I was at the last playoff win for the Philadelphia 76ers. Maybe ever.
It was a sunny day in late May 2012. The girlfriend and I drove from Brooklyn down to Philly to see what I was confident was the team's last game of the season. After all, the only reason the eighth-seeded Sixers were able to con their way past the No. 1-seeded Bulls was because the old gypsy woman's curse on Derrick Rose's knee had finally gone into effect. The Boston Celtics, the Sixers' next opponent, had already proven they weren't the same easy out.
As we got to our seats, we found that four of our good friends just by chance happened to be seated behind us. Over the course of the next three hours or so, the six of us would have one of the most satisfying live sports experiences of our lives. The game started with Sixers legend Allen Iverson pumping up the crowd at mid court and ended with confetti and the funkiest team song in the NBA. The rag-tag combo of Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Lou Williams, and an ancient Elton Brand held off the superior Celtics team to force a Game Seven in Boston. It was lit.
Still, if you asked me back then or even now looking back through the alluring fog of nostalgia if I would rather accept supporting that kind of team long-term or blow it up and stink for several years for simply the chance at landing a superstar, I would choose the latter without hesitation. Every time.
Why? Why would a fan who just watched his favorite team force a Game Seven against a rival in dramatic fashion throw a competitive team away for years of losing and agony? Because "competitive" teams don't win championships, GREAT teams do. And when you've a fan from Philadelphia—a town that's been overshadowed for decades by the success, influence, and power of neighboring cities like New York, Boston, and Washington D.C.—your inherent inferiority complex probably makes you much hungrier for a legitimate championship contender than a more dialed-back fan just looking to see some quality hoops.
On December 7, Philadelphia 76ers majority owner Josh Harris called a surprise press conference announcing that the team was hiring 76-year-old USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo as their Chairman of Basketball Operations. To say this was a shock would be a gross understatement. The man to the far left of Colangelo at the press conference, controversial General Manager Sam Hinkie, had been in charge of all Sixers roster moves since 2013. Josh Harris— who looks like the type of billionaire who knows as much about dressage competitions as he does basketball—would go on to explain that while GM Sam Hinkie would still be keeping his job, the team was "always looking to add world-class talent" and that Colangelo would assist Hinkie and the rest of the team going forward. But, regardless of how careful Harris, Colangelo, and Hinkie were with their language, the overall message was clear: Change gon' come.
Change is an everyday part of life in the NBA. What is not as common, though, is change that's literally forced upon a franchise by other NBA owners and the league's own commissioner, which is what happened in this case. Adam Silver along with any number of anonymous owners reportedly colluded to force Sixers owner Josh Harris to put pressure on his own GM.
Needless to say, Sam Hinkie is not a popular man among his peers. Or with most basketball-minded people outside of Philadelphia, really. His plan—dubbed "The Process™" by Spike Eskin and Michael Levin on the Rights To Ricky Sanchez Sixers podcast—to rebuild the Sixers slowly through the draft has left him as one of the most disliked executives in the NBA, since building a team this way involves a lot of shrewd dealings, jettisoning veteran players, and, oh yeah, losing. Lots and lots of losing. For example, Philadelphia has started the last two seasons on 0-17 losing streaks.
“It’s a process. Everyone wants instant oatmeal, but it’s always a process. Put the time in. Build things from the ground up." -LeBron— Eric Musselman (@EricPMusselman) November 3, 2015
But for The Process™ to work, the team needs to lose. Losing increases a team's chance at landing one of the top picks in the NBA Draft, and by trading away average players for picks, using the cap space saved on veterans to take on other teams' bad contracts in exchange for picks, and any number of other asset-hoarding strategies, Sam Hinkie had figured out a way to turn a mediocre team into a bad team and then (hopefully) into a legitimate championship contender. Just as he helped the Houston Rockets position themselves to trade for superstar shooting guard James Harden when the bearded lefty was made available by Oklahoma City, Hinkie's plan was to wiggle his way into landing a big fish. By any means.
On paper, Hinkie's plan seems to make sense. To win an NBA title you need a superstar player. Without a superstar, you don't have a legitimate chance of winning the Larry O'Brien trophy. Look at the list of the last NBA Champions. Since 1995, it can be said that the only team to win a title without a superstar-type player were the Detroit Pistons in 2004.
Hinkie also realized that the worst place to be in the NBA wasn't at the bottom of the standings, but rather the middle. Teams in the middle aren't bad enough to land a top franchise-altering player and aren't good enough to compete at a championship level. Look at Philadelphia's previous playoff seedings in the years prior to Sam Hinkie taking over:
Now look at the playoff seeds of the last 20+ years of NBA champions. Only once since '95 had a team won a title with a playoff position worse than the No. 3 seed (Houston Rockets).
He saw that being in the middle did not mean you were on your way to the top, and decided to tank his team's next few seasons by filling the roster with young low-risk, high-reward (read: D-League) players he could sift through in search of a few diamonds to keep for when the team was actually ready to contend. The players would never throw a game or lose on purpose, but on most nights, regardless of how hard they hustled or what plays they ran, they simply did not have the talent to compete with the rest of the league.
Hinkie's plan was never to stink forever, to continually "kick the can" in an attempt to keep his job forever, or to lose every season until they stumbled upon the next LeBron James in the draft. It was to accumulate assets and put the team in a position to pounce should a superstar become available. Not every team could afford this type of patience, but with a new ownership group Philadelphia knew they could. As LeBron James said himself earlier this year in regards the Sixers, "Everyone wants instant oatmeal, but it's always a process."
That Process, so far, as seen Hinkie take a team with few assets (Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner) and in three years stockpile two potential high 2016 lottery picks, two additional 2016 first round picks, a pick swap with the struggling Sacramento Kings, 2013 No. 6 overall pick Nerlens Noel, 2014 No. 3 overall pick Joel Embiid (¯\_(ツ)_/¯), 2014 No. 8 overall pick Nik Stauskas, 2014 No. 12 overall Dario Saric (who makes his American debut next season), 2015 No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor, and about infinity second round picks.
Still—whether purposeful or only sorta-purposeful—the team remains awful.
Hinkie's calculator brain and stereotype of being a cold, analytically-driven outsider didn't help his perception in the NBA executive community, but it was his public frankness about accepting years of losing that turned the media and the rest of the league against him.
Professional sports are filled with any number of unwritten rules. Baseball players aren't supposed to flip their bats after home runs. Football teams don't rush the quarterback when the other team is kneeling. Basketball players don't shoot during that last possession when their team is already up big. None of these things are printed in any rule books, but casual fans know them all to be true.
Tanking wasn't invented in Philadelphia in 2013.
Tanking wasn't invented in Philadelphia in 2013. Professional sports teams have been tanking since forever. All it takes is a quick Google search to find multiple lists dedicated to the worst tank jobs in NBA history. The difference with the Sixers is that most tanking teams are usually polite enough to pay lip service to the fans and media saying they're doing otherwise. Sam Hinkie broke an unwritten rule the moment he sat in front of reporters and told them the truth about his plan to lose for several years. And regardless of there being dozens upon dozens of examples of other teams tanking to improve their chances down the road, nobody in league history had been this blunt about it.
And while Sam Hinkie may have thought his honesty about the team's long-term plan would be met with appreciation or seen as refreshing, the real result was the backlash of many opposing fans and media members who otherwise wouldn't have paid an ounce of attention to the lowly Philadelphia basketball team.
Sam Hinkie and the Sixers have been called everything from flat-out "stupid" to a "disgrace to Philadelphia." Even one of the most progressive voices in sports today, the Gawker-owned Deadspin blog, has dedicated more than it's share of articles cutting down the Sixers and anyone who aligns themselves with the team. Zach Lowe of ESPN may have put it best:
The easiest thing to do in the NBA right now is find someone, usually an agent or an executive from another team, ready with anonymous rip job of Philly. Wave your hand inside any NBA arena, and you'll smack someone eager to slam Philly for violating the competitive ethos of sport
But why? Do we not want honesty from our sports executives? And even if you prefer the term "shameless" to "honest" when describing Hinkie, something has to be said for how rabidly the American sports media has attacked him and the team he represents.
Which is not to say there aren't parties who shouldn't be upset with the Sixers. Their plan of shunning veterans for cheaper, younger options should be met with distaste from NBA vets as well as their agents. THEY have legitimate grounds to dislike the Sixers, since the team is actively working to keep money out of their hands. But, at this point, the ongoing venom from media members and league suits often borders on bullying and no longer fits the crime of using logic and a flawed system to get better. Especially when teams had the opportunity just last year to fix the draft system to discourage tanking and voted against it.
Maybe the hatred is based on economics. According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst (who first broke the news of the owners/Adam Silver working together to put pressure on Hinkie):
"Owners routinely complained about the economic drag the 76ers were inflicting on the league as the revenues of one of the largest-market teams -- a franchise expected to contribute more robustly to league revenue-sharing -- sagged. For many teams, games featuring the starless and woeful 76ers as the visiting team have been the lowest-attended of the season, sources said."
At face value this argument seems to make sense, but when you check the actual figures it becomes clear that this alone can't be the issue. While there's some validity to saying a market like Philadelphia's should be contributing more to the overall pool of money, the league also increased it's revenue from $3.68 billion in 2011-12 to $4.79 billion in 2013-14, and presumably even more recently. Additionally, per the new collective bargaining agreement set in place in 2011, these complaining owners also saw their percentage of the overall revenue pie increase from 43 percent to 48.85 percent. Meaning that if you were an NBA owner in 2014 (and all shared earnings were flat), you were looking to earn approximately $27 million more than you did in 2011. Oh, and about hurting other teams' attendance? Even with ticket sales being an inaccurate indicator of revenue due to a healthy percentage of tickets being sold as part of teams' season packages, of the 28 NBA clubs, the Sixers road-visitor attendance percentage is 17th this season. And they were 21st last year and 15th the year before.
Hardly alarming enough to provoke such an unprecedented response.
And while the sporting world laughs at the perceived misfortune of Sam Hinkie in the wake of Jerry Colangelo's hiring, there's little effort to point fingers at the other organizations in the NBA who took similar measures. The Golden State Warriors were bad for years even after drafting current MVP Steph Curry in 2009 and all-star Klay Thompson the following year. How'd they get over the hump? They "shamelessly tanked" their 2011-12 season en route to drafting Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes. The Timberwolves tanked as recently as last year, and would still be mired in the dumps if one of their few assets (Kevin Love) wasn't coveted by the most powerful force in the game (LeBron James). The Spurs—then one of the best teams in the world—are rumored to have milked David Robinson's injury for longer than necessary in 1997 in order to tank for Tim Duncan. Cleveland—a team that prior to LeBron's return approved a string bad moves in a failed attempt to make the playoffs—was later rewarded with their third No. 1 overall pick in four years. Their front office would later blow that pick on Anthony Bennett. After that, they were lucky to be rescued by the best player in a generation. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, they don't have a LeBron James to instantly make multiple bad choices seem like savvy long-term planning.
The phenomenon of tanking is decades old. The only thing new was the Sixers' openness about their intentions.
Where's the backlash for how the Sacramento Kings and Brooklyn Nets have fundamentally crippled their own franchises for years to come with rash moves and poor planning?
Expediting Hinkie's downfall was his relative radio silence. He's not necessarily bad at PR, as whenever he speaks he's eloquent and surprisingly good at selling his Process to non-believers. He was just never available, which allowed (and still allows) media to land blows without fear of any counter-punches. Supporters have said he stays quiet to avoid saying anything that could later hurt him in trade negotiations, but in hindsight the silence hurt him far more. That lack of availability and unnecessary secrecy also ushered in animosity from local reporters (hey Marcus Hayes and Howard Eskin!), which also may play a part in why there's a generational divide among Philly fans when it comes to the Sixers. Older fans tend to have more of a negative view of what the Sixers are doing, but they also tend to be the demographic more likely to read an actual newspaper. On the other end, the outlets where younger fans get their info—Twitter, Reddit, podcasts, etc.—tend to be more accepting of The Process.
So much of it seems to be based on perception. The Lakers are currently tanking as hard as anyone, but without much of the same vitriol. The Sixers are universally hated, but the Lakers can bench promising rookies, keep a failing Byron Scott employed, and allow the corpse of Kobe Bryant to launch 15+ three-pointers from YOLO range in an effort to lose enough games keep their pick (if L.A.'s pick falls to 4 or lower, it goes to Philadelphia)? Where's the backlash for their tanking? Where's the backlash for how the Sacramento Kings and Brooklyn Nets (a team with a worse home attendance record than the Sixers) have fundamentally crippled their own franchises for years to come with rash moves and poor planning?
Personal feelings towards Sam Hinkie's flagrant abuse of the NBA lottery system shouldn't directly impact the team the way it did with the forced Colangelo hiring. The league shouldn't conspire against a franchise for doing what many have done before. If Hinkie simply lied about working hard to build the right team or used cliches to appease fans and critics, there's a chance he'd still be able to comfortably sit in his office without looking over his shoulder.
Is it bad when a team in the third year of a rebuild starts it's second-consecutive season with at least 17-straight losses? Of course. Is it bad when Joel Embiid is not wearing his walking boot and gargling pitchers of Shirley Temples? Of course. Is it bad when your No. 3 overall pick is street fighting drunk Bostonians on TMZ? Of course. But is it worth unrelentingly kicking perhaps the worst team in American professional sports while they're already down, especially when we live in a country where the most popular sport employs 44 players with a record of physical or sexual abuse?
Of course not.
There's no way the Sixers' strategy to increase draft picks in an attempt to eventually trade for or draft a superstar is, as ESPN's Stephen A. Smith called it, "the biggest basketball atrocity since [he's] been covering the league." It's not as if the Sixers are hurting the players. In fact, they're one of the most proactive teams when it comes to utilizing sports science, advanced nutrition, and other sophisticated athlete training resources to make guys better. Yet this is the biggest basketball atrocity since Stephen A. Smith's been covering the league? A bigger atrocity than The Malice at the Palace? A bigger atrocity than an NBA ref—Jack Donoghy's cousin Tim Donaghy—spending 11 months in a federal prison camp for fixing games? A bigger atrocity than Tim Duncan's wardrobe??
Let's be real.
In the latter part of his first day with the Sixers, Jerry Colangelo was interviewed during a game against the Spurs and made a point to mention his "four and a half decades of experience" more than once. He also came across sounding as if he was prepared to listen to Hinkie's ideas...but only begrudgingly before eventually throwing them aside and starting on his own blueprint.
Which, if this all ends with Colangelo leveraging his USA Basketball connections and convincing the Pacers to deal Paul George or some similar miracle, perfect. Every Sixers fan wants a superstar, and Colangelo has rubbed shoulders with the best of them during his time with USA Basketball.
But the fear is that the NBA Commissioner, NBA owners, and in part the media have worked together to force the Sixers into a middle ground that neither the team nor the fans want. A middle ground that will have them acquiring expensive non-superstars like Lance Stephenson simply for the sake of becoming "competitive". In other words, bad enough that they have no chance of winning a championship but too good to draft a superstar. Over little more than personal bitterness towards one man and his Process.