By this point Tuesday night, hundreds upon thousands of Philadelphia 76ers fans will have had their evening made or ruined by a random drawing of ping-pong balls. Due to its publicized nature and controversial tactics as far as positioning for the draft, the NBA has allowed its random lottery system to expose what some might consider a watered down version of the game. Perhaps this past season more than any other, the efforts of a handful of teams to increase their chances of securing a high selection in the 2014 Draft brought upon intense criticism and historic futility. With a draft class the likes of which the league hasn’t seen in roughly a decade, from a talent standpoint that is; many organizations, including the 76ers, made almost no effort to disguise their intentions of jockeying for position. Now, with the regular season in the rear-view mirror and one of the more difficult-to-swallow sports seasons in Philadelphia (though the last two Phillies seasons have been pretty bleak), the 76ers organization and fanbase find themselves victim to a process that is supposedly as random as they come in the increasingly scientific world of professional sports.
The 76ers ‘tank’ job is by no means a new thing in the world of the NBA. The 2007 Celtics supposedly were doing so to better position themselves to select Kevin Durant or Greg Oden in the season before the assembly of Boston’s Big Three. Even a figure like Bryan Colangelo, who collected multiple executive of the year awards, admitted to ‘tanking’ in his time with the Toronto Raptors.
Former GM Bryan Colangelo: “Admittedly, I will say I tried to tank a few years ago.”
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) February 28, 2014
Though no front office executive would ever admit to partaking in such a practice in tenure, that does not stop them from exposing their intentions for the entire basketball world to see. Prior to the start of the season, and arguably during the 2013-2014 campaign, most looked at what GM Sam Hinkie and the 76ers were doing as the most blatant display of tanking out of the bunch. Though the franchise was unsuccessful in finishing the season with the worst record, that will not stop many from painting the 76ers organization as the 2014 ‘Poster Child’ for the ‘tanking’ movement. In today’s world of social media, front office and fan interaction, and the mere fact that the 76ers are a team from Philadelphia; the results of Tuesday night’s lottery will either be met with jubilant celebration or spiteful frustration from the better part of its viewing audience. I’ll give you a hint: however 76ers fans feel will probably be the opposite of how the rest of the world does.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
It’s remarkable as a 76ers fans to flashback to two years ago and think of just where the organization has gone since then. Two years back, Doug Collins and the pesky 76ers had taken the Boston Celtics to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Semifinals before bowing out. Jrue Holiday had the look of a young point guard poised for superstardom, Evan Turner looked to have the makings of a non-bust secondary scoring option, young players like Lavoy Allen and Nikola Vucevic appeared to have a future in the league, and the team had shown it could win and hang with some of the Eastern Conference’s heavyweights. What has happened in the time since the start of the 2012 offseason to now is more than what most organizations go through in a decade.
The team traded away Andre Iguodala in a deal that brought in perhaps the most toxic figure in Philadelphia sports of this decade: Andrew Bynum. Veteran Elton Brand was bought out of his contract and the construction of the team was geared towards Collins’ whim. Everything was being built around the notion that Bynum would suit up and eventually star for a young 76ers team in a position to make the next step. Shooters like Nick Young, Jason Richardson, and Dorell Wright were brought in. Even an old Collins favorite, Kwame Brown, was added to a roster with aspirations of challenging the norm in a conference dominated by the Heat. The fever pitch surrounding the team upon Bynum’s arrival and party-like introduction at Independence Hall built a buzz about the 76ers not seen in the city since the early 2000s. Little did the droves of blissful fans know that they were about to endure one of the most taxing, fiasco-ridden seasons the league has seen in some time.
I don’t need to repeat the dirty details, so a quick recap. Bynum never plays, Kwame Brown is still Kwame Brown, Doug Collins starts mailing it in, Evan Turner fails to progress, and Nick ‘Swaggy P’ Young’s antics become the most entertaining aspect of the team. The 76ers missed the playoffs in embarrassing fashion and a regime that entered with so much enthusiasm and promise all of a sudden saw their shortsighted strategies imploding on top of them.
The term ‘scorched earth’ didn’t really do justice to the cleansing of the 76ers brain trust. Collins was out, Tony DiLeo was out, Adam Aron was out, and Bynum would clearly never be setting foot on the court wearing 76ers colors. The way back to the top in the NBA is to either hit rock bottom or get lucky trying to do so. Unfortunately, Philadelphia was a franchise just one year removed from winning a playoff series. Despite having negligible talent compared to some of the top teams in the conference, the 76ers were already in the process of putting together a young roster in hopes of contending with homegrown talent. Even without Bynum, the Sixers were too competitive to bottom out and too mediocre to attract elite talent. What was required of the 76ers was a purging the likes of which went everything against what had entrenched them in the malaise that is the NBA’s ‘middle class’. To do so, they needed someone smart enough to realize the steps necessary to expedite a rebuild and the guts to stand in front of dozens of media members and millions of fans and back up why they took those steps. For that job, the 76ers tabbed Sam Hinkie out of the Houston Rockets organization.
A disciple of Houston GM Daryl Morey, Hinkie was one of a wave of front office minds placing an emphasis on analytics over some of the old-school methods of constructing teams. In addition to being named general manager, Hinkie was also given the title of Team President in place of the exiting Rod Thorn. Hinkie was given the keys to a ship that was going nowhere fast. Rather than staying the course and gussying it up with a new paint job, Hinkie decided to lay siege to his newly acquired franchise and send the destination-less 76ers to the depths. If the 76ers were going to do things Hinkie’s way, they would have to get in the mindset that they were building a vessel that could steamroll past the rest of the pretenders and get to where the Heats, Spurs, and Thunder of the world had already arrived. What followed was a spectacle to observe.
For more than a decade, the NBA Draft had become almost meaningless to a 76ers fan. They were able to land Andre Iguodala in an offseason that saw them in the middle of the lottery, but there was very little to get excited for most years. Even the season where the 76ers held the worst record, they were forced to take Evan Turner 2nd overall after having the Washington Wizards leapfrog them for 1st overall pick John wall. Since the turn of the millennium, the NBA Draft either brought upon anger or more apathy from an increasingly numb 76ers fanbase. Thursday, June 27 2013, that changed in a big way.
I can still remember sitting through the early portions of the draft and wondering how an organization as lucky as the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had received their third 1st overall selection in a decade, could be so stupid by drafting Anthony Bennett first overall. Understanding that perhaps the most promising prospects, Nerlens Noel and Alex Len, were recovering from injuries did little to justify the move. There’s a reason the Cavaliers are one of the most miserable franchises in sports. This just happened to be an instance of that absurdity.
I was happy to see Noel get selected after painfully watching him fall to the 6th overall pick in the ‘Green Room’ for the NBA Draft. Alongside Anthony Davis in New Orleans, Noel looked primed to make up half of the league’s premiere shot-blocking tandem for the next decade. Out of the bunch, I had limited myself to Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum as a player I’d be ‘happy’ with the 76ers taking 11th overall. Otherwise, I really didn’t care about the pick. Then Hinkie fired his first bullet, and it was a big one.
Source confirms @WojYahooNBA report that the 76ers will trade Jrue Holiday/2014 first to NO for Nerlens Noel. NO also gets 11th pick.
— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) June 28, 2013
Several outlets initially misreported on the details of the trade, including Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports who initially broke the news. When the dust settled, the 76ers had traded Holiday to the Pelicans for Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected pick in the 2014 Draft. Though it took some of the less aware basketball fans to figure out the magnitude of the deal right away, the roller coaster of emotions was one for the ages. The initial response of shock and anger of the team dealing away their franchise point guard gave way to confusion rather quickly. It took a level of reasoning and secondary thought to dissect what was going through the minds of Hinkie and the rest of the powers at be pulling the strings on draft night for the 76ers. In one fell swoop, the 76ers had gone from a team with one player who could probably start on a championship team surrounded by sub-standard talent to a full rebuild with the type of flexibility necessary to reconstruct a do-over like the 76ers had become. After taking Michael Carter-Williams with their 11th overall selection and shuffling in and out of their subsequent picks over the remainder of the night, Hinkie had given the fanbase something that was missing for over a decade: direction.
Next item in order for Philadelphia was finding a coach. After a painstaking interview process, the franchise plucked a gem out of the San Antonio Spurs cabinet. Brett Brown, who had served alongside future Hall of Famer Gregg Popovich, would ultimately agree to take on the arduous task of coaching the 76ers. Even supposedly shrugging off warnings from various associates around the league, Brown agreed to a four-year deal to become the team’s eight head coach since the days of Larry Brown. With his background in player development and a world-class knowledge of the game on both the domestic and international level, Brown looked to be an ideal fit to head up a truly titanic rebuilding effort.
With the draft and a pair of young franchise cornerstones under his belt, not to mention the tantalizing prospects of having two lottery selections in the loaded 2014 Draft, Hinkie’s focus shifted towards taking the old ship apart piece by piece. The names on the chopping block: Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, and Thaddeus Young. Three vestiges of the old 76ers regime that tried using smoke and mirrors to generate excitement served as a major hurdle for Hinkie to address before he could continue working towards his ultimate goal.
It was not easy enough to just give the aforementioned players away. With their value at an unmovable low, the 76ers would have to generate some level of interest in his players. Though it may have ended up costing them the worst record in the NBA looking back on it, a surprising start to the season spearheaded by the efforts of eventual Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams may have helped the process. Make no mistake, there was little chance the 76ers would be able to turn one of Turner or Hawes into a first round pick. Young was a longshot at-best and with the draft being touted as much as it was, the pipe dream of landing a 3rd potential 1st round pick fizzled out rather quickly. Nevertheless, the trade deadline arrived and Hinkie was able to move Hawes and Turner to the Cavaliers and Pacers respectively. They also traded away LaVoy Allen and, when it was all said and done, had brought back a rather humorous return. From the perspective that most relates to Tuesday night, the 76ers essentially got a whole lot more 2nd round picks and got rid of two players who were depended upon to compete every night. Ultimately, the 76ers were unable to move Thaddeus Young. There are still some who question Thad’s future on the team, but as of Monday night he remains on the roster.
After putting what seemed like 50 players through ‘audition’ contracts with the team and sifting through any talent that the organization deemed fit for the NBA level, the 2013-2014 season mercifully came to an end. When the final take was tallied, the 76ers came out with a Rookie of the Year, a healthy and hungry Nerlens Noel, nearly $30 million in cap space, and potentially seven selections in Tuesday’s draft. Even retaining Thad Young and not finishing with the worst record, Hinkie has to look at that haul and feel pretty good about himself. He knows, more than any of us fans or analysts, that not ending up with a favorable combination of selections that are at the mercy of the lottery will make all of his maneuvering almost meaningless.
No team in the NBA Lottery has more on the line than the 76ers do, in my opinion. What makes all of the franchise’s maneuvering and reshaping so fascinating is that, were the timing different in terms of the incoming talent of this year’s draft class, things could be entirely different. Mostly due to the way the league is dominated by superstars, each offseason can take on a distinctly different shape. Some years, such as before 2010-2011, free agency is the biggest storyline and those teams who created as much cap space as possible are thrust into the spotlight. Other years, such as 2014, are more focused on the draft and trying to find a handful of players who can help usher in a new generation of superstars to replenish the old. The timing of the situation that the 76ers find themselves in is what makes Hinkie’s gamble a potentially franchise-altering one. If things work out as well as possible Tuesday night, which would mean the 76ers ended up with the 1st and 10th overall picks, the hype surrounding the team will challenge the Eagles for supremacy in the city. Should things shake out more unfavorably for the 76ers, such as ending up with the 5th and 12th overall selections, and there will undoubtedly be disappointment. That’s not to say that the 76ers won’t be able to bring in a pair of impressive young talents and continue building a team that could contend for a title in the coming years. It is just difficult to imagine a fanbase satisfied with bottoming out on both of their potential lottery picks. There is also still the remote chance that the Pelicans can jump back up into the top-five and defer the trade of their selection another year. It is difficult to entertain the possibility of this happening, so it would probably be best to just tell you to use your imagination.
Everything that the 76ers have done, from the front office to the final man on the roster, has been done with a gambler’s mentality. Every variable in play is working toward the 76ers garnering the most favorable return possible. Obviously the balls have to fall their way to a certain extent, but given the quality of the draft class, the youth on the roster, and even the apparent direction of the Eastern Conference; one would have to think that in 24 hours the 76ers could have the most extensive wealth of resources of any organization in the NBA outside of a small handful of teams.
The analytical approach that defines Sam Hinkie along with a rising wave of NBA executives is entirely encapsulated in his methods for trying to build a winner. For almost a year now, the team’s upper management has controlled everything that it is capable of to try to land the biggest take that any other team can in the 2014 Draft. They are the only team that can have two lottery picks, they have seven 2nd round picks, and enough cap room to sign two maximum deals. Hinkie knew he would need a team that stunk and, almost every night of the season, the 76ers were clearly outmatched and had little business taking the floor. There are some that might frown upon such an approach, but it is the only way the 76ers were going to even begin to think about contending for a title. After controlling every conceivable variable for nearly 12 months now, Hinkie and his team of executives will sit on their hands and allow two ping-pong balls dictate the effectiveness of their gamble. I imagine as the rest of us sweat what seems to be the pending Philadelphia disaster, Sam Hinkie already has a dozen contingency plans in place to manage his losses and move forward with the same goal in mind. Glad he’s the one calling the shots while I’m cursing the television for an hour.