“A league with 30 intense competitors requires a culture of finding new, better ways to solve repeating problems. In the short term, investing in that sort of innovation often doesn’t look like much progress, if any.”
In those two sentences alone, former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie summed up his tenure with the team. The Sixers went 47-199 during his three years at the helm, becoming an oft-derided laughingstock along the way.
Two years later, they won 52 games and earned their first berth in the Eastern Conference Semifinals since 2011-12, giving validation to Hinkie’s long-term vision.
Unlike the early-2010s Sixers, who advanced past the top-seeded Chicago Bulls solely because of fluke injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, this year’s squad legitimately deserved its first-round triumph over the Miami Heat. Philadelphia’s combination of top-tier young talent, complementary veteran contributions and coaching savvy coalesced, allowing Process Twitter to take a long-awaited victory lap.
When Hinkie took over the Sixers five years ago, they were in ruins. They had depleted their pipeline of young talent in a disastrous trade for Andrew Bynum, giving them little hope of escaping the NBA’s treadmill of mediocrity anytime soon. Barring drastic improvement from Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner or Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia had virtually no pathway toward acquiring a superstar player.
That didn’t sit well with Hinkie.
“History, for the most part, especially recently, especially in the current environment, with the current rules and the current collective bargaining agreement, history has been reasonably clear that superstar players matter,” he told reporters during his introductory press conference.
Hinkie thus set about attempting to acquire such players by whatever means necessary. He shipped Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for a pair of lottery picks. He stripped the roster of its remaining talent, embarking upon a multiyear tank to accrue as many high draft picks as possible. Rather than spend his cap space on veterans who could help win a few more regular-season games, he preserved it to exploit teams desperate to shed salary.
The Sixers’ on-court product in those lean years was all but unwatchable, outside of the few remaining diehards who relished in seeing the likes of James Nunnally and Brandon Davies strut their stuff. Their home attendance plunged to a league-low average of 13,940 per game during their 18-win campaign in 2014-15.
None of it matters now.
Ben Simmons finished his first playoff series with per-game averages of 18.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, 9.0 assists and 2.4 steals, and he became the first rookie since Magic Johnson in 1980 to record a triple-double in the postseason. Joel Embiid swung the series with his return from an orbital fracture in Game 3, averaging 18.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocks in his first three playoff games.
After the Sixers closed out the Heat in Game 5 on Tuesday, three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade showered Philly’s two young stars with praise, calling them the “future of the NBA.”
Cue a Hinkie mic drop.
Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell, a pair of Hinkie-signed undrafted free agents, played critical roles through Philly’s opening-round series. Dario Saric, who Hinkie traded down to acquire in the 2014 draft, made an enormous, well-rounded impact in his playoff debut.
The architect of the Process had his fingerprints all over this series win, but he wasn’t the only one to receive validation. Team president Bryan Colangelo, who took over for Hinkie after his resignation in April 2016, brought in the veteran leadership necessary to complement his young core.
Colangelo largely avoided the temptation to overspend in the free-wheeling summer of 2016, instead preserving his cap space for a bigger fish down the road. This past offseason, he handed J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson a combined $34 million for the 2017-18 campaign alone, but those one-year pacts again preserved Philadelphia’s financial flexibility moving forward.
Colangelo also remained aggressive throughout the season, bolstering his team’s bench with the post-trade-deadline additions of Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli. Without those two, the Sixers’ second unit likely would have been their downfall against a deep, seasoned Miami squad. Instead, Ilyasova and Belinelli combined for 27.4 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 3.4 triples against the Heat, helping to give Philadelphia’s reserves the best net rating of any playoff team.
Even though the Sixers ended the regular season on a franchise-record 16-game winning streak, it was fair to wonder how they’d fare in the crucible of the NBA playoffs. Did they largely fatten up on a host of bottom-feeders? How would their young players handle the intensity and physicality of the postseason as it ratcheted up from possession to possession and game to game?
They passed that first test with flying colors.
“It’s hard to put it into words really, to go from 10 wins to where we’re at now,” McConnell told The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann following their series-clinching victory Tuesday. “You got to [give] credit to everyone that has been involved in the front office, the players that have played here and the players that we have now. It’s been a long journey.”
The Sixers’ turnaround doesn’t prove the Process is the correct way to build a championship contender. It doesn’t mean every lottery team should follow in Philadelphia’s shoes next season. A host of mitigating factors influenced the Sixers’ decision to embark upon that road, and few (if any?) teams are as asset-poor at the moment as Philly was at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season.
But the 2017-18 Sixers are validating Hinkie, Colangelo and Process trusters alike.