As the Philadelphia 76ers round the corner and return to respectability, and as Joel Embiid shows the flashes of potential that have had scouts salivating, just imagine what he would have looked like being flanked not only by Ben Simmons, but also D’Angelo Russell.
It was much closer to happening than one would think.
Instead, with Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, the Sixers seem to have a bit too much depth in their front court – a problem the franchise will need to address. Still, at this point, it’s amazing to consider how close this conflict was to being avoided, all together.
It’s also amazing to consider how the fortunes of the Sixers and Lakers have become intertwined, despite the two never interacting directly on this pick.
Back in 2012, in an attempt to give Kobe Bryant a fighting chance to compete against LeBron James and his Miami HEAT in an NBA Finals, the Lakers made two “all in” trades. Famously, less than a month apart, they acquired Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Many thought that the Lakers would have a chance at winning 70 games and that, for Bryant, an eighth NBA Finals appearance was in the cards.
Obviously, the basketball gods had other plans.
Head coach Mike Brown was fired after five games, eventually replaced by Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni and Pau Gasol had issues, Bryant and Howard didn’t see eye-to-eye and Nash couldn’t say healthy. Gasol was alienated, Bryant ruptured his Achilles and Howard left for Houston. The rest was history.
Years later, though, the trade for Nash, discussions about it and the steep price the Lakers paid for him – it all lives on.
In acquiring Nash from the Phoenix Suns, the Lakers agreed to send four draft picks to the desert – first rounders in 2013 and 2015 and second rounders in 2013 and 2014. The Suns would eventually trade that protected 2015 first round pick to the Sixers in the 2015 trade deadline deal that saw Michael Carter-Williams get sent to the Milwaukee Bucks.
For the Sixers, the con was losing the former Rookie of the Year. But the pro was acquiring the first round pick, which, as we speak, is still owed.
Fortunately for the Lakers, the first round pick was top-five protected in the 2015 draft. Finishing with the fourth-worst record, the most probable outcome had the Lakers keeping it, which they did. As fate would have it, the Lakers swapped draft spots with the Knicks and eventually selected Russell with the second overall pick.
Imagine for a moment, though, that instead of moving forward two spots, the Lakers moved back two spots, into sixth. Had the Knicks kept the second selection, they would have likely chosen Jahlil Okafor, as intel from New York City during the predraft process indicated that he was highly coveted by Phil Jackson. That scenario – which assumes that the Minnesota Timberwolves would have stuck with Karl-Anthony Towns with the first selection – would have cleared the way for the Sixers to select Russell at third. The team needed a point guard, after all.
Had the Lakers fallen to sixth, by right, the Sixers would have gotten the pick, meaning that they would have also had a shot to draft Kristaps Porzingis. Imagine how different the world would have looked if that had been the case: Russell, Porzingis, Embiid and Ben Simmons on the same team.
Obviously, at this point, it’s all conjecture and a great “what if,” but one thing that is certain is that the Lakers still owe the Sixers a first round pick, and in all likelihood, it will be paid this season. Aside from being top-five protected in 2015, the first round pick was top-three protected in 2016 and will also be top-three protected in the 2017.
If the early going of this season is any indication of what is to transpire, it appears that the pick owed from the Steve Nash trade will finally be transferred – a whole five years after the trade.
The Lakers began the season with a few nice victories and ended up 10-10 through 20 games. Their 10th win of the season came before December, while last season, it didn’t occur until February. Based on what we’ve seen, even with such a small sample, it’s difficult imagining the Lakers finishing with a top three pick this season.
Although they are losers of seven straight, the club has endured injuries to key rotation players, including Russell and Nick Young. They enter play on Tuesday at 10-17, but seem a fair bet to resume the trajectory that had them raising eyebrows just a few weeks ago.
For what it’s worth, if the season ended at this moment, the Sixers would be guaranteed a top-four pick in the 2017 draft while the Lakers – unless they made a jump in the lottery similar to the one the Chicago Bulls made from further back in 2008 to select Derrick Rose – would end up with the ninth pick. In such an instance, the Sixers would have two picks in the top 10.
So here we are. Five years after Nash was sent to the Lakers and was thought to be a vital cog in Kobe Bryant’s quest for a sixth championship ring, his ghost continues to haunt Los Angeles while delighting Sixers fans.
As Embiid turns the corner and the Sixers return to respectability, maybe it would be wise to not spend too much time thinking about what could have been with Embiid, Simmons and Russell. Instead, maybe the Atlantic Division should be concerned with what Embiid and Simmons might be able to do with two more lottery talents, because if the season ended today, that’s exactly what Philadelphia would get.
And if the Lakers’ hot start was indeed an aberration, and they falter (or get lucky) and end up with a top three pick in the 2017 draft? The pick becomes unprotected in 2018, meaning it would go to the Sixers no matter what.
So as the Lakers and the Sixers continue along on their individual journeys, rest assured that the Sixers are probably rooting for the Lakers to do well – but not too well. After all, Embiid and Simmons would look pretty good with two more lottery selections from the highly regarded class of 2017.
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