For all the discussion and debate they generate, we don't really talk about the 76ers. Instead, we yell about them, digging battle lines like stubborn ideologues.
Some arguments represent the moral case that the 76ers are turning basketball into a farce, kicking the can further down the road and promising a championship when they have no interest in competing in the present. Others take the strategic route: the name of the game is to get stars, and their approach adds more lottery balls to the chute instead of embarking on a meaningless quest for mediocrity.
It looked like we were beyond this. The 76ers were starting to create an identity after a winless start. They switched to a small lineup, pressured all over the court with their length and rose to the top half of the league in defense. Sure, they couldn't shoot, but shooting can be taught and the youth was coalescing. Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, another high lottery pick and other first-rounders were on the horizon to add reinforcements. Maybe the 76ers would even go after a top free agent this summer.
Apparently, we're not. The 76ers pulled off two stunners as the trade deadline buzzer sounded, sending last year's Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams to Milwaukee and dumping promising youngster K.J. McDaniels to Houston. These were two talents believed by many to be a part of their rebuilding effort. Both were flipped like they were declining veterans stuck on a team going downhill.
In the process, the 76ers added to their growing portfolio of assets. Carter-Williams yielded a top-five protected pick from the Lakers, which could be conveyed this season. McDaniels was exchanged for a decent guard prospect in Isaiah Canaan and another second-round pick, the very mechanism initially used to find McDaniels. Philadelphia now has as many as four first-round picks next year and too many second-round picks to count. It also has Embiid and Saric coming soon and the rights to many other prospects.
All that is great. But when does it start turning into something?
SB Nation presents: The three biggest trades at this year's deadline
Carter-Williams and McDaniels were turning into something. Carter-Williams couldn't shoot and is not as good as his per-game numbers suggested last year, but he has great size combined with significant playmaking and defensive potential. Decision-making and defensive aptitude are the two most difficult qualities to develop on a horrible team and they were developing for Carter-Williams this year. His assists are up and his turnovers are hampered by his team's lack of spacing. He's increasingly dribbling into traffic with a plan instead of using his athleticism. For all the fan concerns about his defense being overrated, the 76ers were over seven points better per 100 possessions defensively with him in this year than out.
Carter-Williams is not a finished product, far from it. Point guard takes a long time to learn for anyone, especially a second-year player on a horrid team struggling to find a rhythm after serious offseason shoulder surgery. The Bucks see his potential and they have a head coach that knows a thing or two about good point guards. The 76ers swapped him for another lottery ticket; the chance to find the next Michael Carter-Williams that also must learn on the fly with terrible teammates.
McDaniels may be the bigger indictment because he was gone the second he arrived. His unique one-year contract should have sent alarm bells ringing through Philadelphia headquarters. McDaniels saw the 76ers as an organization in flux that nevertheless tried to lowball him like any other second-round pick.
So, he bet on himself instead and quickly showed that he's not just any other second-round pick. He may already be one of the best athletes in the game and has tremendous defensive potential. His shooting isn't there yet, but it'll come. Under normal circumstances, McDaniels, 21, could be a 10-year starter at small forward, solidifying a position of need. Instead, he's been exchanged for more penny stocks because the 76ers treated him like a penny stock.
NBA Trade Deadline
Kidd finds his long-armed pupil in Carter-Williams
Jason Kidd surely sees a version of himself in Michael Carter-Williams. Now, it's his job to develop the long-armed youngster and build the scariest modern defense in the league.
NBA Trade Deadline
Sam Hinkie surely believes he can find the next Carter-Williams and McDaniels with his truck full of assets, and he might be right. Both players have flaws they may never overcome, and in Carter-Williams' case, the league is full of decent point guards. Neither will be superstars, whereas some combination of Noel, Embiid, Saric, the 76ers' own pick and the draft pick acquired for Carter-Williams could be. Hit on a couple of those and perhaps none of this matters.
But basketball isn't stock trading, as cliche and reductive as that sounds. This is not a moral argument; the 76ers should be allowed to build their team as they deem fit. This is a basketball argument, one that the 76ers ought to consider as they build their team. There's a reason coaches like the 76ers' own Brett Brown talk so much about culture, continuity and camaraderie. They sound like cliches, but they are really just shorthand for the long climb teams must take from the basement to the top. Without them, we may as well not have coaches, seasons or games.
Hinkie's peers are showing there are other paths to contention that don't involve desperate quests for the golden ticket. His old boss Daryl Morey kept the Rockets around .500 before cashing in assets on James Harden and Dwight Howard. Now, the Rockets are a top contender in the West and with plenty of upside to go.
Ryan McDonough handled the awkward Goran Dragic situation beautifully in Phoenix, finding Brandon Knight to team with Eric Bledsoe and Markieff Morris in the short term, while building a collection of future draft picks that rivals Philadelphia's. Carter-Williams' new team is winning in the East with lots of cap flexibility to team with supreme talents like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker.
Those teams have foundations and an infrastructure that gets the most out of the somethings they have. The 76ers were starting to create that and instead decided to trade two of their somethings to start over again. They seem to think they can build a skyscraper by plopping half the structure onto the ground at once instead of progressing brick by brick.
This is not a moral problem. It's a strategic one.