Recalling a draft day that eighty-sixed the Sixers

Moses Malone was traded in one of the 1986 moves that ended up crippling the 76ers.
Moses Malone was traded in one of the 1986 moves that ended up crippling the 76ers. (Associated Press)
Posted: June 26, 2014

All the 76ers had to do on that June day in 1986 was use the first overall pick on the consensus best player available and they surely would have been back in the conversation as a championship contender for the next three or four years.

All they had to do was select North Carolina's Brad Daugherty, a 7-foot center who would have guaranteed that the Sixers had an inside scoring and rebounding presence even when a sweat-soaked Moses Malone was seated on the bench.

"Select Daugherty!" the situation screamed.

"No!" the Sixers screamed back.

Owner Harold Katz wanted Malone and his big contract gone. Pat Williams had one final act to perform after 12 outstanding years as the team's general manager and he mapped out what he called "the most intense day of trading in the history of the organization." It was followed by screams from the fans, laughter from other organizations around the NBA, and 28 years of mostly wretched basketball (the 2001 NBA Finals aside).

Williams traded the first overall pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for forward Roy Hinson. The Sixers said Hinson was better than any player in the draft. They were wrong. The Cavs used the pick to select Daugherty. They were instantly improved.

The same day, Williams sent Malone, forward Terry Catledge, the 21st overall pick in 1986, and a first-round pick in 1988 to the Washington Bullets for gimpy-kneed center Jeff Ruland and vagabond forward Cliff Robinson. Malone was the best player in that deal, but it also was notable because the Sixers were giving away first-round picks as if they were key chains.

How that bit of history later unfolded is too painful to repeat in its entirety. The abridged version: Ruland, because of his knee problems, started seven games and played in 18 with the 76ers. Robinson spent three forgettable seasons with the team.

A few days after his trade barrage, Williams left for Orlando, where he joined a group that brought the NBA Magic to that city in 1989. He's still there. The Sixers, meanwhile, have mostly been a Mickey Mouse organization ever since.

The team's record since those infamous draft-day deals in 1986 is 1,015-1,329. Only 11 of the last 28 seasons have been winning ones. The team has won more than 50 games just twice in that period, a feat the Sixers accomplished nine times in 10 years before the deals. The Sixers have lost 50 or more games eight times in the last 28 years and 60 or more three times, including last season, when they went 19-63 and tied an NBA record with 26 straight losses.

The third-worst season in the team's history was declared "a huge success" by owner Josh Harris, who viewed it through a lens that allowed him to look forward to Thursday night, when the Sixers have a chance to reverse the fortunes of their long-suffering franchise.

For just the second time in their history, the Sixers have two top-10 draft selections. The last time was in 1984, when they selected Charles Barkley fifth overall and Leon Wood 10th. Barkley became a superstar, albeit a disgruntled one when the franchise started to collapse during his prime. Wood became an NBA official.

This draft situation appears to be better than that one for the 76ers because the talent pool is deeper. They should get a superstar with the third overall pick and something a lot better than an NBA official with the 10th selection.

It's up to second-year general manager Sam Hinkie to make it happen. It's up to the 36-year-old analytical wizard to push all the right buttons and restore the 76ers' long-lost status among the NBA elite. He's been thrown all sorts of curveballs in the days leading up to the draft and he was drilled by the news that Joel Embiid needed foot surgery, which likely removed the Kansas center from the top of Cleveland's draft board.

Yes, once again, the Cavs and a 7-foot center are clouding the Sixers' future. If, as is rumored, the Cavaliers take Duke forward Jabari Parker first and Milwaukee follows by selecting Kansas forward Andrew Wiggins, the man reportedly at the top of the Sixers' draft board, then Embiid will be there at No. 3. He'd be the ultimate high-risk, high-reward selection.

There has been speculation that Hinkie will try to maneuver for more first-round picks by trading either rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams or center Nerlens Noel, who sat out last season while recovering from knee surgery. Moving Noel seems like an excellent idea if the Sixers take Embiid.

Wouldn't it be ironic if a center the Cavaliers did not want became the cornerstone of the 76ers' renaissance? And isn't it about time the Sixers had some good fortune with a center who is considered an injury risk?


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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