It has been nearly four years since the Sixers hired Sam Hinkie to replace Tony DiLeo and Rod Thorn in the roles as General Manager and President of Basketball Operations. It has been just over a year since Jerry Colangelo usurped his place directing the team and placed Bryan Colangelo in charge.
In that time, the Sixers amassed a record of 75-253, good for a win percentage of 0.229, and an average of 19 wins per season. The Sixers also became the subject of more think pieces about how horrible tanking is than any other bad team in NBA history.
We’re about to enter the fifth year of what was, ostensibly, a 5-year plan when Hinkie approached ownership 4 years ago. This coming year will be an inflection point for the Sixers— the tanking seasons will be in our rearview mirror and Colangelo will start to build the roster around the talents of his young players. We still won’t see the results of Hinkie’s strategy for a few years; if Embiid is never healthy and Simmons doesn’t pan out to the best of his abilities, it’s possible the Sixers wind up in the middle again, albeit with far more flexibility than they possessed after the Doug Collins years.
But even if this coming Sixers’ era fizzles out due to injury issues, prolonged tanking as a strategy hasn’t been disproven over the last few years. If anything, it has been fortified. On multiple occasions during The Process, different teams were held up as emblematic of why tanking for a superstar is unnecessary. The darling Suns, who fooled themselves into a(n admittedly very fun) 48-34 2013-14 seasons; the incompetent Lakers, who still saw themselves as wooing top FA targets after 25-win seasons; the hopelessly boring (and bungling) Magic, who turned all of their players into worse players; even the Timberwolves, who lucked into a pair #1 picks while trying to make the playoffs -- all of these teams were said to disprove Hinkie’s strategy. Yet, arguably, none have as clear a path to becoming a perennial superpower as the Sixers currently do.
Here are the current outlooks for each of those teams.
4 Year W-L: 134-194, 34-win average
Core Players Under 25: Devin Booker, Dragan Bender (maybe)
The Suns’ roster looks truly bleak. In Booker, they have a scoring wizard whose passing and vision may improve enough for him to become a valuable and viable primary initiator. But he’s a long way from reaching that point, as he has only been average from a league-wide efficiency standpoint, and his defense is a horror show.
Bender has some intrigue as a playmaking stretch five, but his rookie season was disastrous, and he shot 27 percent from deep. Neither of these players looks likely to become a team’s cornerstone superstar.
Phoenix could still climb out of their crater, but it would likely be on the back of two lucky lotteries in 2017 & 2018, plus a Bledsoe trade that the 2013 Sixers no longer had the luxury of pursuing. A five-year tank and a trade of a middling star in no way disproves a strategy maximizing lottery odds.
Los Angeles Lakers
4 Year W-L: 91-237, 23-win average
Core Players Under 25: D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram
The Lakers have won only four more games per year than the Sixers. They’ve obviously been the second worst team in the league during that stretch, and there is no end in sight. Worse, if they lose their 2017 and 2019 picks after May’s lottery, there may be no path to contender status.
Neither Russell nor Ingram inspired much confidence this year, as the former struggled to grow into a lead guard role and the latter was overwhelmed by the speed and physicality of the NBA game. Both may still become useful, above average contributors, but it is doubtful either will grow into league-altering superstars.
4 Year W-L: 112-216, 28-win average
Core Players Under 25: Aaron Gordon
This f***ing franchise, man. What a horrific debacle they’ve been since the Dwight Howard trade. Rob Hennigan (who was fired as I wrote this, RIP) has slowly pissed away all of the useful players and assets on his roster and marginalized the one blue-chipper (Gordon) they have left. The Magic are Kings East, but without the drama and intrigue that comes from years of Boogie blow-ups and Vivek incompetency. It has been a disastrous era that is unlikely to get better any time soon.
4 Year W-L: 116-212, 29-win average
Core Players Under 25: Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine (maybe)
In Towns, the Wolves have the one player among these teams who can match or exceed the potential of either Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons. He has been enthralling to watch, and it’s exhilarating to think about his future; 21-year-olds don’t put up 25 & 12. It’s absolutely absurd.
Even with Towns playing 3,000 minutes at his absurd level, Minnesota won 3 more games than the Sixers this year. That’s right: The Minnesota Timberwolves, whose Bovada over/under was 44.5 wins to start the season, and who played Towns and Wiggins 37 mpg for all 82 games, won three more games than the depleted, harried, devastated Sixers.
As good as Towns is, there’s a chance that he’s the only core piece on this Wolves team. LaVine has been a disaster on defense; Dunn has been a disaster on offense; Rubio looked great for a month, but his inability to shoot or score resurfaced thereafter, plus Thibodeau wants to trade him for spare parts. Wiggins remains one of the most poorly-rounded players in the league. Despite his impressive self-creation, Wiggins’ inability to pass, rebound, or play defense has probably hurt his team more than he has helped this year.
Of these teams, Minnesota’s outlook has the clearest case to be preferred over the Philadelphia’s. Even so, with only one star, the Wolves have a long path towards becoming contenders.
4 Year W-L: 75-253, 19-win average
Core Players Under 25: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric
Look, Embiid’s injury history makes the Sixers’ future incredibly uncertain (plus the whole “Colangelo traded away our insurance plan for a fake first” thing). Still, it’s clear that no other rebuilding team has gained access to two players of Embiid’s and Simmons’ quality. Nor have they unearthed as many core pieces as this Sixers’ squad has. With Saric and Holmes coming off the bench behind Simmons and Embiid, the Sixers’ frontcourt rotation is likely set for years to come.
Moreover, while he was too old to qualify for the list above, Robert Covington has emerged as one of the best wing defenders in the league, and a player who can succeed as the 4th best player on a championship hopeful.
The skillsets of Simmons and Embiid also reduces the cost of the upcoming drafts. Thanks to both players’ abilities to initiate on offense, and Embiid’s ability to initiate on defense, the success rate of their future picks can be lower. The Sixers can afford for Jayson Tatum or Jonathan Isaac to stall as creators and simply grow as defenders and shooters. Malik Monk’s struggles creating for teammates would be minimized thanks to Simmons’ ability to shoulder that burden. The other teams picking at the top require that skill development for their picks to reach pick efficacy. Not only do the Sixers have the most players likely to become stars, but they have increased their margin of error going forward.
None of this means the Sixers will win a championship. None of this means the Sixers will ever field both of their cornerstones at the same time.
But if you’re asking whether Hinkie maximized the team’s chances of attaining superstars and competing for a title, it’s impossible to look at the road not traveled and conclude that he didn’t succeed in achieving what he set out to do. His decisions may not all pan out, but they nearly always increased the team’s chances moving forward (Everyone please ignore the Jahlil-sized elephant in the room). Even with the setbacks, the bad luck, the one brutally awful pick, and the jettisoning of the team’s third best player, the Sixers are as well set up as any team that has spent the last few years rebuilding.