Seven years ago, at the 2013 draft, newly installed Philadelphia Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie made a bold decision: He was going to trade his best player to the New Orleans Pelicans for two lottery picks. And after that, he was going to trade all of his other good players, too.
Thus began “The Process,” a four-year wander through the desert that produced win totals of 19, 18, 10 and 28. NBA teams had tanked for high draft picks before (and still do), but never this brazenly or for this long.
Few management decisions in any sport provoked a wider spectrum of reactions. Many Philly fans see Hinkie as a martyred hero, regarding him the way some might a political prisoner. For others, the Process was an insult, an act of graffiti on the game. And for the pragmatists, it was what it was: A GM playing his hand the best way he could with the cards he had in front of him.
In 2015-16, the third season of The Process, the Sixers were truly one of the worst teams in NBA history, going 10-72 while being outscored by more than 10 points a game. (Amazing side note: Nine players from that team remain in the league, and a few have become genuinely good.) At that point, the Sixers ownership — with a sharp nudge from the league — decided it had seen enough.
All told, Hinkie was only in charge for fewer than three seasons. Nonetheless, the asset haul from his tenure was impressive. In a five-year span, the Sixers picked sixth, 11th, third, 10th, third, first, and first. They also amassed an almost comically large trove of second-round picks, a few of which remain in circulation, and the 24th and 26th overall picks in 2016.
We’re coming to the end of the line, however. This draft will be the last year of the pick bounty accumulated during Hinkie’s reign. The Sixers have four second-round picks in 2020, but afterward, their draft capital is just like everybody else’s: All they have left in the plus column are two future seconds, and they’re out one future second of their own.
The Process, then, is essentially over.
The Sixers will continue reaping some benefits, of course. Last time I checked they still had Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on their roster, and those two are 26 and 24, respectively. But whatever happens from here is a different chapter, with a different coach (almost certainly) and very likely some other different key pieces as well.
What went wrong?
What stands out, at this juncture, is the disappointing results the Sixers have to show from the asset bounty of The Process. To date, it’s yielded two first-round playoff wins, one four-bounces-away-from-the-conference-finals team … and whatever that was this past season.
Going forward, further success could prove elusive. The roster is mismatched, capped out and far better suited to winning a game in 1991 than 2021. One hopes that this core wins more than two series when it’s all said and done, but it’s not assured.
The first turning point came in early 2016, when Hinkie stepped down via a now-infamous 13-page resignation note (my biggest failure as an analytics guy in a front office was not composing an even longer note when I left the Grizzlies, with the middle six pages in French). By that point, the league office and Sixers ownership had already conspired to insert Jerry Colangelo above him in the org chart.
Colangelo is one of the most decorated front-office figures in league annals. But in Philadelphia, he traded two high second-round picks for half a season of Ish Smith, conducted a front office “search” that concluded his own son was the best GM candidate, and then called it a day. The whole episode was an egregious failure of ownership.
Philly’s front office has been in flux ever since, with the younger Colangelo’s tenure ending via Burnergate and setting the stage for the current regime of Elton Brand. Both were subjected to periodic drive-bys from a since-departed minority owner who liked to stick his fingers in the pie.
As a result, Philly squandered much of The Process’s bounty. While not really adding much to the inherited Embiid-Simmons core, the Sixers also managed to set fire to several years’ worth of a normal team’s draft equity.
It’s an amazing list. In less than four years they:
- Traded two high second-round picks for half a year of Ish Smith.
- Traded one high second-round pick for half a year of Trevor Booker, who was out of the rotation within weeks.
- Traded a lottery pick from Sacramento in the regrettable Markelle Fultz–Jayson Tatum deal.
- Traded the 42nd pick in 2019 for cash. This “cash” guy was a popular trade target.
- Traded the 39th pick in 2018 for cash and a future second … the one above that was also exchanged for cash.
- Traded the 39th and 46th picks in the 2017 draft for cash. Notable picks after No. 39 in that draft included Thomas Bryant (42), Dillon Brooks (45), Sterling Brown (46), and Monte Morris (51).
- Traded Richaun Holmes to Phoenix for cash in the summer of 2018. Holmes made the minimum and has become a very effective player, while the Sixers toggled through five backup centers in losing to Toronto in the 2019 playoffs.
- Turned Jerami Grant and a second-round pick into Anzejs Pasecniks via two separate trades in 2016 and 2017.
- And finally, sent 2018 first-rounder Landry Shamet, two first-round picks, and likely high second-rounders from Detroit in 2021 and 2023 to the Clippers for Tobias Harris … a player who was six months from free agency and the Clippers wouldn’t have been able to keep.
Even with all that lost draft equity, the Sixers would have been in great shape had they not also embarked on some spectacular failures in free agency. Once the Sixers started spending their cap money in the summer of 2016, they almost immediately began spending it badly on veteran filler like Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless and Wilson Chandler.
And finally, there was last summer’s disaster. Based on what’s been reported, it appears the Sixers passed on giving a five-year max deal to Jimmy Butler but found the same money for a lesser player in Harris. Worse yet, instead of addressing the glaring need for a ballhandling creator on the perimeter that Butler’s loss exposed, Philly used its cap space from Butler’s departure to address the all-important backup center position and drop nearly $100 million on Al Horford. (Side note: Old friend Richaun Holmes was again a free agent and signed a bargain deal in Sacramento that provided massive value).
The deals for Harris and Horford rate among the worst in the game right now, but we’re not done yet. Philly also messed up by using its midlevel exception on little-used forward Mike Scott – once again neglecting the guard positions that loomed as such a weakness.
The Sixers did make one wise signing, however: Inking Trey Burke for the minimum. It might have been the best vet minimum deal of the 2019 summer. Alas, he hardly played and was cut in February, and now plays a key role for Dallas as exactly the type of shot-creating guard the Sixers lack. At least they hung on to Kyle O’Quinn, though, right?
Was it worth it?
To say The Process was a mistake because of the current status of the Sixers is to entirely miss the point. In fact, the opposite is true: That the Sixers could remain a playoff team despite the profusion of own-goals shows the value of the original plan. The truth is that the trade-acquired assets and high lottery picks from four years of suckitude loaded the dice so heavily in Philadelphia’s favor that nobody could possibly screw it up, no matter how many times they shot themselves in the foot.
Look at all those mistakes I enumerated above. Some involved tertiary assets, but several of them were serious, franchise-level gaffes. The Sixers made all of those mistakes within a four-year period, used a top-three pick on a guy with zero value, and still have a good team.
The entire reason it didn’t end in a catastrophic, cellar-dweller-for-a-decade-type disaster – like it would have for many other teams – is because the Sixers had such a ridiculous surfeit of draft-pick value that they could waste a huge chunk of it and still survive.
They could wildly overpay for half-seasons of role players and still have enough left in their asset quiver to land Butler and Harris. They could burn valuable picks in nearly every trade and send away Mikal Bridges on draft night, and still have enough picks left over to land Matisse Thybulle and Shake Milton. They could sign two of the bottom 10 contracts in the league and, even this spring, still inspire fear as a potential playoff opponent.
The NBA agrees with me.
Okay, the league hasn’t come out and said this, but it tacitly acknowledged that Philadelphia pursued a desirable strategy by limiting the incentives for teams to repeat it. Most notably, the league restructured the lottery odds in response to the Sixers’ intentional demise, helped along by the imitators who jockeyed for position ahead of the loaded 2018 draft. (Not that we would have done such a thing in Memphis, of course. I don’t know how we went 4-29 in our last 33 games that year but it greatly upset me. I’ll have to go back and see how that happened.)
As a result, we’re not going to see a strategy quite like this again. Philly’s own picks that ended up third, third, first and third in a four-year span would be unlikely to do nearly as well in the present lottery rules. Just ask Cleveland, which had the second-worst record each of the past two seasons but will pick fifth both times. Those lottery changes tilt the odds massively away from a long-term tanking project. Being horrible every year and still having a 50% chance of landing outside the top 4 just isn’t worth it.
Of course, you’ll still see “rebuilding” projects, like the one in Memphis the past two years where the Grizzlies rightly turned Marc Gasol and Mike Conley into draft capital, young players and trade exceptions. Every organization hits a point where trading old for young makes sense.
What you will never see again, however, is something quite as unabashed as what Hinkie attempted … at least unless the lottery rules change again to more heavily favor the teams with the worst records.
Until then, judgments will rain down on the one and only example of a sustained multi-year tank job in league annals. So let me lend my own: The irony is that the Sixers’ litany of mistakes over the past three years don’t prove that The Process was a mistake. They reveal what an overwhelming advantage it gave to a team whose roster offered no real prospect of enduring success.
It’s great that the league took away the incentives for teams to do this … but it also was the best way for Philadelphia to play its hand. The Process is dead, slowly strangled for years by terminal managerial incompetence before it was finally extinguished on Sunday. Its lessons, however, live on.