Sixers Have ‘Championship Aspirations,' and GM Elton Brand Narrowed Options to Reach Them Through NBA Draft

A year ago, Brett Brown proudly declared after overseeing the NBA draft as interim general manager of the Sixers that his team was "trying to win a championship."

At approximately 1 a.m. Friday morning in Camden, New Jersey, Elton Brand, in the wake up his first draft as general manager, came close to echoing those words.

The Sixers had "championship aspirations," he said. 

While the Sixers ended the 2018-19 season closer to title contention than the year prior, their pathways toward accomplishing that lofty goal have shrunk, in part as a result of Brand and the front office's draft-night moves. 

Brand didn't end the night distraught or empty-handed. He acquired Matisse Thybulle, whom he called "the best defensive wing" in the draft, via a trade with the Celtics (see story). He got Marial Shayok, a player Brand described as "tough, gritty" and a "great three-point shooter" (see story). He added a few future second-round picks, got rid of the $1 million guaranteed on Jonathon Simmons' contract, and brought home some cash.

"We need flexibility," Brand said. "I need every dollar that I can get, so that's what a lot of those trades are about - making sure we have enough money so we can go into free agency and get the players we need. We need talent, and we actually pushed picks into the future that are very valuable."

The notion that the Sixers improved their flexibility is difficult to buy. Brand was optimistic about the Sixers' "optionality" entering the draft, yet he seems to have limited the possibilities for his team.

First, Brand is banking on Thybulle having a meaningful, positive impact immediately. Brand characterized the price of the No. 24 and No. 33 picks in exchange for the selection of Thybulle at No. 20 as "the market rate." Whether or not that assessment is accurate, passing up on the opportunity to select players like Dylan Windler, Mfiondu Kabengele and Carsen Edwards - all of whom fell between 24 and 33 -  is a significant sacrifice. You can't help but wonder if the Sixers will regret allowing the Celtics to snag a tremendous scoring guard in Edwards at No. 33.

Thybulle has a very high bar to meet to prove he was worth what the Sixers gave up to get him.

Second, Brand is counting on himself to have a near-flawless free agency. If he does manage to bring back Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, he likely won't have much room under the tax apron to fill out the remainder of the roster - you'd presume he'll have to lean heavily on salary-cap exceptions. At the moment, with Thybulle and Shayok yet to sign their contracts, the team has four players on the roster.

For the Jonathon Simmons one, it's about cap space," Brand said. "We can put them into the [traded player exception], now we have an extra million dollars that we can use during free agency and I feel like I'm going to need every dollar. … I know we can't add five young players to this established team - 50-plus wins two years in a row, a few bounces away from going to overtime and maybe the Eastern Conference Finals and beyond. Five young players wouldn't have worked for that. 

Simmons being traded felt like an inevitability - he wasn't a regular part of the playoff rotation and there was no reason to hold on to his salary. But the decision to deal the 34th pick to the Hawks for No. 57 and two future second-round picks, then to swap No. 57 for Miami's 2024 second-rounder and cash, appears to have accomplished little at the moment. Because NBA teams do not have to sign second-round picks to guaranteed deals, none of those selections would have counted against the salary cap for the Sixers until the picks signed contracts.  

There's a middle ground between five young players and three or four NBA-ready players that the Sixers could have found. The exercise of listing all the names available in the second round that made sense for the Sixers is useless, but there were legitimate future NBA bench players out there. Eric Paschall, Admiral Schofield, Terance Mann and Bruno Fernando are several who fit that description.

Instead of taking one or two, the Sixers allowed picks 33, 34 and 42 to disintegrate. 

That doesn't mean the Sixers' summer is already a failure or that Brand made mistakes beyond repair. 

But Brand went from having ample "optionality" in his first draft to backing himself into a corner. The pressure on Brand come June 30 at 6 p.m. was going to be high regardless, and now he's given himself little margin for error.

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