Why the 76ers' heartbreaking draft-day trade of a hometown player could end up being a huge win

Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesMikal Bridges’ feel-good story of starting his professional career at home was torn asunder on draft night after the 76ers traded him away minutes after selecting him — but the deal on the table was a tough one for Philadelphia to pass on.
  • The Sixers traded away the rights to Mikal Bridges just minutes after drafting the Villanova player.
  • In return for Bridges, the Sixers received another player they coveted, Zhaire Smith, as well as a first-round pick in the 2021 draft that could appreciate in value or be the asset that helps Philadelphia land a star this offseason.
  • It was a difficult decision from an emotional standpoint, as Bridges had close ties to the team, but the value the Sixers received in return was too much to pass up.

For a few minutes during Thursday night’s NBA Draft, everything had worked out perfectly for Mikal Bridges.

After winning two NCAA championships with Villanova, Bridges had been drafted by his hometown team – the Philadelphia 76ers – with the 10th overall pick. Bridges and his mother, Tyneeha Rivers, who works for the Sixers as VP of Human Resources, were both overjoyed with how the night had played out. Mikal Bridges was coming home to join the Sixers family.

But just minutes later, a trade was announced – the Sixers were sending Bridges to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for 16th overall pick Zhaire Smith and a future first-round pick. It was a heartbreaking turn of events for Bridges, who was answering questions with media about how excited he was to join the Sixers as the trade was finalised.

For Sixers fans, the move was also a bit jarring, as many had been hoping for Bridges to land with the team. It was also disheartening to see the young player learn the realities of the league in such a brutal fashion just minutes into his professional career, especially when he had such personal ties to the franchise.

But as head coach and de facto interim general manager Brett Brown explained after the decision, the Sixers goal is to win championships, and they were offered a deal that was too good to pass up.

“Phoenix came in and offered a 2021 unprotected plus our 1B in Zhaire [Smith], who we value very highly, and you’re in a position that you’re on the clock, and you really have a decision to make,” Brown said of the deal.

Brown made his call, and while the choice was undoubtedly arduous given the circumstances, it’s tough to deny the value the Sixers received in return.

First and foremost, Smith was the Sixers “1B” as Brown put it, one of the two players the team coveted most in the draft. He is also a player that fits in with the Sixers needs both positionally and as the team continues to build one of the strongest young defensive fronts in the league. Smith will also likely have a fantastic time throwing down absurd alley-oops lobbed to him by Ben Simmons.

But the biggest asset of the trade was the 2021 first-round draft pick, which initially came from the Miami Heat and has no protections attached to it. The pick holds important value to the Sixers, both as an asset to be used now, or cash in on later.

This summer Philadelphia hopes to contend for some of the biggest players on the market. As Brown said of the pick, “That could be the thing that flips it with us having more assets to enhance a realistic trade for a star. We are star hunting.”

If the Sixers need to put together a package to, for instance, bring Kawhi Leonard in from San Antonio, it’s possible that the extra first round pick could be the asset that seals the deal.

Further, if Philadelphia instead decides to hold on to the pick, there’s a chance that its value only increases in the coming years. 2021 could potentially be the year that high school players are allowed to enter the draft immediately, which would create a draft class filled with essentially two years worth of first-round talent.

Should that be the case, whether the Sixers choose to use the pick that year, or trade it once high school eligibility is established, the pick will be even more valuable an asset than it is right now.

Finally, while it might seem like a small difference, the trade makes financial sense for the Sixers. By trading the rights of the 10th pick for the rights to the 16th pick, the Sixers save close to $US1 million due in contracts because of the structure of the rookie scale. It’s not a significant amount of money, but for a team looking to land marquee free agents in the biggest offseason in recent memory, every dollar will count.

Brown wasn’t devoid of the reality of the situation, and openly acknowledged the emotions that came with the decision.

“I watch Villanova, I love his mum, I love his college coach. There’s a human side to this that is kind of really hard to explain. And we all, I’m assuming, go from this level of excitement and coincidence, you can’t make this up, to something as a group, we sit there, and we feel off this and again one we knocked back, it was a great opportunity, really a great opportunity and then there it is.”

In the end, the Sixers pulled the trigger, making a move that might have come off as harsh, but could be the difference that brings the team a championship.

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