Over the last two months – ever since the surprise announcement on December 8th that Jerry Colangelo would be joining the Sixers’ front office – every move, every statement, concerning the team has been scrutinized with a fine-toothed comb to try to ascertain what it means.
Has the Sixers’ timeline changed? Will the plan be radically altered? Who, really, is in charge?
Sure, you could read into a trade deadline largely characterized by inactivity and try to decipher what it means. The lack of activity is certainly different from years past, even if the move that was almost made – renting out their cap space, or, at least, trying to, before the trade was voided, in order to pick up a future second round draft pick – was eerily similar to the way the team has used cap space in the past.
With the lack of tangible activity the focus then shifts to what has been said about the deadline. Specifically, to what president and general manager Sam Hinkie said during his day after press conference.
“I don’t think you’ll see a huge change in our mindset about what really matters,” Hinkie said. “The draft, [and] free agency is littered with mistakes of short-sighted thinking. If we try to rail against anything, it’s that.
“I often say this in our meetings, ‘If I’m not thinking about the future, who is?’ Whose job is that to think about what happens in 12 months, or 36 months, or, god forbid 60 months?” Hinkie continued. “If it’s not me, tell me who that person is around here to do it?”
The addition of Jerry Colangelo to the front office, regardless of context, has a very real chance to ignite a spark underneath the current regime. Add in the specific circumstances surrounding Colangelo’s addition – in the middle of the season, with the team sporting a 1-22 record and its high-profile star on the front page of TMZ with alarming regularity – and few would fault Hinkie if his focus did shift to the immediate future. Self-preservation is a pretty powerful motivator.
And having somebody like Colangelo there to whisper in Sam Hinkie’s ear to remind him about the present is useful, perhaps even necessary. But too much of a shift in focus to the present, the type of shift that happens when a general manager fears for his job security, can have drastic consequences.
“I’m not going to sit here and say we’ll wait for the future because the future is not promised to anybody,” former Nets general manager Billy King told the NY Daily News back in 2011. “I’ve been in the situation where we have a three-year plan, a four-year plan. Sometimes you’re not there to finish it out.”
That situation King was referring to was, of course, his previous stint in Philadelphia. King and the Sixers traded away franchise icon Allen Iverson in December of 2006. King, who thought he had time to rebuild the team in his image, was fired almost exactly one year later.
Whether or not King deserved time to see his rebuild through is not the point, as I think everybody could point to the many missteps made by King during his tenure here.
The impact that firing had on King’s mindset, and that undercurrent of fear it left him with when he took the job in Brooklyn, was evident even without his own direct admission, as King made a series of disastrous, short-sighted decisions upon taking over the reigns of the then-New Jersey Nets in 2010.
Some of the names of the players King traded away, or the players eventually selected with the draft picks that King so readily gave away, is staggering: King traded away Derrick Favors, then traded away the draft picks which eventually became Damian Lillard, Enes Kanter, Gorgui Dieng, and Draymond Green.
And that’s not even including the outstanding picks, which includes the Nets owing the Celtics their first round draft pick, unprotected, in both the 2016 and 2018 drafts, and the right to swap first round picks, as decided by the Celtics, in 2017.
The Nets, just five years to the day after that overhaul started, only have the shadow of Joe Johnson left to show for that mass-exodus of talent.
Some of the moves, specifically the Deron Williams acquisition, were defensible, despite their high cost. Some of them, such as trading away the pick that became the right to Draymond Green, not entirely his fault. All King really traded away was the 35th pick in a future draft. It doesn’t make the expected value any higher just because the Warriors used it so expertly.
But some of them, such as trading the pick that, in just a few months time, would become Damian Lillard for an aging Gerald Wallace, were horribly short-sighted. Others, such as the acquisition of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were such a drastic overpay that they were questioned immediately, even as the acquisitions gave King (very) short-lived job security as he built the most fleeting “contender” in recent memory.
The NBA is littered with such cautionary tales, including the Phoenix Suns, who were prepared to tank the 2013-14 season until Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, and the crew unexpectedly led them to 48 wins, thus changing their rebuilding strategy on the fly. Two years later and the Suns are 14-43 and in complete disarray.
A similar short-lived dalliance with relevancy came to the Milwaukee Bucks, who hoped to build on their top-5 defense with the addition of Greg Monroe in free agency to create a long-term contender. Instead, the Bucks are sitting at 24-33 and unsure of the next step to take. The $50 million Monroe has already been rumored to be available in trades, as has last year’s prized trade deadline acquisition, Michael Carter-Williams. While the Bucks clearly have youth on their side, taking that next meaningful step a more difficult proposition than most expected.
Building truly sustainable success requires the foundational pieces the Sixers are pursuing at all costs. It’s not that wins by themselves are bad, it’s that wins can cover up the strength or weakness of the foundation in place. It’s why wins are not the only, or even primary, measuring stick at this stage. Wins, absent of transcendent talent, has a tendency to be short-lived in this NBA landscape.
“I think that’s the goal. I think that the goal of the whole operation is how do you put all the building blocks in place so someday you can have a parade on Broad Street? Or a few?” Hinkie said at the press conference.
Perhaps no part of the Sixers’ rebuild exemplifies this better than the Sixers’ draft strategy. Nerlens Noel‘s very-temporary torn anterior cruciate ligament caused five teams to pass on him in the 2013 NBA draft, an amazing example of how much immediacy is overvalued when you consider Noel was passed over for the likes of prospects such as Anthony Bennett, Cody Zeller, and Alex Len. The Sixers were more than willing to take the hit in year one considering the gain they’d be getting in year’s two-through-eight.
The Sixers doubled (and tripled) down on this philosophy in the 2014 draft, as neither Joel Embiid or Dario Saric have played a minute for the Sixers in the two years since being selected. For one of these players (Saric), this was planned. For the other (Embiid), it was not.
Much of the animosity towards the Sixers could be boiled down to the outcome of this draft. If Embiid were playing, and if the fan base were confident in his long-term health, the fruits of this rebuild would be readily evident to even the staunchest critics of the plan. That much should be self-evident.
If there were ever a part of Hinkie’s decision-making that, if he were to feel the pressure of job security, he might question, it would be this decision. The decision to delay the return on the 2014 draft so far into the future that he may not be around to see it pay off.
In that respect, Hinkie seems to carry no regrets.
“I’d like to think we would still take long views,” Hinkie said, when asked whether he would make a similar decision this year to the one he made with Dario Saric in 2014. “There are many stories, from David Robinson in San Antonio and his military commitment, to Roger Staubach, to Larry Bird and the like that just because something isn’t readily available to you at that moment doesn’t mean it’s not right to acquire it.
“I can tell you how I’d vote,” Hinkie concluded, when talking about making a Dario Saric-like decision in 2016.
That last statement is the one that can be read into, an almost tacit admission that the decision-making process might be less streamlined than it had been in years past.
Still, at least for Sam Hinkie, however much sway he may still have inside the Sixers front office, fans know that his mindset has not changed. Whether that patience is either the Sixers’ greatest competitive advantage or the biggest reason they are an embarrassment to the sport changes from fan to fan, and from media member to media member.
I can tell you how I’d vote.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.