Daryl Morey was characteristically active in his first NBA draft as Sixers president of basketball operations.
He made two major trades, sending out Al Horford and Josh Richardson while bringing in Seth Curry and Danny Green, and picked three players in Tyrese Maxey, Isaiah Joe and Paul Reed.
The eventful evening followed one overarching aim.
“We went in with a goal of increasing our flexibility,” Morey said that night.
Morey inherited a team that had finished the past season sixth in the Eastern Conference and been swept by the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. Ben Simmons’ absence due to a left knee injury was noteworthy in the defeat to Boston, yes, but there was no realistic way of claiming that the Sixers were near an NBA title.
Entering his second draft night with the team, Morey is attempting to improve a group that topped the East in the regular season and then found large leads to be slippery in a dispiriting second-round loss to the Hawks.
As bleak as things might have seemed after that series, the Sixers are in a better position than at this same stage last year. Their “optionality” — a concept both former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie and Morey are fond of — is still mostly intact, too.
That’s one reason Morey was fine at the time with not committing any dramatic in-season moves.
“We took an option that we thought really upgraded our team this year on both ends and at the same time kept all our optionality alive in the future,” he said in March after trading for veteran guard George Hill.
Anyone who monitors the always-churning NBA rumor mill has seen the Sixers mentioned plenty since their season concluded. Ben Simmons is an inherently fascinating player — unique as a 6-foot-10 ball handler with a wide variety of talents who hardly ever tries jump shots in a league that places an immense value on outside shooting — and it’s not yet remotely clear where he’ll begin next season.
Part of what’s difficult about Morey’s job is that his options aren’t written in ink. If Morey hopes for Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal to become available, there’s a shot the Sixers could land an elite perimeter scorer with qualities to pair splendidly with Joel Embiid. Other potential moves could evaporate as he waits, though.
Morey could push to join forces again with Kyle Lowry — The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported late last week that the Sixers are among the teams “expected to be top suitors” for the Philadelphia native and six-time All-Star — but few deals would shrink the team’s choices more than a sign-and-trade for a 35-year-old point guard.
Even now, in Morey’s mind, there aren’t infinite decisions on the table. He’s working to help the Sixers take the final step or two and upgrade around Embiid during the superstar big man’s prime years, not leading a Hinkie-era group with the freedom to cycle through dozens of players and accumulate draft picks.
“We don’t have a lot of buttons to push,” Morey said at his end-of-season press conference. “We have three top-level, max players. That’s actually the ideal situation you want as an NBA team. But it also starts to limit your options with sign-and-trades and how much mid-level you have and how much cap room you have to sign (players). So it starts to limit all those things.
“... Internal improvement is probably the bigger lever. ... It’s pretty rare, frankly, to have top players who are already performing at a very high level in this league who also have things that you can point to and say, ‘Hey, if we can improve that, the team can get a lot better.’ That’s pretty rare, and it’s actually an opportunity, not a negative, when you’re looking at, how do we take the next step? With all that said, even though they’re limited, the tools we have, in terms of free agency and trade and the draft, obviously my job is to explore all those, and we will. But I would say more internal improvement than external.”
Before selecting Maxey with the 21st pick, Morey’s last first-round pick was Sam Dekker in 2015. No one would be surprised if he trades either or both of the Sixers’ two picks, No. 28 and No. 50.
There will be players with a chance to help the Sixers late in Round 1 — gritty, 3-and-D guard Miles McBride, confident scorer Bones Hyland and shot creator Tre Mann are a few possibilities — but the team’s strong track record in recent drafts has perhaps clouded perception of how likely selections in the 20s are to pan out. Landry Shamet, Matisse Thybulle and Maxey have all performed at a higher level than the average player at their respective draft slot, at least early in their NBA careers.
By the end of Thursday night’s draft, Morey might have fewer options. As long as he boosts the Sixers’ chances of winning a championship in the near future, that wouldn’t be a problem.