The spotlight is on Elton Brand for his first NBA draft, free agency as Sixers general manager

The spotlight is on Elton Brand for his first NBA draft, free agency as Sixers general manager

Last year, the Sixers’ pre-draft process was, for some time, a mystery. As the team investigated then-president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo’s alleged use of burner Twitter accounts, the typical pre-draft routine was interrupted. Then, with the search underway to replace Colangelo, the Sixers took on the NBA draft with Brett Brown as the interim general manager at the head of a collaborative leadership structure.

Elton Brand was a part of that group that helped shepherd the organization through the draft — and came away with a commendable haul of Zhaire Smith, Landry Shamet and Shake Milton. 

Now, Brand is the man in charge. He attended the team’s first pre-draft workout on May 6 in Camden, New Jersey — the team will hold its second group workout Monday — and was at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago this past week. The draft is a month away and then, soon enough, the Sixers will shift into free agency mode.

Brand said at his end-of-season press conference Tuesday that he’s looking forward to it all. 

I’m excited. We have a great group. Dynamic core. I look forward to being the GM for the first time going into free agency, going into the draft. We were in [Game 7] until the last shot to go into overtime and win and get to the Eastern Conference Finals. Disappointed we didn’t get there, but highly optimistic and I’m proud of what we've done. I look forward to this offseason. I know we’re going to grow and get better.

Things change rapidly in professional sports, but let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that, even by the warped standards of the Sixers, it’s been quite a year.

Brown famously proclaimed on draft night that the team was “star hunting, or star developing.” The “star hunting” part ended up falling on Brand, since the Sixers’ two biggest summer acquisitions under Brown were Mike Muscala and Wilson Chandler. Brand later traded away both players in the early-morning, pre-deadline deal for Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic that confirmed, if there was any lingering doubt, his willingness to be bold.

Though Brand didn’t hold much back in his first attempt at lifting the Sixers to title contention, he gave himself ample flexibility this offseason. The Sixers have more free agents than players under contract for next year, and they have five draft picks, tied with Atlanta for the most of any team. There’s no undoing the moves he made in his first season, but Brand has the choice to fundamentally reshape the Sixers again if he’d like.

Another path Brand could take is paying what’s necessary to bring back Harris and Butler and figuring out the rest at the margins. (Regardless, upgrading at backup center will be a priority.) It’s also very possible Brand tries to find a middle road.

Managing partner Josh Harris said Tuesday he’s comfortable going into the luxury tax, though Brand added, “We’re going to be fiscally responsible. We’re not just going to be jumping into the luxury tax with the moves we make.”

Brand will, of course, have a team to support him with all the minutiae of the salary cap — trade exceptions, the mid-level exception, you name it — in his first offseason. After experiencing a bizarre last summer in a peripheral role, Brand is in the limelight. 

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Moses Malone trade was just part of a dark day in Sixers history

Moses Malone trade was just part of a dark day in Sixers history

In 1985-86, the Sixers finished the season 54-28 and took the Milwaukee Bucks to seven games in the second round. Moses Malone, who missed the playoffs because of an orbital fracture, made his ninth straight All-Star team, posting 23.8 points and 11.8 rebounds a game.

Yet, a year removed from making it to the Eastern Conference Finals and only a couple years removed from winning a title, the Sixers dealt Malone — along with Terry Catledge and two first-round picks — to the Washington Bullets. In return, they got Cliff Robinson and Jeff Ruland. 

The Sixers also traded the No. 1 overall pick — that wound up being North Carolina big man Brad Daugherty — to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Roy Hinson.

''It's the most dramatic day of trading in the history of this organization,'' GM Pat Williams said at the time. ''We're far better equipped to deal at a championship level than 24 hours ago.''

Well, Williams was correct on the first part. The second part … not so much.

Williams was the architect of the 1982-83 title team and made plenty of outstanding moves during his tenure. But on June 16, 1986, he made two of the worst trades in franchise history on the same day.

But what if the Sixers never traded Malone? What if they simply held on to the No. 1 pick and selected Daugherty?

The Sixers were getting older. Julius Erving was 36. Maurice Cheeks was 30. Andrew Toney’s foot issues were severely hindering him. With the Malone trade, the Sixers believed they were getting younger and faster.

Robinson (131 games) and Hinson (105 games) weren’t Sixers for very long and didn’t have much impact. Ruland, who already had knee and shoulder issues, played five games with the team before retiring. He had a brief comeback with the Sixers in 1991 that didn’t last very long.

Malone, on the other hand, went on to make three more All-Star teams while Daugherty made five for the Cavs.

Instead of giving Dr. J a last dance of his own with Malone, Erving’s career ended after a first-round playoff exit in 1987. The 1987-88 season was disastrous as the Sixers finished 36-46 and missed the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. Toney played just 29 games that year and was forced to retire.

With a young Barkley leading the way and under coach Jim Lynam, the Sixers bounced back in 1988-89. They were swept by the Knicks in the first round, but there was hope in building around a budding star in Barkley.

While the team had varying degrees of success, Barkley was carrying far too much of the load in the early 90s, prompting him to eventually ask for a trade. There’s a thought that maybe it didn’t have to get to that point.

“I remember getting a phone call at about 6 in the morning — this is the day of the draft, I might add," Barkley said on the Lowe Post podcast. "It was from [Daily News writer] Phil Jasner in Philadelphia. And Phil calls me, he says, ‘Charles, can you talk?’ I said, ‘Phil, it’s like 6 in the morning.’ He says, ‘The Sixers made a trade. You need to talk about it. I need your opinion.’ I said, ‘Well, what’d they do?’ He said, ‘Traded the No. 1 pick in the draft. ... I said, ‘What? That’s all we got for the No. 1 pick, was Roy Hinson?' And then he says, ‘Oh, and they traded Moses to Washington.’”

“Moses was gonna be a great mentor [for Daugherty], because Moses was like a dad to me. ... That was the beginning of the end, where I could have actually had a really good team. ... That wrecked my entire Philadelphia career. ... That was the biggest disaster of my career, plain and simple.”

It’s fair to wonder what could’ve been if Malone was around for Erving’s final season. Perhaps you get a hyper-motivated version of Malone — miffed that he missed the playoffs the prior season and wanting to allow Dr. J to ride off into the sunset. Maybe he has one more prolific playoff run in him.

This would’ve also allowed Malone to keep mentoring Barkley and also a young Daugherty. As Malone declined, Daugherty’s role could’ve increased. Going into the 1990s, you would’ve been armed with two young All-Stars and arguably the best frontcourt in the NBA at that time.

Maybe that’s not enough to overcome Michael Jordan and the Bulls during that time. Daugherty was also forced into early retirement because of back issues.

But perhaps it’s enough to convince Barkley to stay. Maybe with Barkley and Daugherty in the fold you could attract better talent and maybe make a trade for the right guard to complement them.

Instead, Barkley was traded to the Suns and the Sixers embarked on one of the worst stretches in franchise history. After losing to Jordan in the second round in 1991, the Sixers wouldn’t make the playoffs again until Allen Iverson and Larry Brown led them there in 1998-99.

Could they have avoided that swoon if they held on to Malone a little bit longer? Could Daugherty’s presence have made the team formidable enough for Barkley to never want to leave?

We’ll never know the answers, but it’s fair to wonder.

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Julius Erving, Billy Cunningham and members of 1982-83 Sixers share lessons from path to championship

Julius Erving, Billy Cunningham and members of 1982-83 Sixers share lessons from path to championship

Outside of immense talent, there are nuances of championship teams which might be challenging for an outsider to grasp.

Staying awake and alert for film sessions is not one of them.

In recalling how the Sixers’ NBA Finals defeats in 1977, 1980 and 1982 helped the 1983 team overcome the Lakers, Julius Erving had this to say in a recent interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff: 

Well, you couldn’t take anything for granted. I remember in ’77, we had a two-game lead over Portland. … After some of the video sessions, I look around and see some guys yawning and rubbing their eyes and whatever. I say, ‘Oh no. This is not good. This is not good.’ I think the group that we had (in 1982-83) and me being the leader, just encouraged guys to stay with it all the way — 3-0 doesn’t mean anything, 2-0 doesn’t mean anything, 1-0 doesn’t mean anything — four. Four wins. And Moses (Malone) said it best, ‘Fo’, Fo’, Fo.’

Clint Richardson, a key reserve guard on the 1982-83 champions who Erving called his “little brother,” wasn’t one of those dozing off, since he was playing at Seattle University when the Sixers were squandering their 2-0 series edge to Bill Walton and the Trail Blazers. He’d experienced disappointment twice in the Finals before the Sixers’ sweep of the Lakers, though, and came away believing there’s nothing wrong with being loose — to a certain point, of course.

“They just need to relax,” he told Zumoff of what the current Sixers can learn from the champions 37 years ago. “I think they need to trust each other a little bit more and have more confidence in each other. But that happens … I think sometimes there’s a tendency to panic and second-guess. I think they just need to relax and play and enjoy what they’re doing. And enjoy Philadelphia. Because the people of Philadelphia, they’re patient enough to wait. They waited for us and we finally came through for them. They just need to embrace that.”

It would be a stretch to draw direct parallels between the last Sixers team to win a title and the current roster. Erving played alongside future Hall of Famers Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones and Malone. Andrew Toney may have been on a Hall of Fame trajectory if not for injuries. One tempting comparison, however, is between the late Malone, a three-time MVP, and Joel Embiid. 

Billy Cunningham, the winningest head coach in Sixers history, thinks there’s one trait Malone had that Embiid should emulate. 

The ingredient I would love to see (Embiid) have … Moses’ philosophy,” he said. “He just believed he’d wear people down. And when he got to the fourth quarter, he was relentless on the offensive boards. I’m sure if you go to statistics, nobody had more offensive rebounds. And Moses couldn’t jump over a piece of paper. It wasn’t like he was someone that’s going to be touching the top of the square or anything like that. 

“If Embiid took that little quality of just being relentless, he is gifted, there’s nothing in the game that he cannot do. He should dominate at the defensive end of the court. No one should even think of going to the lane. When I say that, it’s just admiration for his skill level. I don’t know if there’s many players playing that position that have ever had more skill than he has. And now he needs to say, ‘OK, I’m taking control of this. This is my team, and I’m going to dominate, No. 1, on the defensive end of the court.’ 

One of Malone’s backups, Earl Cureton, admired his diligent, no-nonsense approach. Unlike Embiid, Malone was not an active trash talker. 

“His work ethic, the way he approached the game,” Cureton said. “Moses didn’t do a whole lot of talking; he showed with his actions out on the basketball court. Moses didn’t have to say much. He went out and approached it, every single game, every single practice was relentless. It was incredible the way he played, the consistency. … And also being able to sacrifice, putting everything else aside to be a great teammate. 

“You talk about him being an MVP and a superstar, but Moses was just one of the guys. You would see Moses hanging out with anybody on the team ... treated everyone the same way. A lot of times, things that you do off the court mean as much as what you do on the court, in terms of team.”

After missing his first two seasons because of injury, Embiid has played 202 games in the regular season and 19 in the playoffs. Malone had 544 NBA regular-season games and 45 playoff games under his belt before the Sixers tore through the Knicks, Bucks and Lakers in 1983. He’s one of many examples in NBA history of great players needing to be surrounded by the right complementary pieces to win. And, though it might be a dreary reality to acknowledge, sometimes other teams are simply better.

All those factors contribute to Richardson’s stance that the Sixers should try to savor the journey, whatever form it takes. 

“I think they have a lot of potential,” he said. “I think they may have a little too much added pressure on them, just because it’s been long and because there are some unrealistic expectations. I think they just need to relax and be comfortable, and let everything fall into place the way it’s supposed to fall into place.

"Sometimes I see some things being forced … I think when the whole organization relaxes and enjoys what they’ve got, I think that’s when things will happen.”

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