37 wins and 45 losses.
That was the average record of the Philadelphia 76ers for the ten years before Sam Hinkie was hired in 2013 and implemented his so-called “Process.”
During those ten seasons, the team missed the playoffs five times. Four times they squeaked into the playoffs, but left after a quick first round exit, none of them even going to a decisive seventh game. Then there were the 2012 playoffs.
The 8th-seeded Sixers knocked off the top-seeded Chicago Bulls, a team that had 15 more wins than them in a lockout-shortened season, thanks to injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah that decimated the team, and then took the Boston Celtics to seven games in the conference semifinals.
During that decade,the 76ers finished the regular season higher than 7th in the East once (in 2009, they finished 6th) and never advanced beyond the first round when playing a team that hadn’t lost its two best players.
I was there. I lived through it. It was the definition of mediocrity. Aside from those few weeks in the spring of 2012, when we knew it couldn’t last, there was no sense of hope or excitement. There was no dream for the future. There was nothing but malaise and resignation. Not only were the Sixers nowhere near a title, there wasn’t even a clear path to one. They were stuck in the purgatory of averageness.
But there weren’t any takedowns or thinkpieces dedicated to that team. No investigations or longform essays about the front office. Why? Because they were average. For some reason, pundits and pseudo-experts are fine with the idea that your team hovers between 35 and 45 wins every year, claws its way into the playoffs, and serves as an appetizer for the conference’s elite teams. That’s fine.
I’m not one of those. I was sick of the mundane. I was tired of the predictable. I was bored with the boring.
I supported Sam Hinkie’s plan.
In short, I trusted The Process.
Plenty of teams have tanked in the recent history of the NBA. Both the San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics positioned themselves so that they’d have the best chance of getting Tim Duncan in 1997. The Cleveland Cavaliers traded away their veterans so that they’d be terrible in anticipation of the vaunted 2003 draft class. The Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks, the two marquee teams in the two marquee markets, are tanking this very year, one allowing Kobe Bryant to shoot his way into retirement, the other shutting down Carmelo Anthony and allowing Kurt Rambis to direct the team into a wall.
This makes sense. The NBA’s incentive structure is set up so that bad teams are most often rewarded with the best young players, so why finish in the middle of the pack so you can then draft in the middle of the first round and remain in the middle of the pack?
For some reason, though, Hinkie and the Sixers were under more scrutiny and criticism.
This was due to a few intertwined factors that, in fairness, Hinkie could have prevented or, at least, quelled. First, Hinkie is terrible at PR. He never charmed sportswriters and columnists like Phil Jackson or blatantly lied to them like Mitch Kupchak. He had no time for them, so they took their hurt feelings out on him while waxing nostalgically about the good old days. These guys are the Donald Trump of sports, reminiscing about the ’80s while ignoring all of its shortcomings. #MakeTheNBAGreatAgain Secondly, his obsession with obtaining and stockpiling assets was a bit too myopic, so he never signed a guy to the mid-level exception or obtained a decent role player for $8 million that would at least make it look like they were trying. Hinkie rightly saw these moves as a waste of money, so he didn’t make them, even though having some veterans around would have been beneficial for the team. That leads to the third reason: the Sixers never tried to hide their intentions. Instead of pretending to be shocked that their plans didn’t result in a championship (see: the Lakers), they were honest – too honest – about what they were doing. This works in business, but the NBA is both business and entertainment, and most sports fans don’t want to read about capital expenditures, sunk costs, asset valuation, and long-term ROI.
The rest of the internet has argued over whether Hinkie just needed more time for his seeds to grow or if his approach was catastrophically flawed.
The answer, as always, is somewhere in the middle. Hinkie wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes and, with the benefit of hindsight, could have made some different moves, but what if the Sixers had won the lottery instead of choosing third the past two years? What if, instead of Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor, they had selected Jabari Parker and Karl-Anthony Towns?
Things would look very different right now.
The Sixers weren’t the only team with which I was fed up in 2013. I was sick of the Eagles too.
Andy Reid is the best coach in the history of the franchise, but I supported his leaving in favor of bringing in someone with a new direction, even if that direction failed, because it was new and innovative. The Chip Kelly experiment didn’t work out, but at least an attempt was made. I don’t regret it. Scientists discover things not by doing the same thing, but by trial and error, trying something new, and learning from mistakes.
Andy Reid is consistent. He will get you 10 or 11 wins and a second-round playoff exit. That’s respectable. Bryan Collangelo, a combination of George W. Bush and Tommy Boy, may make the Sixers respectable. But putting a respectable team on the floor isn’t difficult.
It’s also not why we love sports. We play and watch sports to win, not to have a respectable record and a first-round playoff appearance.
We want our teams to win a championship and the best way to create a winner in the NBA is not through 7th place finishes and hard-fought first-round losses. The way is to build through the draft. And the more draft picks a team has, the more likelihood that team has of being able to snag a player that will turn them into a champion.
Sam Hinkie knew this. Everyone else knows this. His only mistake was that he said it publicly.
John Adams once said of Thomas Jefferson, “Mister Jefferson tells people what they want to hear. I tell them what they need to know.”
Sam Hinkie could say the same about his NBA colleagues.
Trust The Process.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.