The 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers are the NBA’s piñata: They seem to exist solely to get pounded on.
No team had ever gone 1-28 to start a season. Ever. Now, at 2-30, the Sixers are historically bad, but they haven’t yet reached the point where sympathy sets in.
It may never happen. The Sixers aren’t down on their luck with injuries, or a victim of signing a few wrong free agents, or saddled with a contract to an aging veteran.
In a lot of ways, they chose this. Philadelphia’s GM Sam Hinkie could have overpaid for a few players in free agency that undoubtedly would have made the team more competitive, and in the process, made the team less of a target.
But is that something worth applauding? Is winning 20 games instead of 10 any real sort of accomplishment?
Look at the Brooklyn Nets, for example. They likely won’t have their own first round pick until 2019. They have the 6th highest payroll in the league, and they are currently 8-20.
But because the Nets re-signed Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, and are therefore “trying”, they don’t catch nearly the same heat Philadelphia does. Commissioner Adam Silver isn’t making negative comments about their overall strategy, even though the Nets are more poorly managed than any team in the league.
For the most part, nobody is even concerned with the Nets, because the Nets have done what hundreds of teams before them did: overplay their hand, mortgage their future and cripple their chances at any substantial success for years to come.
Philadelphia could have been one of those teams, but Hinkie and company chose a different route.
The lesson? You can be really bad in the NBA. Plenty of teams are every year. You just can’t be bad while trying to outsmart everyone else or exploit a flawed system, or else you’re going to ruffle a few feathers.
Hinkie has plenty of experience with this phenomenon. After all, he came up as an assistant GM with the Houston Rockets under Daryl Morey, who quickly became the poster child for analytics being used in NBA front offices. Still to this day, whenever the Rockets hit a rough patch, the ice cold takes on analytics being overrated come crashing down like an avalanche.
If there’s a failure in the great rebuilding plan of the Sixers, it’s not how bad the product currently is on the floor. The Sixers have no delusions of grandeur right now, which is clear by their approach to free agency and the overall age of their roster.
If you want to deem Hinkie’s plan a failure, you should point to the inability to make use of two assets – playing time and roster spots – rather than Philadelphia’s place in the standings. Robert Covington might be the only non-lottery pick that the Sixers will deem worthy of hanging on to going forward, and while he was undoubtedly a great find, you’d hope to have unearthed more guys like him at this stage.
That’s not to say there aren’t pieces in place. Unlike other lottery-bound teams, the Sixers have a foundation to build on, even if it’s not necessarily the players on the floor. The real strength of the Sixers is that Brett Brown and Sam Hinkie appear to be very good at their jobs.
Brown has shown two things in his rough tenure as Philadelphia’s tanking caretaker: his teams can play fast, and they can defend (13th in defensive efficiency last year). There’s some style and substance present, even as the losses roll in. His recent contract extension was reaffirmation that the franchise believes in him, even as Mike D’Antoni was brought in as an assistant to help literally make something out of nothing on the offensive end.
Does the franchise believe in Hinkie the same way as Brown? Jerry Colangelo’s front office hiring puts that into question, but Hinkie’s track record since he joined the Sixers in late 2013 has been incredibly strong, even as the team flounders.
It’s hard to say that Hinkie has ever lost a trade, even though there are a few that remain incomplete. Still, that isn’t something a lot of general managers can say over a two and a half year timespan, especially since no one has been as active on the trade market or been in such a clear position of being a seller.
In addition to Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, the Sixers could be getting Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in the lineup next year, along with as many as five first round picks in the 2016 draft, another first in 2018, rights to swap first round picks in multiple years and a host of second-round picks.
Maybe more importantly, Hinkie hasn’t had to sell big time players in order to stock the cupboard like this. It’s quite likely that none of the players Hinkie dealt are franchise changers.
Of course, Okafor, Noel, Embiid or Saric might not be, either. Eventually Hinkie will need to produce results and prove he’s a strong evaluator of talent, but his asset management skills aren’t in question. He took an aging roster with one All-Star talent (Holiday) that appeared destined to pick in the middle of the draft every year and gave that team multiple chances to acquire superstar talent.
And remember, in a league where star players seem more open to pairing up than ever before, Philadelphia will almost certainly have the most cap room of any team over the next few years with the salary cap expected to skyrocket.
The Sixers may need a surefire young star to serve as bait first, but those players tend to out themselves fairly early. You knew halfway through Blake Griffin’s rookie year that he was special, for example. With no Blake Griffin, there’s no Chris Paul. Sometimes, all it takes is one.
Once that happens, Hinkie will be armed with an abundance of desirable assets to dangle, from young big men on rookie deals to cap space to draft picks. The light at the end of the tunnel is there, even if it requires massive amounts of patience and trust from ownership to see it all the way through.
Historically bad starts can understandably test that patience. But the commonly repeated phrase "trust the process" isn’t just a meaningless mantra for the Sixers — it’s a mandate.