A discussion about the merits of the Philadelphia 76ers’ ongoing rebuilding strategy, which seems to never end.
The Philadelphia 76ers took another big man with the No. 3 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, which sparked the following discussion about the logic of Sam Hinkie’s long- long- long- long-term plan. Should we really be criticizing the rare sports executive willing to be patient, or has Hinkie gone too far?
MIKE PRADA: By now, everyone knows that the Philadelphia 76ers took big man Jahlil Okafor with the No. 3 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft despite using top picks on big men Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel in the previous two seasons. Barring a major setback with Embiid’s foot injury (which may indeed be the case), all three players are expected to be healthy enough to play next year. Meanwhile, the 76ers have zero NBA-quality ball-handlers and only a couple young wing players (Robert Covingto and Jerami Grant, who is more of a Stretch 4 anyway) that have even shown an NBA pulse.
The move for Okafor was yet another example of GM Sam Hinkie’s strategy to collect assets independent of actually building a basketball team. This is Hinkie’s third draft executing this strategy and folks are getting antsy. Our Tom Ziller called the strategy “wholly foreign” and “extraordinary cold.” Even some of the biggest Hinkie supporters on SB Nation 76ers site Liberty Ballers are antsy for some results.
Yet you said something interesting as we were preparing to publish Tom’s piece on Friday morning. You said you don’t think the 76ers’ plan is that weird at all. What makes you think that?
BILL CONNELLY: So I feel strange jumping into this conversation, in part because if anybody knows one single thing about me, it’s (perhaps unfortunately) the numbers thing. So the response will be “Of course he thinks Sam Hinkie knows what he’s doing.” And I do! To some degree, at least.
That’s not the same thing as saying I think he’s absolutely going to succeed. The risks of what he’s doing are quite obvious, and they may be coming to fruition. But I still very much understand the process, and it doesn’t seem weird to me.
The best example I can give of why Hinkie’s moves make sense is the 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They had an interesting young core of players — Scott Kazmir and James Shields on the mound, and Edwin Jackson was (I believe) still considered an exciting prospect. They had Melvin Upton, Carl Crawford, Delmon Young, maybe throw in Dioner Navarro … Jonny Gomes and Rocco Baldelli were still mid-20s. They had too many similar players in the field and not enough pitching — they were clearly stockpiling instead of putting together a truly balanced team, and they went 66-96 in 2007.
And then they traded Young for Matt Garza. That wasn’t the ONLY move they made, but that single move balanced the squad out a ton. Jackson improved quite a bit, and suddenly the Rays had a killer rotation. Top prospect Evan Longoria was suddenly ready, and the offense remained the same without Young. With one primary trade and a bunch of young guys developing, they went from scoring 782 runs and allowing 944 to scoring 774 and allowing 671, and they won 97 games.
Of course, maybe they simply improved because they got rid of the word “Devil,” but the main lesson there to me was that you can go from unbalanced and strange to “hey, this makes perfect sense” really quickly. Combine that with Oakland’s Billy Beane treating guys like commodities and moving pieces around like crazy in the late-1990 and early-2000s, and you see that both of the things that Hinkie is going have worked … in baseball, at least.
Basketball’s obviously a different sport. What one guy does can impact another guy more in basketball than baseball. Familiarity and chemistry mean more. So maybe this process is doomed to fail.
But … I get it. I get what he’s going for.
It’s hilarious to look up the Sixers’ stats and see that TWENTY-FIVE GUYS logged minutes for them this year, but I see that as an acknowledgment of transition. It’s OK to admit you’re in a transition period as long as you have a plan for getting out of it.
Obviously, as Tom mentioned, the Sixers have been opaque with communicating their timeline and plan to the public. And obviously, Hinkie’s been there a little while now. But really, he’s only been there for two seasons. The odds are pretty good that he’s not done making moves for 2015-16 yet.
The premise is simple: stockpile assets until you can make your move. It’s been reported that he tried to land Andrew Wiggins last year, so maybe he’s trying to make that leap but hasn’t gotten it done yet. (And we figure he probably would have preferred drafting DeAngelo Russell to Jahlil Okafor.)
Maybe he won’t get it done. But the plan itself is obvious, and now we’re just waiting to see if he can get The Move made before his time runs out.
So really, this is about semantics as much as anything else. I don’t know if what he’s doing will work, but I don’t at all consider it strange. Considering how many teams have stunk for long periods of time while doing the same-old, I can’t believe someone hasn’t gone this far down this road before.
MIKE: So there are a couple points to unpack here, and they get lumped in together anytime we talk about the 76ers.
The first is the roster churn criticism. Like you said, the 76ers run through a ton of players, which makes people uncomfortable. There’s something very cold about the idea of a player as an “asset.” The phrase is so embedded in sports culture that it’d be totally unfair to blame Hinkie for the phenomenon. But his strategy — if not his words — does suggest that players can be traded in and out continuously.
That can have practical implications. Agents will stop playing ball with you, which could cost your team future clients when the money is close to equal. Teams won’t pick your trade offer over another team with whom they have a better relationship, which torpedoes the asset collection strategy in practice. While most 76ers players say publicly that the organization has treated them well, there’s a reason the NBA Players Association is investigating the 76ers for CBA violations. The NBA is a small league: fewer players, fewer power agents, fewer executives. Piss off the wrong person and that could really cost you.
But the other issue is what actually happens on the court, which happens to be my biggest criticism of Hinkie’s gambit. There are some who believe the inter-personal challenges of Hinkie’s plan are overrated. Two elements matter most: money and talent. The 76ers can offer money when they want to and they have talent. One could argue Okafor, Noel and Embiid were the best players in their classes. Flip one to balance the roster with value and Philly could take off, just like you said. The Rays are a great case study of that.
But in the interim, those players have to all get better, and this is where I struggle. You compare the Sixers to the Rays, but baseball is an individual game. It doesn’t really matter if Delmon Young and Carl Crawford are similar players because they play different positions and rarely interact on the field. It does matter that Okafor and Noel are a poor match because neither can throw the ball into the ocean from outside of 10 feet.
This was my issue with trading Michael Carter-Williams. Sure, at the time of the trade, a future first-round pick with limited protection is a better asset than Carter-Williams in a vacuum. But the only reason the 76ers even considered trading MCW is that he had not developed as a player in his second season. The reason he didn’t develop as a player is because the 76ers’ horrible roster of walking assets couldn’t set a screen, space the floor or finish any of MCW’s passes. MCW may never be a star, but the 76ers’ strategy was just making him worse.
The same thing happens with these three centers. There’s only one ball and they can’t all play. When they can’t all play, their value as assets goes down. Even wedging two of the three onto the court could really hurt the value of Hinkie’s other young assets because of the importance of spacing in today’s game.
Hinkie treats them as independent variables when in reality they could not be more dependent on the way they interact with each other and with their teammates.
The Sixers have thrown away two seasons and likely a third following this non-basketball strategy. That’s why people who follow this league think it’s weird.
BILL: The agent thing certainly means more in basketball than baseball, simply because, with no salary cap, teams in markets like Tampa Bay and Oakland are rarely going to be major players for big free agents. That’s a risk you don’t really have to worry about. You’re drafting and trading for your team. So yeah, I agree with that being an extra risk.
(As for trading with teams … if you have the best deal on the table, and they take some other deal because they don’t like you, then they might be awful executives.)
As for having three centers, that’s so obviously weird that I’m assuming they don’t all remain in place for long. Part of the logic here might simply be that if you have three potential superstars, then one might actually become that guy. If you figure out who that’s going to be quickly enough, you can move either or both of the other two and build your team around that guy. That’s putting trust in your ability to recognize which one’s The Guy, of course. That they went ahead and picked Okafor over someone who may have seemed like a better fit — Mudiay, Hezonja, whoever — might tell us which one they like the most.
I understood the MCW move, if only from a timing perspective. The goal is probably to have as many young, recent draftees (with their affordable salaries) peaking at the same time. Since they were basically dealing with redshirts in Noel and Embiid, they obviously weren’t going to be ready for another year or two, so dumping Carter-Williams after his high 2013-14 usage, when his value was high, made sense. (Of course, since he kinda stunk before the trade hurt the “sell high” idea.)
Again, this is all sensible to me as long as you don’t hold the dagger in your hand too long. You can’t push around assets forever because you’ll get fired. But there’s no point in him panicking either. If he doesn’t think he has the pieces, he has to keep moving them till he does … if he ever does.
MIKE: The thing about awful executives is they tend to be the ones that have disgruntled superstars to trade. So maybe it’s good to play a long game and get on their sides. Sure, Vivek, you can trade for whoever you want!
But those are all fair points, particularly the one about MCW, who just might not be that good. He didn’t exactly light the world on fire in Milwaukee and is already older than most second-year players. Like you said, he will be up for an extension before Embiid and Noel come into their own.
I’m just not sure there’s really that moment where teams all of a sudden flip a switch and say, “Hey guys, we’re going to try to win now!” It’s very corporate-speak to say that Stage 1 of a plan is complete, and when we’re ready, we move to Stage 2. Hinkie obviously believes that’ll work in basketball, but I think there are too many external factors — lottery luck, injuries, a trade target that becomes available, off-court issues that affect players or just plain old personality conflicts in either direction that cannot be anticipated — that force teams to change their strategies. This is much more of a zero-sum industry than other fields.
The best organizations compete and stay flexible to get better. Daryl Morey, Hinkie’s mentor in Houston, kept the Rockets around .500 and churned through the roster before cashing in to get James Harden. His mentor, Danny Ainge, does the same thing well in Boston. Last year’s champions in Golden State certainly didn’t stay patient.
What those organizations have that the 76ers lack is an on-court identity. Houston pushes the limits with three-pointers. Boston thinks about defense from the outside in rather than the inside out. Golden State prioritized size on the wings and flexible defense before everyone else did. Those stylistic decisions make the players they bring in look better and thus turns them into better assets, which allows them to be cashed in the way Hinkie wants for his assets.
The 76ers don’t have that stylistic baseline — they can say they want to mimic Houston, but Okafor is in no way a traditional Moreyball player. It’d be one thing if they churned through pieces in the name of finding fits for their identity above all else, like their football-playing neighbors. It’s another when there is no identity.
BILL: A perfectly fair point. Last year, Philly seemed to have the makings of a potentially great defensive team but had the most horrific offense possible, with or without MCW. Even if they love Okafor, he’s pretty old-school. He runs counter to both the Morey style of open basketball and whatever identity they were developing last year. It was clearly a “best guy available” pick. At No. 3, they got a guy people used to think would go No. 1. Value!, sure, but it didn’t really move the team forward. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned, he’s probably not done making moves yet.
There’s no question that the clock is ticking and that assets have to turn into a defined roster and style. That said, he’s still only been there two seasons. He inherited a team that hadn’t won more than 43 games since 2002 (and four times since 1991), one with a rotting roster, and decided to burn the house to the ground instead of fruitlessly refurbishing it. I respect the hell out of that, even if, 24 months after his hiring, he’s only gotten so much of the foundation laid.
I hope he succeeds because I admire when GMs aim high and adhere to a set of program-building values instead of simply trying to keep their jobs, and obviously the stat aspect of this whole process appeals to me. But we’ll see. This is in no way a strange thing to me, but the next 12 months will probably prove whether he’s got any chance of succeeding or not.