“And with the third pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, The Philadelphia 76ers select…KRISTAPS PORZINGIS!”
They say hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to look back and say “well that was the obvious choice”, especially when looking at the potential for an All Unicorn front court to propel your team into 10+ years of relevance. The realization that Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis could have been on the same team is surreal to even think of. But it could have been and that fact now moves front and centre as the Sixers try and detach themselves from Jahlil Okafor.
It’s not like Okafor is a scrub. After leading his team to a National Title, Big Jah was a legitimate contender for the #1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. There were plenty of debates about whether the polished offensive big man should be the new centerpiece for the suddenly up-and-coming Wolves. Meanwhile, Porzingis was gaining popularity as a sweet shooting Dirk Type who would more than likely be a year or 2 away from contributing anything meaningful.
Given this, it is no surprise that Okafor was 3rd off the board once Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell were snapped up. Philly had already established a precedence for taking the best talent available as part of their tanking philosophy, and so far so good. Okafor offered a paint presence and, most importantly, a healthy, ‘NBA Ready’ body. Okafor was the safe bet (and a surefire trade asset should Embiid recover properly), whereas Porzingis was the reach, making New York fans very upset on draft night. Would he become the next Nowitzki, or the next Nikoloz Tskitishvili?
At this point, then GM Sam Hinkie had not really given anyone reason to doubt him as a talent evaluator. One look at his transaction history shows a man who buys low and sells high, wheeling and dealing to stockpile cheap assets (also known as human beings playing basketball on non-guaranteed contracts) and high potential draft picks.
- He selected former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, then flipped him for the Lakers Top 3 protected First in 2017.
- Flipped Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and an unprotected 2014 first from New Orleans (Elfrid Payton).
- Avoided paying non shooting Evan Turner by trading him to Indiana for the corpse of Danny Granger.
- Squeezed Orlando and received his 2017 pick back, as well the rights to Dario Saric for the rights to Elfrid Payton.
- Ran roughshod over poor Sacramento and claimed an unprotected 2019 first rounder, swap rights for ’16 or ’17 (not needed), PLUS Nick Stauskas. All that for some dudes called Arturas and Luka. That was the price for Sacto to relieve themselves of Landry and Jason Thompson’s contracts (they could have stretched them).
- Signed Robert Covington as well as a plethora of other useful, low cost players in the 2nd round of the draft to team friendly deals.
- And most importantly, he took the best talent of the 2014 draft in Joel Embiid.
All of this is to illustrate that Hinkie, despite not endearing himself much to the NBA community, was slowly but surely compiling talent. It might not all fit, but that didn’t matter; all the players would have currency around the league. Collecting desirable players would have the payoff at the end – just look at what Daryl Morey was able to use to acquire Harden.
But now, as we sit in February 2017, one week from the trade deadline, it appears this sure thing has backfired. Okafor in 2015/16 struggled with losing, with sharing the front court minutes, with defending. He scored at a good clip, but this didn’t effect the teams performance on the floor. Moving into 2017, not much has changed.
You know things are bad when a 21yr old former #3 overall pick can’t excite teams enough to part with a first. Okafor has been decent, shooting above 50% from the field and defending at an above average clip within 6ft of the rim. But his teammate Embiid leads the league in FG% defence within 6ft of the cup at 43%, with Nerlens not too far behind at 50%. Is it any wonder that the team is letting everyone know he is available in the hopes of starting a bidding war?
Meanwhile, Porzingis has been MUCH better much faster than anyone dared imagine. He blew up in his Rookie Season (thank you NYC media!) with spectacular put back dunks, deep 3s and an uncanny ability to handle the New York Scrutiny. The 7’3″ Latvian has a strength that belies his frame and a no-backing-down approach, his competitiveness making him a fan favourite and vaulting him to the top tier of the Rookie Class standings. During the same time period, Jahlil was punching random people (cheap shot, not fair…but true).
Okafor represented a throw back to the old school of post bruisers. Porzingis was the future incarnate. In a world where Giannis Antetokounmpo is running the point and Marc Gasol is launching triples galore, Okafor’s game is looking less and less viable as a franchise building block.
The potential ripple effect from the Okafor/Porzingis selection is huge, Sam/David looked at this recently in a 2015 re-draft. Granted, making a significant change like this could have altered so many outcomes that the potential New World Order in Philly is unlikely, but it’s hard not to look back and think “if only..”. Swap Porzingis for Okafor in 2015, but let the rest of that season play out the same way it did, and the Sixers get the #1 pick in 2016. This is definitely plausible; Porzingis produced 3.1 more wins than Okafor, so they still would have had the worst record in the league thus winning the first pick in a lottery where no teams changed places.
From there, the Sixers come into the 2016 off season armed with: Unicorn Porzingis starting at the 4 spot, the 1st pick in the Draft, Super Dario coming over from Croatia, Embiid returning from injury, Noel at the back up 5 (still annoyed at players lined up ahead of him but not 3 guys playing his position outright), Covington at the wing, STAUSKAS at the 2 and a billion dollars in cap space. Not only that, it is entirely possible that by drafting such a marketable, likeable and exciting player in Kristaps, that the narrative around Hinkie could have changed, saving his job from the clutches of the Colangelo’s.
Going into the draft, the 76ers would have had a clear need at the wing spots, meaning both Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram are in play. Whilst my fellow TFPP partners think Simmons still gets the #1 tag, I disagree. Ingram would be a more natural fit at the 3, with at least the hint of a jump shot and serious Kevin Durant potential. He might not become the force of nature that Durant is, but with Embiid and Porzingis he wouldn’t need to shoulder that much responsibility. Simmons would have to play down a position, negating his speed advantage over opposing 4s. Spacing would be slightly harder, which means more post ups for him and more perimeter for Embiid/Porzingis. It’s not hard to see a scenario where Hinkie offers the Lakers the #1 pick (Simmons) for #2 (Ingram) and some asset or other.
Just stop for a moment to salivate at the thought of an Ingram, Porzingis and Embiid front line. You have the best young core in basketball (take that Minnesota and Milwaukee!) and maybe, just maybe, you can finally get a proper basketball professional to sign with your franchise. Perhaps you get a look at a veteran leader like Mike Conley or Kyle Lowry. Maybe you can offer a godfather package of future picks and/or Noel and Saric/Covington for CJ McCollum. How about offering a pick and player for Eric Bledsoe? All of a sudden the possibilities are endless because the team is looking to quickly be competitive.
Looking at the squad this year, all of a sudden you have Ingram getting key developmental time with partners Porzingis and Embiid (when healthy). You have potential 5/4 supersized pick-and-rolls. You have Porzingis and his 38% 3pt stroke spotting up around Embiid’s rumble’s through the lane, or vice versa with Embiid and his 37% J. Noel and Saric are both capable of playing in line-ups featuring either of the Twin Towers. Coach Brett Brown can run out funky line-ups featuring Ingram at the 1, Saric at the 3 and Stauskas or FA signing X at the guard. With a new practice facility on the way and the best young talent available, you could see the Sixers becoming a destination franchise.
Alas, none of this was meant to be. Porzingod is wasting away on a Knicks team that refuses to rebuild around his prodigious talents. Meanwhile, Okafor is being held out of games so that his team can unsuccessfully try and trade him for a future 1st round pick. The selection of Jahlil Okafor was certainly defensible a the time, but history may not look back kindly on Sam Hinkie for his choice. The combination of shooting and defence that would have come from Embiid and Porzingis looks too good to be true, and could have set the Sixers up for contention for a decade. Whilst Okafor has been a good player and still has time to develop into a star, it won’t be with Philadelphia, and his current output is not enough to generate a haul large enough to ignore missing on Porzingis.
Make no mistake; Philly doesn’t have their current optimism without Hinkie’s shrewd moves, #hinkiediedforoursins. But, it’s possible that he died for his own as well.