In Dec. 2015, I wrote a column criticizing how blatantly the Philadelphia 76ers were tanking under general manager Sam Hinkie that also questioned the long-term ramifications of an NBA franchise committing to put out such a disastrous on-court product for several consecutive years.
That piece was called “Someone stop Sam Hinkie,” and a few months later, someone did – Hinkie stepped down after Philadelphia hired Jerry and Bryan Colangelo to join the front office and assume many of Hinkie’s responsibilities. Unwilling to surrender even more power, Hinkie chose to quit about half a year before his process bore its first tangible fruit.
That was Joel Embiid, and to a lesser extent Dario Saric, both selected by Philadelphia in the 2014 NBA Draft before finally making their debuts in the 2016-17 season. Embiid, an immensely talented center from Cameroon, finally recovered from a lasting foot injury, while Saric finished his EuroLeague contract and headed stateside.
While Philadelphia began the season by heading right for their usual spot at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, compiling an 8-24 record by New Year’s Day, both players had immediate impacts, with Embiid drawing praise as a game-changing big man with the potential to become one of the league’s most dominant players.
Everything peaked in January, when the Sixers won nine of 11 games. Embiid scored 20-plus points each night with excellent rim protection and legitimate 3-point range to boot.
Embiid suffered a knee injury towards the end of that run that sent him back to the bench. Although he returned Jan. 27 to drop 32 points in a loss to Houston, he re-injured that knee. Monday, Philadelphia listed his playing status as out indefinitely.
After that brief burst of excitement, the Sixers find themselves back in the same place where they started and they always seem to be – waiting desperately for their hyped prospects to heal and make an on-court impact. This past draft, they added LSU product Ben Simmons, who promptly rolled his ankle in training camp and was eventually ruled out for the entire season.
No one deserves blame for Simmons’ injury, but it represents an instance that pushed the Sixers’ timeline for contention back. Again and again, Hinkie would trade proven players for future draft picks, with Jrue Holiday and Michael Carter-Williams standing as two such examples, keeping Philadelphia putrid and fans waiting.
His plan, conceivably, was to acquire a superstar and his ferocious tanking gave him two avenues to accomplishing that: with a very high draft pick, or in a trade for a busload of assets. The first avenue has provided Embiid and Simmons, both of who have the potential to become superstars, but have already dealt with foot injuries. NBA history has told us foot injuries bode very, very poorly for the future of big men.
Again, the Simmons injury came after the Sixers drafted him last year and he was a better choice than taking Brandon Ingram, who went No. 2 to the Lakers. However Embiid had foot surgery before the 2014 draft and Hinkie still grabbed him at No. 3. Taking his talent and potential looked like the right move considering the players left on the board but you assume that risk when you make that pick.
In that scenario, you need insurance, right? Hinkie, to his credit, made that happen, acquiring centers Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor in the 2013 and 2015 drafts, respectively. But Colangelo destroyed some of that progress last week at the trade deadline by flipping Noel, clearly the more impactful of the two, to Dallas for some loose assets.
Guess what? Those assets will go right back into the pile with the rest; some long-shot developmental players, some fragile objects and an unnecessary surplus of second-round picks. If Colangelo and Philadelphia think their supposed treasure trove can eventually nab a superstar in a trade, they’ve made the mistake of thinking that every NBA general manager answers to Vivek Ranadivé. Just ask Danny Ainge how much it took to nab Jimmy Butler or Paul George and you’ll get a much more realistic valuation of NBA talent on today’s trade market.
No, I’m not a fan of “The Process,” or quite frankly, any level of committed tanking. I think it gives your organization a bad name, drives fans away and hurts the competitive level of the league. Yes, Saric has been good and if Embiid finally finds sustained health, he will be incredible, but would you bet on that?
I wouldn’t. The Sixers turned in three consecutive horrendous seasons (19 wins, 18 wins, 10 wins) before this one and they probably have a few more left in them. It’s all by their own accord and it’s because of the example Hinkie set. If his “Process” involved tanking the franchise, it’s working.