There were two things that brought this thought of mine to the forefront.
One — reading Yaron Weitzman’s fantastic account of the process-era Sixers, Tanking to the Top, in which Sam Hinkie is the protagonist.
Two — an episode of the Mismatch on the Ringer NBA Show podcast, where Kevin O’Connor and Chris Vernon got into their usual hilarious argument, this time over which teams in the NBA should “blow it up”, i.e. get rid of their established stars and veterans in an attempt to build for the future.
In their heated debate, I sided with KOC (sorry Verno), who said that he struggled to find teams in terrible situations, places that needed to be blown up. As I listened to the pod, I tried to brainstorm teams with which I’d want to start a rebuilding project, and when I too came up with nothing, I quickly realized what the problem was with the thought exercise.
Every team in the NBA is either a contender that is too good to tear down, or simply has nothing left to blow up. And trust me, I’ve tried.
In the East, the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Heat, Pacers and Sixers are all seen as contenders and are working to add more pieces in order to surpass each other. Toward the bottom of the conference, the Hawks, Knicks, Hornets and Bulls have already torn things down to the studs and are working on a long climb to the top (except in the Knicks’ case, the climb leads directly to an entrance that only team employees are allowed to use, and specifically not Spike Lee).
Vernon suggested that the Pistons and the Cavaliers could use renovations, but what left is there to clear out? The Pistons have gotten rid of every asset except for Blake Griffin, who at this point is a net negative in terms of value, and Derrick Rose, whose contract will expire next year anyway. The Cavs are in the rare scenario where they’re filled with overpaid big-name guys, yet border on being the worst team in the league, leaving them little to tear down, as Drummond and Love have negative trade values themselves. (Editor’s Note: Drummond may decline his 2020-21 player option and become an unrestricted free agent prior to next season anyway.) The Nets seem like a lock to join the elite tier with the return of their superstars.
That leaves two teams, a mere two teams, that might have reconstruction work ahead. There’s the Orlando Magic, who are good enough to continue sneaking into the playoffs, but are a guaranteed first-round exit due to their lack of a bona fide star. The other blow-it-up candidate is the Washington Wizards, who still possess Bradley Beal, John Wall, Wall’s eyesore of a contract ... and that’s about it. It’s highly unlikely Wall returns to his All-Star form, so trading Beal is probably the only path to title contention in the long run.
Compare this all to just a few years ago in the 2016-17 season. The Pacers and Bulls were mired in mediocrity due to only having one All-Star. The Hawks were respectable, but never a threat to do anything more than win a first-round series. The Hornets and Pistons were doing their usual routine of winning between 35-to-39 games seemingly every year. You look at that season and see that there were only a handful of teams that were either young and building (Bucks, Sixers) or legit title contenders (Cavs, Celtics, Raptors).
Keep in mind, this is just the Eastern Conference thus far. But go to the Western Conference, and again, most teams are either already working on the rebuild, or are ready to compete for the big one. The only candidates are the Thunder, who might be too good to tear down considering their success this season, the Blazers, who probably want to keep their core together given they’re entering Lillard’s prime and the lack of success this year was due to poor injury luck, and the Spurs, probably the only team in the league that undoubtedly needs to change their direction. DeRozan and Aldridge are old, a disgrace to net ratings and proper shot distribution, and thus, should be traded in order to start things anew in San Antonio.
When Hinkie first took the job as the General Manager of the 76ers, there were so many teams treading that dreaded treadmill of mediocrity. The league was rife with situations where franchises had only one superstar player, who alone wasn’t capable of dragging the team to a status that threatened the true contenders. Yet, that star’s presence also dragged a team above the baseline level of competence on which the teams below got a shot at turning their fortunes in the draft.
And yes, Hinkie was far from a perfect executive. His black-and-white view of the job turned off several agents and athletes. He whiffed on two of his top draft picks in Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. He was even partially responsible for creating a chaotic environment in which accountability and order seemed nearly impossible.
However, taking a look at the league now, it’s clear that his message wasn’t one of folly. The top 13 teams in the league, the true contenders, all have at least two All-Star-caliber players, save for the Denver Nuggets and the OKC Thunder (depending on how you feel about Jamal Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander). The bottom 17 — they’re either young and rising like the Pelicans and Grizzlies, or in the process of committing to the tank before the rise.
Hinkie’s goal was to take the Sixers out of their stagnant middle ground. He succeeded in that objective. Embiid and Simmons were the direct fruit of The Process, and now the Sixers have their most talented and best overall team since the championship-winning squad of the ‘80s (before you say something, ‘01 Iverson was awesome, but that supporting cast was downright awful, and their success was a byproduct of a terrible Eastern Conference at the time).
The rest of the league followed suit. It has gotten to the point where teams are usually tanking so unabashedly this time of year that they become a scheduled win for the opponent. It’s the reason why the Sixers rattled off 16 straight wins to end the 2017-18 season. Hinkie envisioned a league in which all teams were on a completely different side of the spectrum.
It feels like an affront to competition and honesty in this the-strong-feed-on-the-poor design, especially when those poor willingly give in to being eaten. But it’s hard to argue that it isn’t effective, and through the evidence we’ve seen, it’s hard to argue that the rest of the NBA didn’t agree.