Philadelphia 76ers - 'The Process' and the future

On 10th April 2016, Bryan Colangelo was hired as the President of Basketball Operations of the Philadelphia 76ers in the aftermath of what has begun to be endearingly referred to as “The Process'”. This is a term adopted by his predecessor, Sam Hinkie, who in his three seasons with the team went on a spree of asset selling, draft pick accumulation and minimal salary expenditure.

Hinkie arrived to the 76ers in the summer of 2013, and found the cupboard was bare. Coming off of a 34-48 win season, the Sixers had lost eight wins over their record the previous season despite ostensibly being a young team. The downfall came about because of a disastrous trade – as a part of a four team deal, the Sixers traded Andre Iguodala, Nikola Vucevic, Mo Harkless and a first round pick (#5, 2017, De’Aaron Fox) to Orlando, in exchange for Jason Richardson from Orlando and Andrew Bynum from the L.A. Lakers.

Bynum never played for the Sixers, retiring before the age of 30, and Richardson was only ever salary filler.

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The team Hinkie inherited had as its best players Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young, two of the top four minutes recipients along with Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes. Clearly, Hinkie decided that if the cupboard was going to be bare of stars in this way, it might as well be completely and totally empty.

Hinkie immediately began a new ethos of team building based around minimal expenditure, signing only minimum salary and rookie-scale deals, claiming players off of waivers (James Anderson, Tim Ohlbrecht) and using the cap space to acquire contracts rather than sign them (Royce White; it is not a coincidence that the latter three were all Houston Rockets the season prior, the team from which Hinkie himself had come). He also traded Holiday for the draft rights to Nerlens Noel, simultaneously getting younger and cheaper. And this was just the first offseason of year one.

The parameters set out in that offseason were not deviated from. In particular, the strategy of using the team’s enormous and unused cap space in trade as a means of salary relief for other teams, with draft picks attached as incentive, became a mainstay of the entire Process. In his time with the team, the only free agent Hinkie ever signed to more than a minimum salary contract was Darius Morris, and even then, it was not by much. But the list of contracts acquired via trade – normally for no other contracts in return – is too long to get into.

What separated The Process from a more conventional rebuild was thus the degree to which Hinkie went about this task. A lot of teams deliberately worsen their on-court product in the short term in order to get nearer the top of the next draft, but not to this extent, and not for this long.

Hinkie’s team-building strategy remains unclear. We only ever saw his team-dismantling strategy. To be sure, he made some draft picks. But mostly, he just collected them. Hinkie arrived to the team, found it had incredibly few assets, and set about getting more assets than any team has ever had prior. At one point, the Philadelphia 76ers had 18 draft picks outstanding from other teams – even in this post-Hinkian world, they still have nine.

What all this asset accumulation does, however, is create a very real risk of diminishing returns. All the assets in the world cannot change the fact that there is only a certain amount of roster spots for players to sign to, and will be until such time as the NBA fully develops a large scale minor league. Notwithstanding potential trade value, a player’s rights are only of us if they ever play for you.

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In the beginning, the main manifestation of this excess was seen in all the second round picks that the team acquired. When leverage had diminished to the point that only second round picks could be sourced with bad contracts, as is the case with the contracts of Andrei Kirilenko, Alexey Shved, Marquis Teague, Spencer Hawes and others. Yet as a result, not all of these second round picks came to anything.

Among those picks, J.P. Tokoto and Jordan McRae were signed and cut without playing a game, their rights lost, the picks fruitless. Two more picks – and two good ones; the 39th pick in 2016 used on David Michineau and the 34th pick in 2017 used on Frank Mason) were traded in a very un-Hink move for rental point guard Ish Smith, reportedly at the behest of influential special adviser and Bryan’s dad, Jerry Colangelo. Cory Jefferson was sold by Hinkie, as were Jawun Evans and Sterling Brown by Colangelo. And Arsalan Kazemi was simply renounced.

In fairness, Hinkie’s Sixers are not unique here. Fellow asset accumulator Danny Ainge has had a similar problem in Boston, where second rounders including Ben Bentil, Demetrius Jackson, Jordan Mickey and Marcus Thornton eventually came to nothing due to a lack of space in which to put them. Indeed, most teams have genuinely experienced the 16-players-for-15-spots problem, often with their own second rounders.

This, in isolation, is not a problem. Most second rounders do not work out, an implicitly understood reality that everyone knows about, even as teams laud their acquisition openly. It does however speak to the wider problems of overindulging, roster gluts and diminishing returns that have since become pertinent in far more important ways.

In three consecutive years, the Sixers and Hinkie drafted what they hoped would be, and what common groupthink thought would be, the best player available. Firstly with Nerlens Noel in 2013, then with Joel Embiid and finally with Jahlil Okafor, the Sixers stuck with the Best Player Available principle regardless of the rotation log jam it caused. It just so happened that they were all centres.

The Best Player Available ethos is generally a wise one. To not abide by it is to draft Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony because you already have Tayshaun Prince. To do so is to lose. With NBA rosters turned over so rapidly and so regularly, there is little value in drafting with immediacy in mind when the right-now will likely be so different in as little as a year. Drafting is the very embodiment of a long game, and the best players of this game operate accordingly.

There does, however, come a limit. And Philadelphia ran into that limit with this centre trio.

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No combination of Okafor, Noel and Embiid could work on the court, neither in practice nor in theory. The only floor spacer of the trio, Embiid, is also the best player around the basket, and the most deserving of the centre spot whose ability to space the floor is more of a recent surprise that anything intended or previously available. Noel and Okafor are not good floor spacers, and while Noel at least has the theoretical fleet of foot to defend the perimeter-orientated power forwards so en vogue in the league today, this does not make him an optimum power forward. Not when Dario Saric is also around.

There was an opportunity for respite from this situation through another aspect unique to The Process. Hinkie drafted Noel knowing he was injured, and did the same with Embiid the following year, only to find that Joel was really, really injured. Hinkie did this partly on account of still believing they would be the best players available, and partly because their absences kept the talent level available to play immediately down, thus worsening the team’s on-court product and maximising the odds of another high pick the following season.

This in turn opened a theoretical trading window for Noel. There was time before Embiid returned to move Noel before his minutes and value diminished, with the Boston Celtics said to be interested at one point. The risk in not doing so would be that, feeling embattled at losing a spot he had played pretty well in, Noel would be unhappy and play accordingly.

Neither Hinkie nor Colangelo took any such deal, however, and as a result, the Noel situation spiralled. He had elective surgery on his knee – that is to say, he opted to have surgery rather than being required to have it – and openly complained about his lesser role with Embiid around. With that went his trade value; a pretty good player, but merely only pretty good, the trade value is never going to be there for a merely pretty good malcontent player with a history of injury who is approaching free agency with the stated intent to get a maximum value contract that his diminished value did not merit. The opportunity for any value was missed by all.

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Noel was eventually moved at the last trade deadline to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Justin Anderson and two second rounders. One of those second rounders will be conveyed in 2020; the other was used on Jawun Evans, one of the sold picks above. That was it for a man drafted sixth overall, who Jrue Holiday was traded for, and who was the first ‘piece’ acquired amid the entire Process.

That left Okafor, whose situation ran on until last month. There was an opportunity to move him for value, too; the time between his draft selection and Embiid’s return. That window however was quickly shrunk by Okafor’s play.

Okafor’s play on the court was never that good. He did score 17.5 points per game as a rookie, but rebounded only 17.8% of all defensive rebounds (for comparison’s sake, Kyle Lowry is grabbing 17.9% this season) and gave up countless points on the other end through an obvious and damaging defensive lethargy. Okafor did not just lose his spot to Embiid – he also lost it to Richaun Holmes, a second rounder who worked out, and Amir Johnson, a targeted vet to try and bolster the talent-development atmosphere of a team in which youth and inexperienced ruled the day, no matter the calibre of coaching.

Amid any rebuild, coaches are still charged with the task of improving the quality of the team they are presented with, whatever state of flux that team is in. Coaches are to develop all players presented to them, regardless of how long they are there for, and they have to try to win every game with whatever they have. To not do so is utterly antithetical to the idea of competitive sports. 76ers head coach Brett Brown has always done that. And doing that meant not playing Jahlil Okafor.

Having not played well in the minutes he was given when there was no competition, and not winning any back when they were taken away from him, Okafor found himself out of the rotation. There was no edict from management for Brown to play him anyway – the decision had already been made that he was not a part of the future, and his team option had been declined. On account of his play and his worrisome knee, there existed no reason for any team to trade for him, and there existed no trade value other than as an expiring contract.

And therefore another opportunity for value was lost.There is a clear thread to be found here. 

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Nevertheless, regardless of the returns from the Trades of Diminishing Return, it is worth considering the timeframe involved. The opportunity for value was lost a long before the eventual low-value trades that saw them leave.

Perhaps Colangelo missed a window of value for both Noel and Okafor once it became apparent that Embiid was the answer and they weren’t. But if there was a window of value, it was small, and came between between their drafting and their knee injuries. When that small window had passed, options were limited. Noel was leaving in free agency regardless, as was Okafor, and while the declining of Okafor’s team option brought out that impending free agency, it only sped up what had already been determined to be inevitable. Okafor did not win a spot on a team, and he needed a fresh start, yet no one wanted to give him one enough to pay anything for him. 

No one can win them all. Yet in taking three shots at finding a star centre, Hinkie was able to find one, the values of the other two be damned. In this respect, Hinkie’s strategy was a success. Also in this respect, Colangelo was set up to fail. He inherit a great player, but also two lesser talents at the same talents who didn’t want to be overlooked, whose contracts were inspiring, and whose knees weren’t great. Neither situation behoves great value. Trevor Booker and Justin Anderson are lesser talents, but at least they want to be there.

Notwithstanding the collateral, Hinkie’s accumulation of assets worked. Two of his top five draft picks worked out, as did some other acquisitions around them (Dario Saric, Holmes, Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell) which now form the foundation of the team going forward. The beautiful and intended benefit of having so many bullets in the gun is that they didn’t all have to hit. Teams that tank for a quality draft pick really have to hit a home run with that pick for the strategy to work. But teams that tank for five of them only need two hits to have a foundation. His mistakes have lingered into the present narrative, but that is not his problem. Indeed, it is no longer really anyone’s problem.

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To the future, then. The two centrepieces are in place, and while it is hard to remember considering the incredibly bizarre start to his career, Markelle Fultz should be the third. The thoroughly impressive play of fellow 2017 draftees Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum have made Fultz’s situation – injured and with dartitis in his free throw release – look all the worse. But it is merely optics. Embiid was once injured as well. Three times, in fact.

At the last draft, the Sixers had yet another number three overall pick to work with, and had more than maximum cap room to work with as well. They entered the off-season with the hope (or assumption) of having two stars, and had the means to acquire a third. And they were, of course, still replete with assets.

They deliberately came out of the offseason with roughly the same flexibility as they went in with. The Sixers acquired their assumed third star in Markelle Fultz, and in signing Johnson and J.J. Redick to only one year deals worth a combined $34 million, the 76ers have kept open the outside chance of a fourth star down the road, while also using the remaining to sign Robert Covington to a renegotiation/extension that will keep him below market value for the life of the contract. They have maintained their financial flexibility with a view to being able to add extra quality to the team before the time comes for Simmons to sign a maximum extension. Gone are the days of taking on the salary dumps and deliberately drafting the injured. This is about player accumulation now, not asset accumulation.

Unlikely though it may be, this continuation of flexibility is a very Processian approach, regardless of the optics. The Process prioritised the accumulation of assets above all else. The future changes the priorities, but does not ignore the value of assets and flexibility. Hinkie’s mistakes live on in the form of diminishing return trades, but so does the good he brought.

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With the Okafor situation resolved, there now remain only five players on the 76ers roster from the Hinkie era. The main additions are in place, especially with Fultz, whose bad start only means a huge amount if you want it to. The future now is about development and working to keep open the possibility of that one extra star.

In having Embiid on the books, the Sixers have a free agency asset, not just in the form of a great player but also in the form of a sales pitch. Athletic face-up four men who do not want to be forced to have to play centre will not have to if they come to Philadelphia, and that is not for nothing.

The past is the past, and its ability to inform/burden on dictating the future is pretty much over now that Noel and Okafor are resolved. Resolutions on both of those were ugly but unavoidable, and not to be overegged. The future involves three stars and possibly one more to come. And no amount of diminishing returns will change that.

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