Trust the process. It’s a popular rallying cry for Philadelphia 76ers fans preparing for a third straight season of being one of the worst teams in the NBA. It is the hope that all of this losing is towards some greater purpose, that it will ultimately all be productive. It is the radical plan that GM Sam Hinkie sold the ownership group on when he was hired: we are going to tear this team and start with nothing in order to become something again. The 76ers at the time had plateaued somewhere between playoff team and title contender, with no real way to improve after striking out on the Andrew Bynum trade. Hinkie’s plan seemed to be the only way out for Philadelphia at the time, to reach the surface they first had to dig themselves deeper. Well it’s year three of Hinkie’s genius idea to outsmart the rest of the league, and they are still at rock bottom with no clear path towards even mediocrity anytime soon. His plan isn’t working.
The NBA is structured in a way to encourage parity. No team has been bad for their entire existence; even the worst franchises have had stretches of winning, playoff appearances, and championship contention. If every rebuild will ultimately lead to winning eventually, shouldn’t the main criteria by which we judge its success be its duration? How long fans have to endure the losing seasons before their team is relevant again? Hinkie has been praised for his patience; he has the foresight to develop a long term plan that games the system. He would lose on purpose because the NBA rewards teams for that with great young players. In reality he did the professional sports franchise equivalent of quitting his job because he could get the same amount from welfare checks. He is the ultimate sucker of the system, buying into the idea that high draft picks are the fastest way to assured success, without even seemingly considering that this ideology may be misguided.
Let’s take a look at the teams that met in the finals this year, the Warriors and Cavaliers. With Bogut out of the rotation, the Warriors did not play a single player that was a top-5 pick. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, were beneficiaries of the best lottery luck perhaps in NBA history between 2011 and 2014, netting an astonishing 5 top 5 picks in that span, including 3 number 1 overall picks, essentially Sam Hinkie’s dream scenario. What did all those picks get them: Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins, and a team that couldn’t even sniff the playoffs in the awful East until Lebron came back. Look at the pre-Lacob Warriors as a cautionary tale for Hinkie: all those high Warriors picks never led to winning. You run the risk of developing a “losing culture” that seeps into your players. No one wants to play on a team that everyone understands is hopeless, look at Jahlil Okafor’s um.. enthusiasm with being drafted by Philly. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHC38mTMW6s
Taking another lesson from these finals: it probably isn’t a great sign that Andrew Bogut and Timofey Mozgov, two of the ten best centers in the league, couldn’t even play in the series, while the 76ers have drafted three centers in a row, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Jahlil Okafor, the last three drafts.
Rebuilds don’t have to have to be this way. You don’t have to completely alienate your fans for five years to build a successful team. I would honestly much rather have the Milwaukee Bucks collection of young assets than the 76ers. The Bucks were the second worst team in the league just last year, and are already an exciting playoff team in the East. They are essentially where the 76ers hope to be three years from now, and it took them all of one good off season to get there. Isn’t that a much more admirable plan to follow? Shouldn’t we try to outsmart other teams instead of outsuck them? Even if the 76ers ultimately build a winning team, so what? So did a lot other teams in half the time, without embarrassing themselves by scrapping the salary floor every season and not even attempting to put a coherent team on the court. If the 76ers don’t become a dynasty on the level of the Jordan Bulls, Shaqkobe Lakers, or Duncan Spurs, Hinkie’s plan is a failure.
And there is the opportunity cost of just forfeiting half a decade or more. The Grizzlies probably aren’t going to win a championship with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, but do you think Grizzlies fans consider these to be wasted years? Would they trade all the playoff runs of the “grit-n-grind” teams for the promise of maybe being just a little better than this in like eight years? In the Bay Area the “We Believe” team is revered even though they only won one playoff series. It created iconic moments like the Baron Davis dunk on Kirelinko. I doubt any Warriors fan would trade those memories and the excitement we felt during that Mavericks series for anything. Hinkie’s long term plan to try to bring a championship to Philadelphia is depriving their fans of the moments that happen along the way that make it worthwhile, of the spurts of hope that keep you interested, and I wonder how much longer they will hang on and trust the process.