What do you do when you are a GM and are underwhelmed by the options for the top pick? For an object lesson on what not to do, let’s turn back time to the 1986 draft and talk about the dilemma faced by the 76ers. This draft is best remembered for the tragic death of second pick Len Bias of a drug overdose the night after the draft. That sad story has been well told but, before the draft, the big story was what Philly would do with the top overall pick. Let’s review this process and see what we can learn about how the 76ers ultimately decided to dump the pick and how they ended up screwing it up.
How Did Philly Get the Top Pick?
The 76ers were in a bit of quandary with how to deal with their options before the draft. At the time, the 76ers had a good team (54-28) built around young Charles Barkley and the aging vets from the 1982-83 title team (Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney, Julius Erving, and Moses Malone). Barkley was already on his way to stardom but the Celtics (and Bucks) were clearly better teams.
The 76ers had the top pick in the draft by virtue of a great 1979 trade where Philly sent backup Joe Bryant (yup, Kobe’s dad) to the Clippers for an unprotected pick in 1986. Well, the Clipps were awful and Philly got the top pick and chance to reload a good team. Ultimately, the 76ers punted, trading the pick to Cleveland for veteran Roy Hinson. Cleveland drafted UNC center Brad Daugherty and Boston took Bias second overall.
Putting the tragedy of Bias aside, let’s dig into this other story. What was Philly’s thought process for dumping the pick and taking neither Daugherty nor Bias? Bias was a legendary college player and a dunking machine. Shouldn’t Philly have seriously considered Bias or Daugherty? According to 76ers GM Pat Williams in his book Tales from the Philadelphia 76ers, neither player was ever on the radar. Williams quoted assistant GM John Nash stating that they liked Daugherty best of all the prospects “but it was more a case of, if we’ve got [Charles] Barkley and Moses [Malone], what are you going to do with Brad Daugherty?”
That statement makes little sense. First, they traded Moses for Jeff Ruland the same day that Daugherty was drafted, so they could’ve just drafted Daugherty and traded Moses for something else. But if you accept that Philly liked Moses or Ruland better than Daugherty, Nash’s statement also begs the question, why not just take Bias? He was a slashing small forward and fits pretty well with Barkley and Moses/Ruland. Nash said that rejecting Bias was not due to any concerns about drugs or other issues: “[e]ven when we were doing background checks, we didn’t find anything wrong with [Bias].” Williams noted that “we never bothered to interview Bias, never bothered to bring him in for a workout.”
Red Auerbach Scares the 76ers
It seems that the looming presence of the Celtics may have influenced the decision making. Boston, coming off of a title, had the second pick because, in 1984, the Celts traded workman guard Gerald Henderson to Seattle for the 1986 pick that turned up second overall. Seattle’s trade was slightly better than the awful Bryant trade made by the Clippers e because, at least, Henderson was a bona fide starter and not a backup like Bryant. Still, both trades were precisely the kind of terrible high risk/low reward deals that GMs are trained to avoid.
In truth, the 76ers had a lot of options and weren’t sure what to do with them and may have been spooked that Boston would outmaneuver them. This was illustrated by a June 15, 1986 Chicago Tribune article by Bob Sakomoto which reported that the Celtics were trying to get both Daugherty and Bias. Philly was allegedly torn between taking Daugherty, center William Bedford (who ended up being a bust and struggling with drug issues), or trading the pick for a veteran. Williams told Sakomoto that a trade was quite possible because: ‘[t]here are six teams pursuing us pretty aggressively and we`ve talked to the Lakers. If we get a marvelous offer, we’d have to take a real hard look.”
As for the Celtics, Red Auerbach: “plotted to use the Celtics` No. 2 pick overall for North Carolina center Brad Daugherty then tried to entice the Indiana Pacers out of their fourth pick by dangling Celtic center Robert Parish in a trade. That would allow Auerbach to nab Maryland forward Len Bias.” None of this ever happened because Williams traded the pick, leaving Boston with just Bias to draft. Red had made some shrewd moves but assuming that neither Daugherty nor Bias would’ve been drafted first was not one of them. Did he really think Philly wanted Bedford first? Also, why would the Pacers trade a 33-year old Parish for the fourth pick? The Pacers GM was Donnie Walsh, who would not bite on that. C’mon, Red…none of that was ever going to happen! It is possible that the Sixers were aware of the interest in Daugherty and would make moves that would avoid him ever getting to Boston.
Hinson v. Bias v. Daugherty
Assuming that Nash’s post hoc explanation for not wanting Daugherty is accurate, why did they never consider Bias? The easiest explanation is that the 76ers wanted to try to compete with vets and didn’t want to wait a few years for Bias (or Daugherty) to develop. Philly and Bias was a good fit on paper. Erving had one year left to teach Bias and then the 76ers would’ve had an exciting core of Bias and Barkley.
Was there anything in Bias’ stat record to support their not being enamored with him? Let’s first look at the stats of Daugherty and Bias for the 1985-86 season:
Daugherty, age 20: 32.0 mpg, 20.2 ppg, .648 FG%, 9.0 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.0 spg, 1.1 bpg
Bias, age 22: 37.0 mpg, 23.2 ppg, .544 FG%, 7.0 rpg, 1.0 apg, 0.8 spg, 0.4 bpg
Both of the stats lines came in the same 1985-86 ACC. Bias scored really well, though his block and steal numbers are pretty low compared to most good pro prospects. Those low block/steal numbers can indicate a player may not excel on the next level. Daugherty’s numbers were more impressive, and he was nearly two years younger than Bias. So, there’s a decent stat argument for discounting Bias gaudy highlight scoring.
It is more possible that team success (or lack thereof) of Maryland might’ve been a factor. Daugherty’s UNC team was much better (10-4) than the middling Terps team (6-8) in conference. Maryland did make the tourney and got a relatively high seed (5) relative to its record (18-13 before the tourney). The Terps beat a 12-seeded Pepperdine team in a close game before losing to UNLV in the second round.
UNC, which had six NBA players on the roster, went to the Sweet Sixteen (losing to eventual title winner Louisville). Perhaps, Philly deemed Bias just a volume scorer on a blah team. On the other hand, NBA teams usually don’t penalize great scorers/talents on bad college teams (see Ben Simmons). The only player on that Maryland team to make the pros would be Tony Massenburg, who was a little-used freshman at the time. It wasn’t Bias’ fault that the team wasn’t great but that the narrative that team success was a strong factor in drafting a player definitely did exist at that time.
The last option was Hinson. Though injuries would wreck Hinson’s career, he was healthy at the time of the trade and didn’t actually struggle with those injuries until 1988, after he was traded from the 76ers. For comparison to Bias and Daugherty, here is Hinson’s 1985-86 season with Cleveland:
-Hinson, age 24: 34.6 mpg, 19.6 pp, .532 FG%, 7.8 rpg, 1.2 apg, 17.4 PER, .125 WS/48, 0.7 BPM, 1.9 VORP
Hinson was young (only two years older than Bias) and his raw stats were fairly good. The advanced stats were pretty middling and it’s not clear how he fit with Barkley. Hinson ended playing much worse the next two years in Philadelphia before being jettisoned for Mike Gminski.
Wayne Embry Offers Some Insights
Was Philadelphia crazy? It seemed weird that they would pass on both Daugherty and Bias for Hinson, who looked pretty good but not worth the first overall pick in the draft. Another perspective can be taken from Wayne Embry, who was just made Cleveland’s GM at the time of the 1986 draft. In his incredible autobiography, The Inside Game, Embry detailed what went down when Philly offered the pick for Hinson: “I could not believe the Sixers really would trade the first pick in the draft, which I felt certain could be used on Daugherty. But I had had enough discussions with Philadelphia officials Pat Williams and Jack McMahon to know they did not like [Daugherty]. I could not understand that. I knew a lot of NBA scouts labeled him ‘soft’ and did not think he was tough enough or physical enough. But not me….He was one of the few centers who had a low-post presence. I was glad no one felt the way I did.”
As for Bias, Embry was not a fan. When Cavs owner Gordon Gund posed to Embry that they should consider Bias over Daugherty, Embry objected: “I nearly choked, although I had no way of knowing Bias would be dead of a drug overdose within days. ‘Gordon, please take Daugherty,’ I pleaded. ‘I have some reservations about Bias. I think there are some character issues. Since I’m coming in tomorrow, let’s get started on the right foot.’” There was a lot of subtext here but Embry seemed well aware that Bias was a risk (albeit not as big a risk as he ended up being).
In the end, we can learn a few things…First, there definitely was some buzz that Bias had issues to be concerned about. Their statements to the contrary, they probably did have some idea that Bias was a risk. Otherwise, there was no reason for the 76ers not to take him in the draft to pair with Barkley. But
The biggest lesson was that Philly choked. What the Sixers got wrong was the value of Hinson. If they didn’t like Daugherty, they should’ve extracted much more value for the pick. Top picks usually get much more return. Here’s a rundown of the other top picks that were traded in the last 40 years:
-1980: The Celtics got a bona fide starter in Robert Parish and the third pick (Kevin McHale) for the top pick (Joe Barry Carroll).
-1994: The Magic (run by Pat Williams) traded top pick Chris Webber for the third pick (Penny Hardaway) and three future first-rounders.
-2014: The Cavs trade top pick Andrew Wiggins for All-Star Kevin Love.
There you have it. Each team got back an All-Star and/or additional picks for the right to move the pick. The Sixers didn’t value Daugherty properly and permitted themselves to believe he no one else valued him highly either. They missed the usual nice haul for the top pick. That was the big problem. Roy Hinson, even if you believed he would become a good player, was not even close to fair value for the pick.