Simmons as their de facto point guard, but as the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have proved over the past few years, teams can never have enough capable passers and ball-handlers on the floor at one time. Fultz isn’t ball-dominant to the point where he’ll be drifting aimlessly on the perimeter whenever Simmons runs the offense, as his long-range shooting ability will force defenders to stay close to him, thus creating space on the interior for his teammates. Fultz’s defensive upside remains far more of a question mark than his offensive ceiling, but at 6’4″ with a reported 6’10” wingspan, he has the size to defend either guard position.
With Fultz, Simmons and Embiid soon to be in tow, the Sixers will have assembled the best young core since the late-2000s Oklahoma City Thunder. The likes of Dario Saric (23), Robert Covington (26), Richaun Holmes (23), Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (22) and T.J. McConnell (25) give them a strong complementary cast, while the addition of Fultz could help resuscitate the career of former No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor (21). Though the plodding Okafor appears out of place in today’s pace-and-space NBA, having Fultz and Simmons feeding him the ball may help boost his offensive efficiency. If not, the Sixers could dangle him on the trade market to further bolster their budding talent base.
Philadelphia paid a hefty price to move up two spots—too hefty, according to the trade value chart of ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton—but being able to keep one of the unprotected Lakers or Kings picks helps justify the cost. In Fultz, Simmons and Embiid, the Sixers now have a young Big Three to build around, and the former two will be locked into cheap rookie-scale contracts for each of the next three seasons. With the ability to carve out more than $50 million in cap space this summer, the Sixers can surround their star trio with a complementary cast of shooters (JJ Redick, anyone?), defensive-minded wings and veterans with playoff experience to imbue locker room leadership upon the young studs. They’re also likely to have at least one more crack at adding a high-lottery talent via L.A. or Sacramento, even as they move toward becoming legitimate playoff challengers.
The #Process2Progress hashtag team CEO Scott O’Neil unveiled last offseason received deserved mockery at the time, but by trading for Fultz, the Sixers have officially moved into Phase 2 of the Process. Without Hinkie’s legwork, however, Colangelo wouldn’t have been in position to make such a move.
Had Hinkie not taken on the contracts of Carl Landry and Jason Thompson, Philly wouldn’t have been able to swap its No. 5 pick this year with the Sacramento Kings’ third overall pick, making a trade up to No. 1 far more difficult. Had he not shipped then-Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams to the Milwaukee Bucks in a three-team deal at the 2015 trade deadline, the Sixers wouldn’t have the Lakers first-rounder they sent to Boston. If that protected 2018 Lakers pick doesn’t convey, Boston instead receives the unprotected 2019 Kings first-rounder Hinkie also pried away in the Landry/Thompson salary dump. Colangelo ultimately executed the deal, but it has Hinkie’s fingerprints all over it.
Though Colangelo will now experience a honeymoon phase with pro-Process Sixers fans who’ve remained skeptical of his front office acumen until now, Celtics loyalists shouldn’t start burning Danny Ainge effigies yet. As ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne relayed on Twitter Saturday night, the general reaction to the blockbuster trade across the league is “there’s a reason it’s happening early,” as both teams are “still maneuvering.”
Armed with this year’s No. 3 pick and an overflowing war chest of future first-rounders, Ainge could turn around and offer the Chicago Bulls too much to refuse for Jimmy Butler. With some finagling, they could then feasibly go out and sign Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin in free agency, giving them a Big Four that could narrow the gap between them and the Warriors and Cavaliers. Though the Anthony Davis-to-the-Celtics speculation needs to die a swift and painful death—at least for now—the move down from No. 1 to No. 3 opens an additional $1.15 million in cap space for Ainge to play with during the offseason. Giving up nine years of team control for Fultz is painful, but adding two All-Star-caliber players over the next few weeks would help stem the bleeding.
The Celtics could also stand pat at No. 3 and choose Jackson, Tatum, UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball or another dark-horse prospect. According to Adam Himmeslbach of the Boston Globe, Boston has “long said there are four elite prospects in this draft,” and sources told him the team “believed gap between Fultz and the rest was not big.” If the Celtics wind up getting the best prospect in this draft class at No. 3 and add another first-round pick down the road, the deal winds up being a clear win for them, too. Trading the rights to Fultz could backfire significantly, but the payoff could be mammoth if all breaks right.
As such, it’s far too early to offer a definitive grade for either side of this trade. In the unlikely even that Fultz winds up being a draft bust, the Lakers make the playoffs next season (causing their first-rounder to remain in Philadelphia) and Sacramento wins the No. 1 pick in 2019, Ainge would walk away from this trade looking like a genius. If Fultz becomes a once-in-a-generation superstar, Boston trades No. 3 for Paul George (who then flees to the Lakers as a free agent in 2018) and that Sacramento pick falls in the 10-14 range, Philadelphians will erect a 15-foot shrine for Colangelo right next to the Rocky statue.
Until we see how the next few years play out, it’s only fair to evaluate the deal as a calculated gamble for both sides. Though dominos must continue to fall before weighing in on the Celtics side, it’s far easier to see the upside of this trade for Philadelphia. Armed with the Fultz-Simmons-Embiid trio, numerous future first- and second-round picks from other teams and a copious amount of cap space, the pain of the Sixers’ four-year rebuild may well wind up being worth the reward, health permitting.
Prior to his resignation in April 2016, Hinkie described his team-building strategy to ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe as such: “We’ve been on a path to build something special. We’re planting seeds to have an orchard. Some would have us go out and buy apples. But we want to build the whole orchard.” Though Hinkie didn’t remain with the franchise long enough to fully realize that vision, Colangelo helped water the seeds Hinkie planted, avoiding the occasional apple with an eye on something greater.
By trading for the rights to Fultz, Colangelo ensured Hinkie’s orchard is now in full bloom.