The Sixer who might've been
Mikal Bridges might be the best role player in the NBA. He’s a lethal shooter, athletic finisher and terror on the defensive end. And the Philadelphia 76ers had him. What might things look like if they’d simply held onto him?
Sean Carroll illustration
D raft night 2019 saw a fairly innocuous trade between Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns, pick ten for pick 16 and a future Miami first. That’s a fairly standard trade, but hindsight is, as we know, 20/20 and that trade has been fantastic for Phoenix, who got Mikal Bridges, and less so for Philly, who ended up with Zhaire Smith.
It's weird how similar Zhaire Smith’s college numbers in his one season were to Mikal Bridges’ in his freshman year - 2.2 defensive win shares to 2.4, more points, but also in the top five for win shares. As a junior, Mikal Bridges led the Big East in win shares, box plus-minus, minutes played, PER, as well as both offensive and defensive rating.
The knock was that his shooting wasn’t what you want from a third-year player, so the hope within the organisation was surely that the now 22-year-old Zhaire Smith would develop into a player with Mikal Bridges’ defence and some shooting.
Knowing how things turned out, however - and reflecting that Bridges better fits Philly’s ‘age timeline’ - how would they look now if they hadn’t have traded him away? Actually, let’s meander on ‘age timeline’ for a bit, or, why Philly shouldn’t have traded Bridges in the first place.
First and most obviously is that Mikal Bridges is a Philadelphian. Villanova, where he played college, is in Pennsylvania, he was born in Philly and his mum works in PR for the 76ers. That last point feels like it can’t be overstated - she was stoked stoked to hear that the team drafted him, he looked stoked upon being drafted, and they both looked happy that the situation worked out how it did. Why would you break that up?
While it’s tempting to assume that a 19-year-old is more serviceable than a 22-year-old, even just on an upside point, it’s worth considering where Philly was going into the draft. Philly was coming off their final ‘process’ season, and 2017-18 was the first year where they announced themselves as a team for the ‘now’, not for the ‘future’.
They went 52-30, 24 full wins better than the previous season, and looked primed to consolidate and get better. Why then, in the interests of getting better that season, would you not pick the 22-year-old who was ready to go and proved it by playing every game for Phoenix that season?
Even now, he’s only 25-and-a-half - slotting him perfectly into a Philly team with an average age of 26.7 years old. For what it’s worth, Zhaire Smith played six of his 13 career NBA games in his rookie season.
So, what would that look like now? Mikal Bridges is a player that every team would be better off with now, period.
The criticisms of Ben Simmons in Philly were that he and Joel Embiid took up too much of the same real estate on the court, and so too Matisse Thybulle. Mikal Bridges doesn’t do that - he’s scoring more year on year, up to 14 points a game this year, and FiveThirtyEight ranks him as a positive on offence (his teams score more per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor compared to when he’s not).
He also fits the scheme; he shoots threes in a way that keeps opposing defences accountable. In a Philly team where he’ll need to shoot threes and keep teams from double-teaming Joel, these are valuable attributes to have.
In terms of his defensive impact, that would be truly historic. Embiid, Thybulle, Simmons and Bridges are all players who could reasonably be considered top ten defenders in the league. Embiid, Thybulle and Simmons were all All-Defence last season.
No team in the history of the league has had four All-Defence players, which makes sense, given that it’s hard to have 40 percent of the league’s ten best defenders and have them all show viability, but these are all dudes who could contest for DPOY. Again, unprecedented. Only twice in the past 15 years have teams had three players make the All-Defence teams- last year’s 76ers and the 2012-13 Grizzlies. The famed 2012-13 Grizzlies. The historic 2012-13 Grizzlies, one of two teams ever to have a team nicknamed for its defensive prowess. That kind of hallowed turf.
This is where we get into the nitty-gritty numbers. The league’s offensive ratings in March ranged from 123 (Boston) to 109 (Orlando), with defensive ratings between 107 (Memphis) and124 (Portland). 124 points allowed per 100 possessions is insane given that the league average for the season so far is 111.
The Grit ‘n’ Grind Grizzlies’ three All-Defencemen played 1652 minutes together for a defensive rating of 91.7. In the context of this season, unbelievable. In the context of their season, their team’s defensive rating was 100.3 and the league average was 105.9 - less remarkable, but still impressive. The Sixers’ boys only combined for 125 minutes, but they improved their team’s defensive rating to 96.9.
To put those numbers in one place:
- 2012-13 league average defensive rating: 105.9
- 2012-13 Grizzlies defensive rating: 100.3 (+5.6)
- Gasol, Allen, Conley defensive rating: 91.7 (+14.2)
- 2020-21 league average defensive rating: 112.3
- 2020-21 Sixers defensive rating: 107.2 (+5.1)
- Embiid, Simmons, Thybulle defensive rating: 96.3 (+16)
Evidently, having three All-Defence players improves your defensive rating. That feels self-evident. Even in a vacuum, this season Bridges’ dRTG is five points above league average, Embiid’s and Thybulle’s are both four, and Simmons’ 2020-21 season had him six points better than average. That goes to say that even in minutes where the players don’t play together, they impact defensive rating under their own steam.
It’s impossible to know what these Sixers would look like if they hadn’t traded Bridges away. They’d certainly be better, they may even have been historically so - this assumes, of course, that Bridges develops linearly and in the way he has, but his skillset looks like it complements the players they have now and lineups with Embiid, Bridges, one of Thybulle or Simmons would clamp teams.
He’d give them the shooting to mitigate the impact of Simmons or Thybulle standing in the dunker’s spot, which in turn would give them the ability to keep the scoreboard ticking over and let Simmons do the things he’s better at than shooting, like bringing the ball up and creating.
The ultimate what if is to ask what if Bridges, rather than Thybulle, was on the court in that fateful Atlanta game. Simmons - assuming everything went well - would be able to drive, kick out to a reliable three-point shooter in Bridges, who has the chance to ice a three rather than panicking and passing to Thybulle in a congested lane.
That’s the kind of moment that brings together this whole hypothetical and makes it feel like a real, tangible miss that the Sixers made. If Bridges was on the court, the 76ers might never have traded Simmons at all.
It’s not just the weirdness of trading away a hometown boy with organisational links and not the fact they got rid of someone who looked like a better fit even at the time than the bloke they traded him for. The whole thing is weird and a misstep from a team who HAD the player who now looks like the missing piece to completing ‘The Process’.
That’s what’s so hard to get around - it’s not just ‘what if the Suns drafted Luka, not Ayton’ or anything like that. They had him, they traded him, and now they miss the bloke they could’ve had. Isn’t it fun?