With 72 hours left to go, the inevitable began to unfold: a change in direction, a shift in tone. The Spurs had now engaged the Lakers in trade talks, and, for your information, had yet to rule any team out of contention. That is what the sources were saying, and they were saying it to the messengers who tend to traffic in official words. While cloaked in anonymity, their existence confirmed what should have been obvious from the beginning. The wind had shifted, and with it came the unmistakable scent of smoke.
At least, that seemed the most rational interpretation of the signals emanating from three corners of the country regarding the bidding for disgruntled superstar Kawhi Leonard. An ESPN report naming the Lakers and Celtics as the two most prominent suitors engaged in talks with the Spurs served mostly as a confirmation of what had been the likeliest scenario all along. The Sixers might be star hunting, but deals like these get done when wherewithal intersects with motivation, and in a marketplace that includes both Boston and L.A., the Sixers face a significant deficit in both.
The Celtics, with their incomprehensible portfolio of burgeoning stars and draft pick gold, have the ability to cobble together a package that no team in the Spurs position could resist. They have two future first round draft picks that carry more value than the one the Sixers acquired from the Heat on draft day: one from a floundering Memphis team that is top eight protected in 2019, top six protected in 2020, and, like the Heat pick, unprotected in 2021; another from the perpetually inept Kings that seems likely to convey inside the Top 10 and perhaps the Top 5 in 2019. That second pick is the one the Sixers traded to Boston to move up and draft Markelle Fultz. They get to keep the pick if it ends up at No. 1 overall, but the odds of that occurring top out at 14 percent even if the Kings finish with the worst record in the league. Factor in the redundancies the Celtics have with Terry Rozier and Kyrie Irving in the backcourt and Jayson Tatum, Gordon Heyward and Jaylen Brown on the wing, and no team can beat the kind of offer that Danny Ainge can make.
The big question with Boston is one of motivation, a department where the Lakers have both the Celtics and Sixers trumped. Given Leonard's reported desire to play in purple and gold upon reaching free agency, the Lakers are the one team that is free to negotiate without any degree of restraint. In Brandon Ingram, they have a player who is three years younger than Dario Saric and coming off a sophomore season in which he averaged 16.1 points per game and shot .390 from three-point range. In Kyle Kuzma, they have a four-man who shot .366 from three-point range as a rookie and is one year further away from free agency than Saric, who will be eligible for his first contract extension after next season.
On a one-for-one basis, you can make an argument for the good guys having the advantage. In tandem, however, the Sixers would be left to hope that the Spurs deem Markelle Fultz as something greater than a lottery ticket value-add. It's risky enough to count on a player who does not presently have the ability to shoot, let alone one who will average $10 million in cap space over the next three seasons. Same goes for Robert Covington: instead of wasting a chip on such a player, why not sign a free agent version like Trevor Ariza?
Once we extend the conversation to include that Heat pick and the recently drafted Zhaire Smith, we start to encounter a serious degree of sticker shock for a player who could stick around for one season and then bolt.
Which brings us back to motivation, and the reality that even a damn-the-torpedoes offer might not be enough to equal the Celtics second or third-best potential offer.
Whether you are a Sixers fan who embraced the Process or one who endured it, there is likely a frustrating degree of irony to be found in the current situation. After all those years spent accumulating assets, now that the organization is ready to make a move, it might not have enough.