Trust The Process: How the Philadelphia 76ers built a contender

Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid Ben Simmons (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid Ben Simmons (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers began to “Trust The Process” in 2012, and now they have elevated to true contender status. How did it all come to be?

The Philadelphia 76ers head into next season boasting one of the most prolific starting units in the league – with Josh Richardson, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Joel Embiid – and are one of the co-favorites to win the Eastern Conference, along with the Milwaukee Bucks.

How the Sixers assembled their current roster is a circuitous tale of trades, injuries and tanking that began seven years ago with a blockbuster trade that the Sixers thought would still be paying dividends today. Those dividends were put on hold like an illusory entry on a balance sheet.

However, through the failure of that trade, emerged a peregrination of arbitrage unequaled in sports history, as the Sixers engaged in an elaborate scheme of derivative hedging in which they leveraged a playoff roster as the impetus for the architecture of a title contender.

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The Sixers began the 2011-12 season with first-round picks Andre Iguodala (2004), Thaddeus Young (2007), Jrue Holiday (2009) Evan Turner (2010) and Nikola Vucevic (2011), along with second-round picks Lou Williams (2005) and Lavoy Allen (2011). Tony Battie, Elton Brand, Spencer Hawes, Jodie Meeks, and Andres Nocioni rounded out the roster.

In an abbreviated season, due to the NBA lockout, the Sixers finished 8th in the Eastern Conference at 35-31. It was the Sixers’ first winning season since the 2004-05 season.

The Sixers upset the top seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, becoming just the fifth 8th seed to upset a number 1 seed. MVP Derrick Rose, of the Bulls, tore his left ACL in Game 1 of that series and the Sixers went on to a 4-2 series win to advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals to meet the Boston Celtics.

The Sixers took the Celtics, led by Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett, to a pivotal Game 7 but lost in the deciding game by a score of 85-75. Despite their first series victory since a 2003 first-round victory over the New Orleans Hornets, the Sixers unwittingly began one of the largest scale rebuilding projects in NBA history, one worthy of its moniker, “Trust the Process,” during the 2012 offseason.

On August 10, 2012, the Sixers traded Andre Iguodala, Nikola Vucevic and their 2012 1st round draft pick, Maurice Harkless, as part of a 4-team deal to acquire LA Laker center, Andrew Bynum.  The trade featured 12 players including Dwight Howard, who ended up with the Lakers. Lou Williams, who had opted out of his contract on a player option, left to take less money with the Atlanta Hawks on their midlevel exception on July 12, 2012. That same day Elton Brand was waived. Later in the Summer, Tony Battie retired and Jodie Meeks signed with the LA Lakers.

Bynum had just finished his 7th season with Lakers, making his first all-star game and posting 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game average. At only 24 years of age at the time of the trade, Bynum looked primed to be the center piece of the Sixers’ franchise for years to come. However, a series of knee ailments lead to Bynum, who was in the final year of his contract during the 2012-2013 season, never taking the court for the Sixers. In the offseason, he underwent surgery on both knees and signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Following the 2012-13 season, the Sixers drafted Michael Carter-Williams, who went on to win the 2013-14 Rookie of the Year Award. They also traded Jrue Holiday to the Hornets for their 2013 first-round draft pick, Nerlens Noel, and a future 2014 first-round pick.

Later during the 2014 season, the Sixers completed the dismantling of their 2011-12 roster. On February 20, 2014, they traded Lavoy Allen and 2010 first-round pick Evan Turner to the Indiana Pacers for Danny Granger. Granger also never played a single game for the Sixers as he was waived a week later.

On the same day they acquired Danny Granger, Spencer Hawes was traded to the Cavaliers for Earl Clark, who was waived the next day, and Henry Sims, who eventually left the Sixers to sign with the Nets after the 2014-15 season. Andres Nocioni was waived on March 20, 2014, and Thaddeus Young, the last of the players remaining from the 2011-12 roster was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of a three-team deal that included Kevin Love moving to the Cavaliers. The Sixers received Luc Mbah a Monte and a future 2016 first-round pick in the trade for Young.

During the 2014 Draft, the Sixers drafted Joel Embiid with the 3rd overall pick. They traded the 10th pick, Elfrid Payton, that they had received from the Hornets to the Magic, in exchange for the Magic’s 12th pick, which the Sixers used to select Dario Saric. In exchange for the pick swap, they acquired a future 2015 second-round pick and a future 2018 first-round pick. The future 2018 first-round pick they received for the pick swap was actually their own pick which had been traded to Orlando in 2012 as part of the Andrew Bynum trade.

Joel Embiid would miss his entire rookie season in 2014-15. The Sixers won just 18 games that season. During the season, in spite of winning the Rookie of the Year Award in the prior season, Michael Carter-Williams was traded on February 19, 201,5 to the Bucks for a future 2018 first-round pick.

In the 2015 NBA Draft, the Sixers drafted Jahlil Okafor with the 3rd overall pick. He would play only 48 games in his rookie season in 2015-16 and Joel Embiid sat out the entire 2015-16 season with an injury.

The Sixers won only 10 games during the 2015-16 season. With the number 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, the Sixers selected Ben Simmons. They also used the pick they had acquired from the Pacers (Thaddeus Young trade) to pick Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot with the 24th pick. In addition to Simmons and Luwawu-Cabarrot, the Sixers also selected Furkan Korkmaz with the 26th overall pick. The Kormaz pick was acquired on February 19, 2015, from Denver as an inducement to take on Javale McGee in a salary dump. McGee was waived by the Sixers 10 days later.

Joel Embid finally took the court for the Sixers during the 2016-17 season but only played 31 games. Ben Simmons missed the entire season and the Sixers won only 28 games. Midway through that season, they traded Nerlens Noel, whom they had acquired for Jrue Holiday. In return, the Sixers received Justin Anderson and Andrew Bogut, the latter of whom they bought out.

The Sixers were awarded the 3rd pick in the 2017 draft but traded the pick to the Celtics to move up to the number 1 pick to select Markelle Fultz. In addition to swapping picks, the Sixers sent Boston a future first-round pick for the 2019 draft that they had acquired from Sacramento. Fultz suffered through inconsistent play, injury and extreme confidence issues. He was eventually traded to the Magic for Jonathon Simmons during the 2018-19 season. Simmons was later traded to the Wizards for cash considerations.

At the beginning of the 2017-18 season, the Sixers traded their 2015 first-round pick, Jahlil Okafor, for Trevor Booker, who the Sixers waived later that same season. In the 2018 NBA Draft, the Sixers used the 10th pick they had acquired from the Bucks (Michael Carter-Williams trade) to select Mikal Bridges. A few hours later they traded Bridges to the Suns for the Suns 16th pick, Zhaire Smith, and a future 2021 first-round pick. They also selected Landry Shamet with the 26th pick, the pick they had reacquired from the Magic for the Dario Saric pick swap in 2014.

Later that offseason, the Sixers traded Justin Anderson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot in a three-team deal involving the Hawks and Thunder for Mike Muscala.

During the 2018-19 season, the Sixers traded Robert Covington, who they had acquired in free agency and Dario Saric to the Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler. They later traded Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler, who they acquired in free agency, and Mike Muscala to the Clippers for Tobias Harris, Mike Scot, and Boban Marjanovic.

At this point, the last of the assets they had acquired from the 2011-12 roster had been exhausted. They essentially traded Andre Iguodala, Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner, Lavoy Allen and Spencer Hawes for Henry Sims and three players, Danny Granger, Andrew Bynum, and Earl Clark, who never played a single game for the Sixers and for whom they received no compensation.

For Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young, the Sixers ultimately ended up with Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, and Boban Marjanovic. Holiday was traded for Nerlens Noel and the 2014 first-round pick that they used to trade for Dario Saric and the future pick that would be used to pick Landry Shamet. Noel was later traded for Justin Anderson. From the Thaddeus Young trade, they acquired the pick they used to select Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who along with Justin Anderson, was traded to acquire Mike Muscala. Muscala, Shamet, and free-agent signee Wilson Chandler were traded to acquire Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic from the Clippers. Saric and free agent signee Robert Covington were traded to the Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler.

Marjanovic was lost to free agency this summer when he signed with the Mavericks and Jimmy Butler was traded to the Heat for Josh Richardson.

To break it down a little further, the Sixers received none of the players on their current roster nor any of the pieces utilized to acquire any of the players on their current roster, in exchange for first-round picks Andre Iguodala, Evan Turner, Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, Jahlil Okafor, and Markelle Fultz. They ultimately end up with Zhaire Smith for Michael Carter Williams. Thus, for seven first-round picks (2004, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017), they got Zhaire Smith.

It would be hard to really grade the acquisitions for Iguodala, Vucevic, Harkless, and Turner. They received what was anticipated to be one of the premier centers in the league for Iguodala, Vucevic, and Harkless, although injuries caused Bynum to never suit up for the Sixers. Once that deal left their roster baron, it made sense to trade Turner and completely rebuild. That rebuilding and the subsequent tanking landed them Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

They certainly made out well in turning Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young into Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, and Josh Richardson. The real perplexing roster moves were the lack of compensation they received for the 2015 3rd overall pick, Jahlil Okafor, and the 2017 1st overall pick, Markelle Fultz.

Teams rarely draft in the top three for four straight years (2014-2017). To only get two players who are still on your roster and no compensation at all for two of those four picks is a glaring inefficiency. This is especially true for Markelle Fultz, who they traded up to select. They could have stayed at the 3rd pick, selected Jason Tatum and then had the 14th pick in this year’s draft, which was used by the Celtics to pick Romeo Langford.

The Sixers had 10 lottery picks in 12 seasons between 2007 and 2018 that they used to select Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter Williams, Joel Embiid, Elfrid Payton, Jahlil Okafor, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, and Mikal Bridges.

They really missed on Turner, Noel, Williams, Okafor, and Fultz. Young had a solid career and the Sixers did get decent value for him in acquiring one of the pieces that eventually was used to acquire Tobias Harris. They got great value from Payton by acquiring Dario Saric and the picked used to select Landry Shamet, which were used to ultimately acquire Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris. The Mikal Bridges for Zhaire Smith trade has yet to really been decided as to the value there.

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Obviously, they scored huge success in drafting Embiid and Simmons, the cornerstones of their franchise.  However, Turner was drafted at the 2nd overall pick in 2010, Okafor at the 3rd overall pick in 2015 and Fultz at the 1st overall pick in 2017 and they got nothing for these players. How different would their roster look had they selected Paul George in 2010, who was drafted 10th, Kristaps Porzingis in 2015, who was picked 4th and Jason Tatum in 2017, who was drafted 3rd?