Trust the Process? Measuring Progress During 76ers Risky Rebuild

The Sixers rebuild has come under fire of late. Is the risk too much? Is this the best way to rebuild in the modern NBA?

Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie talks with Joel Embiid before a game last season | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie talks with Joel Embiid before a game last season | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

“The Process”.

There is nothing in Philadelphia sports, and few topics in sports in general, as divisive as Sam Hinkie‘s plan to rebuild the 76ers.

The debate about the Sixers rebuild reached a crescendo this past week thanks in part to a report released by Sports Illustrated which alleged, among other things, that the Sixers rebuilding plan is being jeopardized by Joel Embiid‘s insubordination and that there are members of the Sixers management team that are becoming disillusioned with the process.

The plan has been called everything from being an abomination to a revolution. Its architect, Sam Hinkie, called everything from a fraud to a genius. Some have alleged that he’s constructing either the next great dynasty or running a Ponzi scheme of epic proportions.

In truth, one could argue that it’s little more than the natural evolutionary step in team building made viable, perhaps even necessary, because of rule changes the NBA has made over the last thirty years.

The first premise one has to accept to really support what the Sixers are doing is that the NBA is a league built around superstars. This is also the easiest argument to make.

With only five players on a court, some who play upwards of 40 minutes per game, and only one basketball between them, teams who have truly incredible players tend to prosper.

From Magic and Bird, to Jordan, Hakeem, Shaq, Duncan, and LeBron, the NBA has been dominated by a select few true difference makers over the years. Since the start of the 1990 NBA season, 21 of the 25 championships have been split between six teams: the Bulls (6), Lakers (5), Spurs (5), Heat (3), and Rockets (2).

Look at the list of teams above and the players associated with those teams instantly jump out: Jordan, Shaq, Kobe, Duncan, LeBron, Hakeem.

Take that one step further, because winning a title is such a very narrow lens to define success through, and the top players in the game tend to win games. Thirteen players last season accumulated at least ten win shares, and their teams won, on average, just under 53 games.

Once you’ve arrived at the conclusion that superstars are required to truly compete in the NBA, the next question becomes obvious: how do you acquire such a player?

The answer to that question becomes a little bit murky because superstar players do change teams in both free agency and through trades. LeBron James and Chris Bosh both changed teams recently, as did Chris Paul, Kevin Love, and LaMarcus Aldridge.

But there’s one commonality usually found in these examples: the team acquiring a superstar through free agency or a trade almost always has a superstar on their roster already, and those original superstars are almost always acquired in the draft.

There are numerous, and convoluted, league rules that have made this so.

There’s restricted free agency, which essentially guarantees that a team that drafts a superstar will not lose him in free agency for the first nine years of his career. There’s the fact that teams can go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players, limiting potentially hard decisions that general managers would have to face if they could not. There’s the league limiting how much individual players can make, ensuring that superstars are underpaid, and allowing super teams to be created.

All of these rules have drastic consequences on how teams are built, and none more-so than that last one. Restricting how much individual players can make has a ripple effect on the league. Now, rather than a team like the Sixers opening up their vault to offer a salary that no other team could match, they’re instead playing on a playing field even with a half-dozen teams. At this point, the decision for free agents tends to come down to selecting a destination, and that destination is rated based off of the ability to team up with another star more than it is based on money or location.

It’s a free agency playing field that a team in the position the Sixers were in after the Andrew Bynum trade can’t compete in when trying to attract superstar talent.

The NBA, in contrast to the parity-driven NFL, is a league built for dynasties. Draft a truly great player and enter the realm of the haves rather than the have-nots and the NBA does everything it can to keep you there.

The ability to retain high-level talent, and the ability for destination cities to horde a collection of top talent under the salary cap thanks to the maximum salary restriction, makes these elite-level players an incredibly scarce resource. This deficit of elite talent makes it exceedingly difficult for teams to go from good to great, even if they’ve already successfully gone from bad to good.

The transition from bad to good can happen with a collection of good players, of pieces that fit together, and a coach who can combine all the elements into a cohesive unit. That collection of so-so, overachieving talent can, at times, appear relevant, especially in the watered-down Eastern Conference where the 76ers reside.

The Sixers have experienced that “turnaround” a few times of late, most recently with Doug Collins. After a 27-55 disaster of a season under Eddie Jordan, Collins immediately turned the team around. The Sixers went 41-41 in Collins’ first season, then followed that up with a 35-31 record in the strike-shortened 2011-12 season, advancing to within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals.

But everybody knew what that season was. The Sixers weren’t relevant. The team limped to a 19-25 record down the stretch, which dropped them to an 8th seed in a bad conference. They won a playoff series more because of the misfortune of the Chicago Bulls, who lost both Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to injury, than to their own good play.

While that Sixers team provided a reasonable level of excitement for a team nobody had any real expectations for, few looked at them as being meaningful in the landscape of the NBA. They lacked truly great players, and they lacked any real, concrete way of obtaining them.

That realization, and the desperation that realization caused, led to the disastrous Andrew Bynum trade. Much is made of the risk and uncertainty in the draft, and that is certainly true to an extent. But a team looking to acquire their first superstar through free agency or trade has to make risky decisions as well.

Great, risk-free players don’t change teams in free agency, at least not to teams that aren’t a viable title contender the moment the free agent signs with them. Their previous team, after all, can offer a bigger contract, regardless of their available cap room. And great players who are unhappy being on a losing team aren’t going to be happy with being traded to another losing team who just gave up all their valuable assets in said trade. So risky players with potential, like Andrew Bynum, like Elton Brand, are the options most teams in the Sixers position are left with.

The draft, with its cost-certainty and long-term control, are ever so enticing in this landscape.

In a way, you could almost make the argument that the Sixers are doing everything they can to move this rebuild forward at the fastest pace possible. That statement sounds absurd, but I promise you it’s not intended to be. The difference comes from what you’re looking to as the endpoint.

That transition from, say, 27 wins to 41 wins, is not especially difficult. But it’s a transition that makes many people happy: fans get to watch playoff basketball, owners get increased attendance, and coaches and general managers get to pad their resume with proven improvement and the higher profile that improvement grants them.

Sixers management has instead shoved aside that relative security for as many chances to obtain great players as they could. The lottery balls, the future draft picks acquired from struggling teams, the big man after big man selected because of an undying devotion to selecting the best player available have all been done in name of finding elite talent.

This Sixers rebuild isn’t meant to go directly from terrible to great, despite what some have alleged. A jump from 18 wins last season to 50 is unrealistic. The Sixers will hit that middle ground, and that will be an expected part of the process.

But while the middle ground is an expected stop in any rebuild, it’s not always indicative of sustainable improvement. Just because a team made enough good decisions to improve to passable doesn’t mean they have the bullets in the chamber to make that next step, and frequently, fans, and media, don’t realize that until the team is stalled in the NBA’s version of quick sand.

If anything that improvement from bad to good, without elite level talent, or at least elite level prospects, driving the improvement is the true shell game. It creates warm feelings and job security while obscuring the fact that the deck is stacked against them in their fight to take that next, incredibly difficult step towards greatness.

The Sixers, it seems, are willing to spend three years being terrible if it helps prevent them from spending three years in the quick sand called mediocrity.

The truth is, the players on the roster before a team acquires a superstar player are very rarely around long-term. If you go through and look at all of the teams that won 50 games last season, two things stand out. First, almost all of the teams acquired their first great player through the draft. Second, very few of those teams still have players that preceded said great player on the roster.

The Golden State Warriors? No players that were on the team prior to Curry’s arrival in 2009 celebrated a championship with him last June. Even the Houston Rockets have nobody on their team who has been there since Harden arrived in 2012. Of the 10 teams that won 50 games in 2014-15, they averaged 0.3 players on their roster who have a longer tenure with the team than their first star player.

(*Note: Harden is an interesting deviation from the ‘acquire your first superstar in the draft’ mold. Interesting because Sam Hinkie was part of the Houston front office that methodically built up its treasure trove of assets to acquire Harden, and also interesting because a young superstar-in-waiting becoming available because a tanking team acquired too much top-end talent in too short of a time period to afford them all is an unlikely situation to ever see come up again).

Get a superstar, then use the assets you have to find complimentary superstar(s) to put around them, and don’t get bogged down with average players who cost too much and restrict your flexibility.

None of this is to say that anything is a sure thing. Far from it, in fact. As mentioned above the NBA is a league with rules setup to promote dynasties and create a high barrier to entry for the have-nots. Making a jump in such a league is difficult, no matter the strategy employed. And because the Sixers have willingly deprioritized short-terms gains in their quest to find a franchise player, the most difficult part of any rebuild in the NBA to navigate successfully, they’ve opened themselves up to criticism for every misstep along the way.

Because of this uncertainty there’s a compelling argument that whatever percent chance the Sixers might be improving their odds of getting a great player by, it’s not worth it. For some, any team that isn’t on the path to contending for a title is wasting their time. For others, sports are entertainment, and these horrid seasons are not entertaining. There is no right or wrong way to follow a sports team.

But if we are talking about how to best maximize the chances of building a truly great basketball team in today’s NBA landscape, I think the Sixers approach is a sound one.

So how does one go about rating the Sixers front office, if wins and losses aren’t immediately relevant? Winning and losing is so ingrained in our mindset as sports fans that throwing this to the wind, even if just in the short-term, is counterintuitive. Is it impossible to hold the Sixers accountable because there’s no expectation of winning in the short-term?

The way I look at it is this: are they maximizing their chances to capitalize on luck, and have they missed opportunities to acquire great players?

So far, the Sixers have done a good job of putting themselves in position to capitalize on luck if and when it presents itself. They’ve had no worse than the 3rd most lottery balls in each of the last two drafts, they have a future pick from the Los Angeles Lakers, and pick swaps and a future unprotected first round pick from the Sacramento Kings. The trade of Jrue Holiday for what became Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric, and a future first round pick gave the Sixers three chances to get lucky.

Many would say that luck has not, so far, been on the Sixers side. This is only partially true, as Nerlens Noel has exceeded just about all reasonable expectations, and having a deal in place to capitalize on his inexplicable fall in the draft was certainly a stroke of luck for the Sixers. Still, Joel Embiid’s health is an obvious counter that would drastically change the Sixers’ outlook if it had turned out differently so far.

When you look at the decisions the Sixers have made over the last few years, they haven’t really passed on much. Sure, Joel Embiid hasn’t worked out to date, and he certainly doesn’t have the highest chance of being a contributor, but until somebody drafted after him truly looks to have franchise level talent, Embiid was still the pick to make. As of now, drafting Embiid hasn’t cost them the opportunity to draft a franchise player. The same could be argued with Dario Saric and Jahlil Okafor.

If this Sixers rebuild continues with no end in sight, they will have missed on an opportunity, or even multiple opportunities, to acquire a franchise player, and they can and should be held accountable for that. Until then, it’s hard to say The Plan has been the wrong course of action to take. Instead, all that’s really been proven is that building something truly meaningful in the NBA is difficult.