It’s a lot of fun to dump on Sam Hinkie and the Philadelphia 76ers, just like it’s a lot of fun to dump on Donald Trump. Both are ridiculous on their face, yet seem protected by impenetrable bubbles (Trump: money/racism/self-esteem?, 76ers: process/process/process) that give them an unearned self-assurance that makes them ripe for mockery. Put another way, they both have naturally punchable faces.
Yet unlike Trump, Hinkie and the 76ers also seem to cast a weird magic over the press that sometimes makes their eyes twitch and pupils dilate and before thinking something like, “You know, maybe the 76ers do have it all figured out.”
Look at this Deadspin headline:
It’s the second day of free agency and here is what Draper is reacting to:
“…the Kings are dumping a bunch of contracts onto the 76ers in an attempt to free up enough room to pursue some combination of Rajon Rondo, Monta Ellis, and Wes Matthews…Specifically, the Kings are trading away Jason Thompson and Carl Landry—combined they’re owed $13 million next season, and Landry is on the hook for $6.5 million in 2016-17—to free up that space. So what are the 76ers getting for their trouble? Nik Stauskas…a top-ten protected 2018 first-round draft pick, and the right to swap first-round picks in two other drafts.”
Now, yes, the Kings are very, very stupid. Rondo and Ellis didn’t make any sense at all in Dallas during the playoffs and Matthews is coming off a torn Achilles. And really if we’re being honest, people should be pretty skeptical that Rondo can even play basketball at a non-YMCA rec league level anymore. But the Kings Kingsing their free agency strategy aside, look at the 76ers’ haul: Jason Thompson, Carl Landry, Nik Stauskas, and picks in drafts that are up to three years away. In what universe is this “fleecing?”
The hypothetical universe, of course. A universe where the Lakers fell out of the top five and the Heat out of the top 10 in the lottery and the 76ers had three picks in the first half of the draft. A universe where stashed foreign players are only growing stronger, stronger, STRONGER, biding their time to come and wreck the NBA like so many slow, weak Latvian and Turkish three point shooting monsters. A universe where an employee devises a plan where his performance is never measurable because the outcomes of his decisions are always pushed out to the hazy horizon, past the point where you cannot clearly see that maybe, possibly, there might be a shimmering oasis just waiting there.
Here is the huge blind spot in the “process,” in the strategy of treating human beings like commodities.
Now Jersey Drop Gate was a fun and silly story but it only existed because of a very real problem: a lot of players do not want any part of the process. The 76ers seem to be operating with a “three years until we’re good!” window that slides forward at the end of every season with Hinkie at the helm. With three young centers—one all offense, one all defense, and one all injuries—and more spare parts than chop shop, there is no reason to think there is a scenario where they are somehow less than three years away from relevance. To wit: apparently the only way you can get someone excited about playing for Philadelphia right now is to be taking them away from Sacramento.
It’s not fair or reasonable to expect Okafor or Noel or even banged up Embiid to be able to reach their potential as NBA players when their management is literally throwing seasons of their careers away in the endless and relentless pursuit of future assets. NBA players aren’t canned food. A culture of losing will take a toll, especially on young players. This is why sometimes it’s good to make an ultimately futile run at the eight seed when your young core is still a little short of fully mature (hello, Pelicans). Because making the playoffs, even if you get swept out by the top seed, is an important threshold that separates good from bad teams. And no one wants to be yoked to a bad team, playing that knife game from Aliens with your teammates in the back of the team plane after you’ve just logged your fiftieth loss of the season and you’re just trying to see if you can still feel—anything—anymore.
The situation in Philadelphia is sad. It’s true that basketball is in the midst of an analytical revolution (despite the best efforts of the now hapless Lakers). But it does not follow that the most slavishly devoted analytical people are in turn the new basketball geniuses. The Spurs are still the Spurs and the Warriors are the champs. The 76ers will stay the 76ers until they adjust their strategy (which is to say, to ask for even a modicum of accountability and on-court performance out of Hinkie). Fleecing the Kings doesn’t mean you’re clever, it just means you’re planning on yet another losing season. Keep poor Okafor away from the knives.