This is not a controversial statement: a universally recognized franchise superstar is the best thing a team can ask for. But no matter how nicely teams ask, there aren't many of those, and they're not easy to get. Which means that, in the real world of the contemporary NBA, nothing is more valuable than a well-timed lottery pick.
With the luxury tax becoming more of an issue for even the league’s wealthiest teams, a high draft pick represents mega-cheap access to a young talent guaranteed to be under contract for at least four years at an extremely team-friendly rate. Thanks to Bird Rights, the team that drafted said lottery pick has the financial advantage in retaining his services for the rest of that player's career. Draft and develop a star and you've got a star, and something to build on. Develop Josh Childress, and you'll get another shot at the lottery next year.
And if your team is bad that lottery pick probably quadruples in value, becoming a combination life preserver, oxygen tank, and sailboat all in one; that's a complicated thing to imagine, but it's they're all useful to a drowning and far-out franchise. There's a lot of hope built into such picks, but there's also real, practical opportunity. Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie affirmed this notion in a draft night deal that was undoubtedly the most fascinating transaction the NBA’s seen since Houston robbed Oklahoma City of James Harden.
In his first real move on the job, Hinkie introduced himself by dealing 22-year-old rising star Jrue Holiday—his team’s best player, fresh off an All-Star season in which he averaged a mildly efficient 17.7 points and 8.0 assists per game while providing some of the best front line defense in the league—for Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected draft pick in 2014.
The move could well prove to be an amazingly good one for the Sixers, although of course it also might not. We can't know that yet, but we can, at least, address why it's so intriguing. That, too, comes back to the value of the picks, and the unknown.
Despite being the only player on his team capable of both scoring on his own and setting up teammates—as a freaking 22-year old!—Holiday still managed to produce, improve, and, at times, appear unguardable last season. He wasn’t perfect by any means, and turned the ball over a ton as the responsibilities of carrying an entire franchise weighed heavy on his shoulders throughout a lost, dramatic-in-a-bad-way season.
But, also: Holiday just turned 23 years old. He scored at least 29 points seven times last year, never dropping below 50% shooting in any of them. Next season Holiday was deservedly set to become Philadelphia’s highest paid player, on the first year of a four-year, $41 million extension inked last October. Jrue Holiday appears ready to become some kind of star, and he's about to start getting paid like one.
Is Holiday worth that contract? Of course. Is he getting better? By all accounts the answer is yes, and could become very good indeed. But the bigger question, for Hinkie, was how much better Holiday would have to get in order to make it so that contract extension becomes a bargain for the Sixers. If Hinkie's goal is to build a winning team, his job—maybe the better part of it—is to pay every single player on his roster less than he’s worth. Or, to put it another way, to get some surplus value on those players. Or, more nicely: to turn a profit in terms of human capital.
So, one possibility the good people of Philadelphia might have expected had the team chosen to keep Holiday on draft night: Fast forward to July of this year, when the team goes shopping in free agency for a big-name player, most likely Al Jefferson. Where would that leave them? In the playoffs, most likely, next season, but then what? The core would be Holiday and Jefferson, with Thaddeus Young as a third fiddle signed through 2016; the rest of the team-building work would be done through draft picks in the high teens. The team’s short and long-term future wouldn’t be anywhere near a championship in that scenario, but it’d certainly be a safer path. It would not cost Hinkie his job.
Instead, the first time general manager chose to go the opposite route, moving his best player for not one, but two lottery picks (including one in 2014 that’s reportedly top-five protected, but is coming from a team that had the sixth pick this year, before a player of Holiday’s caliber joined the roster). He then used the team's original first round pick to select Michael Carter-Williams, a 6-6 point guard who’s presumably Holiday’s long-term replacement.
The first lottery pick is Noel, a rim-protecting prodigy of great gangliness, bounciness and rawness who most expected to be drafted with the number one pick. Coming back from a torn ACL, he almost definitely won’t have a strong rookie season. But that’s the whole point, no?
By stripping his roster naked—Evan Turner, you’re probably next—Hinkie has placed the Sixers in perfect position to absolutely dominate the 2014 offseason, with them coming off a miserable regular season that should reap them a generous lottery pick from their own incompetent play on top of a first rounder from New Orleans. There will be flexibility. Things will get fun.
If Jason Richardson opts out of his $6.6 million contract after next season, the Sixers will have one (ONE) player under contract (Thad Young) heading into what’s universally regarded as one of the all-time best summers to be a team with a bunch of money to spend. Philadelphia’s cupboard will be as bare as anybody’s, except for all those cheap, young, promising players.
There is the (often correct) belief that free agency is ultimately an inefficient means of acquiring real talent, and the Sixers—should they decide they agree—will have placed themselves in position to pick up the phone and engage in trades that any team in the league would be excited to make, what with two lottery picks in 2014 and/or Noel to dangle for an established star. (Example: A package for Kevin Love based around a future first round pick, Noel, and Young, who has an ETO in 2015 for $9.9 million, wouldn’t be a bad place to start.)
This will not be an instant turnaround; no real overhaul ever is. But what we learned on draft night is that the Sixers are dead serious about remaking this team entirely, and have a GM with both the smarts and the guts to do it all the way. Sixers fans may not cheer it now, and that's reasonable: the team just traded a star coming into his prime. But if Hinkie attacks the future as ambitiously and effectively as he handled draft night, there should be plenty to cheer about in the future, both for Philadelphia fans and those who enjoy seeing this most difficult of jobs done boldly and well.