Passing on Malcolm Brogdon will haunt the Philadelphia 76ers for years to come.
Elton Brand‘s obsession with beating the Milwaukee Bucks, when coupled with a desire to steal away a “Joel Embiid Buster” from a division rival ruined the Philadelphia 76ers.
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Or could it be the team’s decision to let Jimmy Butler leave for Miami that really ruined the Philadelphia 76ers?
What if, hear me out, what if maybe it’s actually a little bit of all three?
But if I had to pick one singular, defining decision that has changed the course of the Philadelphia 76ers franchise and not for the better, it would be the signing of Al Horford.
Why? Because it prevented the Sixers from going all-in on the player they really should have been targeting all along: Malcolm Brogdon.
Now to be fair, the decision to sign Al Horford was threefold and actually ties into all three of the above hypotheticals. After watching Horford stifle Embiid for the first three seasons of his career, stealing him away from the Boston Celtics before a potential playoff run felt like addition by subtraction as much as addition by addition.
Factor in the further addition of Josh Richardson in Butler’s sign-and-trade to South Beach and the retention of Mike Scott and Tobias Harris on multi-year deals and the Philadelphia 76ers, in theory, looked primed to field a supersized starting five with decent enough spacing on the offensive end of the court, and enough switchability to ruin any opposing coach’s night.
The keyword phrase here is in theory.
Sure, on occasion, the Sixers’ starting five looked great in 2019-20, especially against the Milwaukee Bucks, but for the most part, the experiment failed – Horford will in all likelihood be on a different team this fall, the Sixers will have to move him for pennies on the dollar, and may ultimately be better off for it.
When a 23-year-old on a four-year contract worth less than $8 million total outplays a 33-year-old vet on a $109 million deal, you have a problem.
But again, what were the Sixers to do? I mean, they already had a All-Star point guard, added a two-guard, extended Harris to the most lucrative deal in franchise history, and the best center in the NBA, how else would they address their starting five than to sign another point guard?
That, unfortunately, is the issue with calling Simmons a guard.
Had the Sixers instead opted to use the remainder of the salary cap space on a 3-and-D guard who could complement Simmons as a second ball-handler – their last chance to spend big in free agency for the foreseeable future – maybe things could be different now, but what are you going to do? No team can list J.J. Redick as a small forward with a straight face for an entire season, a trick the 76ers, unfortunately, tried to pull last fall.
If Simmons was a bit more flexible, maybe the Sixers would have been in the market for a versatile guard tailor-made to their offensive scheme, ensuring the best possible team could have been built around their two homegrown stars. A player like Brogdon.
With Butler on the way out, the Sixers felt obliged to focus their attention on replacing his shooting, scoring, and defensive versatility, but in doing so forgot the very thing that made Jimmy Buckets such an unflappable asset in the 2019 playoffs, his ball-handling ability. That’s right, when the chips were down in the fourth quarter of must-win games, Brett Brown would often put the ball in Butler’s, not Simmons’ hands with the game on the line, allowing the ISO ball specialist every opportunity to fish for his own shot and pick up an easy – or decidedly less so – bucket.
Horford can’t do that. Richardson looked like he could do that at times in Miami, but never quite developed into a viable lead ball-handler (and not for a lack of trying). Outside of Simmons picking up a viable jump shot or Harris developing a killer instinct, the Sixers entered the 2019-20 season without a ‘my-ball’ bully outside of Embiid, who probably shouldn’t be taking the ball at the top of the arc with the game on the line.
For the mountains of hate Brogdon justly earned for having the audacity of being named Rookie of the Year over both Dario Saric and Joel Embiid, he’s at least a willing ball-handler who can create shots for himself and others.
But boy oh boy can he do so much more.
Watching Brogdon objectively is a real treat, as he really is a guard who could start for pretty much every team in the NBA. He’s a few ticks off from being a 50/40/90 shooter, a capable passer, and a willing rebounder. Brogdon has experience playing off of a super-sized ball handler during his rookie contract with the Milwaukee Bucks and has a proven track record of being able to run the show as a lead guard when his number is called. Sure, signing Brogdon wouldn’t have removed Horford from the Celtics but it would have hurt the Bucks just as well, and would have inadvertently given the team another solid defender to take on Boston’s bevy of sub-6-foot-8 guards/forwards.
If the Sixers structured their dealing correctly, they could have easily offered Brogdon the very same deal they shelled out to Horford when free agency opened up and made it virtually impossible for the Bucks to match if they wanted any chance of retaining Khris Middleton, their preferred long-term partner for Giannis. Could another team have swooped in and offered him a max offer sheet? Maybe so, but the Sixers could have all but ensured themselves a shiny new 26-year-old point guard with some protected draft compensation via a sign-and-trade, the very same maneuver the Indiana Pacers pulled to secure Brogdon’s services.
Hypothetically speaking, that may have meant the Sixers would have had to trade away their 2020 first-round pick, which obviously isn’t good, but if we’re being honest, who would you rather have, Brogdon or Horford and Matisse Thybulle? The small market Bucks are always on the lookout for cheap bench pieces, so I could totally see the club accepting multiple good second-round picks over multiple drafts as fair compensation, but that’s really neither here nor there.
A starting lineup with Brogdon at the one, Richardson at the two, Harris at the three, Simmons at the four, and Embiid at the five is probably the best unit in the Eastern Conference, at least until the Brooklyn Nets get up to full strength. Heck, even if Simmons really, really wants to remain a point guard, putting him at the one with three-four defensive responsibilities wouldn’t have been too different from how Coach Brown deployed his defensive ace depending on the matchup.
That hypothetical starting five is all under 30, features five players with position versatility, and would have retained the size Elton Brand craved when he put the roster together. It also features better shooting, better spacing, and more players who can handle the ball in a movement-based offense.
Personally, I like Richardson a lot more as a tertiary ball-handler, as opposed to being one play away from him playing point guard full time.
Who knows, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Shake Milton picks up right where he left off, Al Horford transitions beautifully to the bench, and his maturity helps the team land a better fitting piece later this fall, a player like Buddy Hield perhaps. But for my money, passing on an unselfish, 26-year-old combo guard tailor-made for Brett Brown’s (or really any NBA team’s) offense to chase a questionably fitting 33-year-old division rival is the kind of move that sets a franchise back for years, if not a basketball generation. For the sake of the Philadelphia 76ers and (more importantly) the fans, I hope I’m wrong.