The last NBA game I attended in a non-media capacity took place on April 5, 2016. The Philadelphia 76ers picked up their 10th and final win of the season, a 107-93 win over the lowly New Orleans Pelicans. Carl Landry, and I swear I am not making this up, got MVP chants because he was the team’s best player that night — I beg you, please look at this box score, which includes a host of players you have not thought about in a minute.
The following day, Sam Hinkie resigned from his job as the team’s general manager. It had been a long time coming, as the team had hired basketball executive Jerry Colangelo as its chairman of basketball operations, reportedly thanks in part to an extremely persuasive nudge from the league itself. He wrote a long, strange letter that is funny to read in retrospect, one that included this passage:
The NBA can be a league of desperation, those that are in it and those that can avoid it. So many find themselves caught in the zugzwang, the point in the game where all possible moves make you worse off. Your positioning is now the opposite of that.
Plenty of people dislike Hinkie for justifiable reasons, and The Process rubbed a whole lot of people the wrong way for justifiable (and, in plenty of ways, correct) reasons, but having a plan — even a flawed one — that places an emphasis on never being in a position of desperation is sound. At the time that Hinkie left, Philadelphia had Joel Embiid, would go on to draft Ben Simmons a few months later, and boasted enough future draft capital and cap space that they were well-positioned to add at least one superstar to that 1-2 punch at some point — following Simmons’ rookie campaign, ESPN did future power rankings and put the franchise in sixth, with particularly high marks in “Money” and “Draft.”
Even if that optimism was 110 percent warranted at the time, it’s strange to look back on in retrospect. Because after Sunday afternoon, when the Sixers lost to the Boston Celtics and saw a season that had such high hopes end with a sweep in the first round of the playoffs to a division rival that is well-positioned to compete for championships going forward, Philly feels like a team that needs to do something desperate, only the sort of flexibility that existed in the past is gone.
The exact moment it happened is up for debate, but The Process in Philly is very much dead — perhaps it happened the moment Hinkie resigned or at some other point in the last few years. Whatever the case, now the Sixers face an offseason in which there are more questions than answers and no concrete plan in place guiding them to what’s next.
There are three ways to acquire talent: drafting players, signing free agents, and making trades. For years, the Sixers have failed to one extent or another at all of these, showing off startling roster mismanagement around their homegrown stars of Embiid and Simmons.
No team is going to hit on every single decision it makes. Plenty will miss more than they hit. And of course, the entire idea behind stockpiling so much young talent and so many picks for any team is that they are chips that can be cashed in when a disgruntled superstar asked for a change in scenery. In theory, it takes just one good swing to hit a home run, so giving yourselves as many cuts as possible is simply good math. The Sixers were more blatant with The Process than most other teams are when they decide to go through a rebuild, but some combination of those three paths get traversed by teams that win.
What makes Philadelphia’s run of late so infuriating for fans isn’t that they swung and missed, but that they had some hits and gave them away in the misses.
If the Sixers didn’t trade Bridges and then did literally nothing but retain their guys after draft night 2018:
~$18m unused cap for this yr
All their own picks, including the one(s) that became Tisse
— Mike O'Connor (@MOConnor_NBA) August 20, 2020
Hindsight is 20/20 but it is pretty wild to think about how the Sixers went from that group to the one that just got swept out of the playoffs unceremoniously. Bryan Colangelo, the sport’s all-time greatest poster, was someone who, as my pal Yaron Weitzman laid out in his book Tanking to the Top, felt he needed to make his imprint felt on the team while simultaneously trying to get past the reputation that formed after he drafted Andrea Bargnani in Toronto. So he burned draft capital to move up two spots and select Markelle Fultz at No. 1 overall, whose … whatever happened with him meant that he went from the theoretical perfect fit next to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to someone who was traded for Jonathon Simmons, a 2019 second-round pick that ended up getting flipped to Boston on draft night, and the 21st pick in the 2020 Draft.
They turned Mikal Bridges into Zhaire Smith and a pick, then turned that pick and other pieces (including Landry Shamet, who would have given them a seemingly snug replacement for sharpshooter J.J. Redick, who left in free agency last summer) into Tobias Harris. They turned two good contributors in Dario Saric and Robert Covington into Jimmy Butler, who was very good in his brief time in Philly but would leave after half of a season for a variety of reasons, depending on who you ask. With the exception of trading Bridges, which was done by Brett Brown in his role as interim GM, those trades were executed by a first-time general manager in Elton Brand.
That group came four bounces away from forcing overtime in Game 7 against the eventual champion Toronto Raptors and entered the offseason with some serious decisions facing them with Butler and Harris entering free agency. They chose to give Harris (a good player, albeit not a superstar) a near-max deal, executed a sign-and-trade to send Butler to the Heat for Josh Richardson (a good shooting guard whose biggest weakness is perimeter shooting), and gave a lot of money to Horford instead, who in addition to bolstering their concept of playing Bully Ball™, weakened the Celtics (or so they thought) and was a nine-figure insurance policy for when Embiid would miss a few regular season games.
Even factoring in questions about fit and shooting, the most pessimistic prediction about the Sixers before this season tipped off would have guessed that this team would at least be a tough out in the Eastern Conference playoffs. In retrospect, there was much further down they could go. Philadelphia built a roster with an eye on a seven-game playoff series against the Bucks that would require battling against Giannis Antetokounmpo. Perhaps they thought losing Al Horford and Kyrie Irving would cause the Celtics’ chances to crater, even if only for a season. Perhaps they thought losing Kawhi Leonard would do the same to Toronto. And perhaps they assumed that teams like the Heat and Pacers just wouldn’t have the firepower — at least not yet — to realistically compete.
All of those teams finished with better records than Philly. The gambit made by the Sixers front office was that their size could overwhelm everyone else, particularly when games slow down in the playoffs. They did this by sacrificing ball-handling, shot-making, and playmaking, and despite the fact that they were a gigantic basketball team, this did not translate into the kind of indomitable defense (eighth in defensive rating) or unstoppable interior offense (16th in two-point field goal percentage, 22nd in free throw rate) that has to happen for this approach to work.
Their roster imbalance reared its ugly head consistently throughout the year, as, generally, the team’s best defensive lineups couldn’t score, while it’s best offensive lineups couldn’t get stops. Lineups that featured the four players that made the most money — Embiid, Horford, Simmons, Tobias Harris — were not good enough. When Simmons was out during the postseason, things got even worse. Playing Embiid and Horford together went so poorly that Horford’s own sister correctly pointed out that it just doesn’t work, which is not really the fault of these two, but rather, those who made the decision to pair a 7-foot center and a 34-year-old big man together at the same time, particularly when a 6’11 point guard who is a non-shooter is crucial to making everything work.
Their grand experiment of the Jumbo Sixers went horribly. Now Brown has been fired, some sort of big front office shakeup would be justifiable, and the Sixers will enter next season with a jaw-dropping bill to foot. They’re paying $119 million to four players on a team that just got swept in the first round of the playoffs, and even if one of those players didn’t suit up in the series, there should be three others who could have picked up the slack. Some fans would probably be pretty happy if the ownership group, which wasn’t particularly popular even before its recent self-inflicted wound in which it announced a salary reduction for employees amid a global pandemic that got overturned when fans expressed their fury and Embiid offered to foot the bill, sold the team. Things could, certainly, be going better.
Mapping out Philadelphia’s future is hard. It’s ironic, in a way, that a team that once had so much possibility — money to spend, picks to make, two young pillars to build around — seems stuck, to an extent. Embiid and Simmons being in town means the floor will never get too low, and the job for now is to figure out what needs to happen to raise the ceiling. Even then, Philly went 31-4 at home this year. There is a dominant team within them. The goal, then, is to make sure that dominant team shows up on a nightly basis.
With Brown officially out, a new coaching hire that is more in the mold of the Lakers hiring Frank Vogel than the Raptors hiring Nick Nurse makes sense. Philly isn’t a team that needs a young, innovative head coach as much as it needs someone who can step in there and be the adult in the room, particularly after Josh Richardson lamented after the Celtics sweep that “I don’t think there was much accountability this season, and I think that was part of our problem.” That could mean former Cavs coach Tyronn Lue or ex-Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, or convincing Stan Van Gundy to come back to coaching, or keeping an eye on the soon-to-be out of contract Mike D’Antoni. Whatever the case, look for them to go the route of experience, particularly working with superstars.
The front office could use something, although as Shams Charania of The Athletic noted, it seems unlikely that that’s coming. Still, around the time Brand was promoted from the front office of the team’s G League affiliate, three individuals from the previous front office received promotions, with two of them still in town (the third, Marc Eversley, is now the GM of the Bulls). At the very least, bringing in a new voice and a different perspective on things would be wise, although as the Hinkie/Colangelo experiment showed, the balance needs to be struck between that and undermining a person’s authority.
All of this has to get sorted out before getting to the roster, something Philly hasn’t always been great with. Consider the 2018 offseason, when among other things, the team was rumored to be one of three franchises that piqued LeBron James’ interest. At the time, Brown served as interim general manager. Considering they had 3.5 weeks to hire someone after Colangelo resigned in early-June, it makes sense that they couldn’t get someone in right away, although it’s strange that it took them until mid-September to eventually give someone the job.
Regardless, the Sixers need to sit down and figure out their roster, with Weitzman reporting that the expectation are that major changes are coming. Embiid and Simmons should be untouchable. Even if their fit next to one another isn’t perfect, they are two uniquely talented All-Stars who can become top-10 players in the league. Unless you are able to acquire another top-10 player, breaking up that duo would be short-sighted. And even then, Embiid is 26 and Simmons is 24. The window to win with them is longer than it would be for most other teams if everything else around them works.
The issue, of course, is the “everything else.” Horford is a good player, and it might be reasonable to think he can look like himself in a different situation, one where he is surrounded by four players who can shoot and constantly move. Figuring out a trade for him is tricky — let me be the 10,000th person to suggest Sacramento, which wanted to give him big money last offseason and can make something work with disgruntled guard Buddy Hield‘s upcoming extension kicking in — but as long as the team isn’t giving him up for pennies on the dollar and can figure out a way to use Horford (along with whatever additional players/picks they would need to give up) as a way to get players that complement their two standouts, moving him wouldn’t be the worst idea.
Things might be a little trickier with Harris. He is a good (albeit inconsistent) player, but he is owed a shocking amount of money going forward. As of now, the only people in the NBA who have more guaranteed money coming their way are Damian Lillard and Klay Thompson. Is there a team that would be willing to take on this money? Is there a way for the Sixers to do a trade without giving up everything they have and/or taking back gobs of bad contracts? Or is the most likely outcome that Philly is in a position where it has to hold onto Harris and turn him into a more expensive version of Harrison Barnes on the 2015 Warriors as a fourth option on offense who lets catch-and-shoot threes fly while occasionally giving them something off the bounce?
On top of all of that, we’re entering an offseason in which no one, not even the NBA, knows what the full financial ramifications of the pandemic will be on their business and what that means for potentially plummeting salary cap figures. That may make it even more difficult to find bidders for blockbuster type deals, as cap uncertainty might push front offices towards keeping big, longterm deals off of the books until things are sorted out.
Should they get some traction in trade talks, there are players who can help sweeten the pot in deals — Thybulle looks like a potential defensive stud, Milton has shown flashes of being a dynamic combo guard who can hit threes, and they do have a few picks they can move. Richardson is on an expiring deal and was inconsistent this year, but we have enough evidence to say he’s a solid player, and while it might be wise for Philly to keep him, it’s not hard to see why someone would want to bring him on board. And if the team can figure out how to make stuff happen while retaining all of them, even better.
In the past, it hasn’t always seemed like Philadelphia’s plan has been to build the best team around Embiid and Simmons. Signing Horford was, in part, a move to give them insurance for when Embiid got hurt. Trading for Butler was, in part, a move to get someone to initiate the team’s offense when Simmons could not. Getting Harris was, in part, a move to get someone who could take the ball and hit a shot off the bounce. This offseason, priority No. 1 absolutely needs to be to view every single thing that happens in relation to those two. If the plan is anything other than to build a team — hell, an organization — around them, then this offseason is a failure before it even begins.
“I just feel like, a couple years ago, when we made the playoffs for the first time, we had a bunch of great players that were drafted here or either formed in Philly and we had a bunch of guys especially that were in a great situation,” Embiid said after Sunday’s loss. “And then we, as you know, we decided to trade a lot of it with the picks and stuff for Jimmy, Tobias, and we got a bunch of great players in return. Like I said, it just didn’t happen. We could never find a rhythm this year. It is disappointing. There’s a lot of regrets. I felt like the focus was not always there. And we got to do better; we just got to look at ourselves in the mirror and just do better.”
A weird little quirk about The Process was the level of hope that it instilled in a not insignificant pocket of Sixers fans. Calling it polarizing was an understatement — a whole lot of people, both in Philly and beyond, weren’t fans of how brazen the entire experiment was. It’s perpetually fascinating to me, an idiot who knows a disproportionate amount of Sixers fans compared to every other NBA fanbase solely based on where I went to college, about the extent that being loud impacted views on the whole experiment, especially compared to teams that aren’t actively trying to miss out on the playoffs year after year but do.
But boy, were those people who believed (and, to be fair, still believe) in The Process loud, in large part because they were fine with not being stuck in the NBA’s version of purgatory — somewhere between the 5 and the 10 seed every year, losing in the first (or, if they got lucky, second) round; lather, rinse, repeat — if it meant there was something on the other side. This is where hope came into play. Rejecting The Process, to those fans, meant rejecting hope. And for some time, that inherent hope looked like it was paying off in a big way. The 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons were the first two times since the mid-80s that Philadelphia won 50+ games in back-to-back seasons.
In terms of how this season went, the Sixers are back in purgatory, stuck in the morass and surrounded by other teams that can win, but not compete. The good news, relatively speaking, is that a path out of this does not involve embarking on a years-long project that leads to things like Carl Landry getting MVP chants in the team’s 10th and final win of the season and the objectively pretty crappy approach of alienating agents by viewing every player as nothing more than things that exist as assets and numbers in a spreadsheet. There will not be another capital P “Process” this time, but there must be a plan put in place with Embiid and Simmons’ input that is more in-line with how you win basketball games in the NBA right now.
Hinkie’s plan was always to have the longest view in the room. That, more than anything, is why The Process, as it has been defined, is dead — Philadelphia is not in a position to look 5-10 years down the road, because Embiid and Simmons are entering their primes. Still, not making hyper-reactionary moves driven by fear of what happens if next season is a repeat of this one is going to be a challenge. It’s one that they need to face head-on, and funny enough, it was something that was addressed in the strangest resignation letter in NBA history.
“It’s clear now that I won’t see the harvest of the seeds we planted,” Hinkie wrote. “That’s OK. Life’s like that. Many of my NBA friends cautioned me against the kind of seed sowing that felt appropriate given the circumstances for exactly this reason. But this particular situation made it all the more necessary, though. Part of the reason to reject fear and plow on was exactly because fear had been the dominant motivator of the actions of too many for too long.”
While The Process is over, the potential for a new era in Philadelphia is on the horizon. Embiid and Simmons will always serve as a link to the past just as much as they are the bridge to the future. That future is incumbent on soul-searching occurring across all levels of the organization, accepting that this season was a catastrophic failure and getting to work. Whether or not this happens is a completely different story, but having the right people put together a sound plan together is huge. If it’s a good one, trusting that process is, ironically enough, the best path forward.