When the Philadelphia 76ers held a press conference to introduce Jerry Colangelo as the chairman of basketball operations in December, majority owner Josh Harris insisted that his hiring would not mean the demise of former general manager Sam Hinkie.
"We're still committed to the process," Harris told reporters, preaching a "collaborative" relationship between Colangelo and Hinkie. "I don't expect radical changes to what we're doing. We're committed to Sam. We're committed to the process."
What fools we were to believe him.
At the time the Sixers hired Sam Hinkie in the summer of 2013, Philadelphia was wallowing in mediocrity, the worst place an NBA team can possibly be in. The franchise was at a crossroads after being burned in the Andrew Bynum trade, and when they handed the keys to Hinkie to try and turn the franchise around, the forward-thinking 38-year-old knew the key to longterm success was to put the team in the best spot to acquire superstar talent.
With the team's undistinguished roster, few assets and an inability to entice quality free agents, he knew the only way the Sixers could find their franchise player was to do it through the draft.
Every franchise that has ever won an NBA title had built a large portion of their core through the draft. The Miami Heat wouldn't have put together the "Big 3" without drafting Dwayne Wade. The San Antonio Spurs wouldn't have become the dynasty they are today if they didn't bottom out for Tim Duncan in 1997.
Losing is the worst, especially when you're tiptoeing the line of doing it purposefully, but it was a necessary evil that Hinkie embraced so the Sixers could find their Duncan or Wade. Most importantly, the ownership group completely backed his rebuilding plan.
While the team was failing in the short term, Hinkie was quietly positioning the team for a successful future. He made a plethora of trades for first-round picks, giving Philadelphia multiple opportunities to find the star they sought after early in the draft. He instilled a mathematically-driven system to help with player evaluation in a front office so archaic that the previous regime was willing to pay Kwame Brown $30 million. He brought in sports science experts to help with injury recovery and training, and helped develop the Sixers new state-of-the-art practice facility set to open in August.
Hinkie inherited a barren wasteland as general manager of the Sixers, and slowly but surely was building the team up to a point where there was a light at the end of the losing tunnel.
Naturally, not everything is going to be roses in a rebuilding process. Philadelphia dealt with a lot more bumps in the road than anticipated, and Hinkie's not absolved from blame. Losing out on top players like Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns was the price of putting all your eggs in the draft lottery basket. Joel Embiid's two season absence has disheartened many who viewed him as the cornerstone piece this team needed. Hinkie's awkward dealings with agents and fellow general managers turned them off from doing future business with the team, and his preference to not speak to the media pitted them against him.
As the cries from Hinkie's detractors grew louder and louder over the past year, so did the obvious angst from the Josh Harris-led ownership group. The mentality of "process over results" was only as strong as the owners backing it, and their willingness to be swayed by outside voices after just two-and-a-half years is the type of shortsightedness that many were concerned would doom the rebuild from the outset.
Instead of allowing Hinkie to work through some of his mistakes and continue to run the operation he masterminded to its logical conclusion, the ownership group showed complete incompetence by stripping him of all control and handing the team over to Colangelo.
Even more embarrassingly, they did it before an offseason where Hinkie had positioned the team to finally make that leap forward. Not giving him the opportunity to lead the team through the draft and free agency isn't just a slap in the face to the former general manager, but to the fans who stuck by the team through three miserable seasons because they believed in the person captaining the ship.
Now, the fanbase is left to put their faith in a 76-year-old who is monitoring the team via Skype calls 2,076 miles outside of Philadelphia, and his son, who boasts a remarkably questionable track record as a general manager. Sam Hinkie may not have been a "basketball guy", but he was the smartest person the team had to offer. The man now running the front office on a day-to-day basis is the same one who threw an incomprehensible amount of money at free agents like Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Kapono.
The Sixers record will certainly improve going forward (only because it can't really get worse), but if they find themselves unable to reach contender status down the line, the only people ownership will have to blame is themselves. No job is ever finished properly if the person with the strategy isn't in power to fully execute their vision, and the Colangelo family could very easily place the Sixers back on a path to becoming the run-of-the-mill franchise they so desperately tried to avoid becoming in the first place.
Sam Hinkie's rebuilding plan and execution gave Philadelphia something to trust. The Sixers ownership group's inability to stay true to the plan now gives people something to fear: another average basketball team.