Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Crappiness: A Closer Look at the Sixers

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Sixers’ plan is stupid.

It’s not disgraceful. It’s not wrong. Losing 26 games in a row last year — or 17 in a row this year — isn’t some kind of moral plague on the NBA. There’s nothing evil about drafting Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel and allowing each of them to heal from injuries for a season, and there was nothing wrong with trading Michael Carter-Williams in exchange for a lottery pick. I don’t think Sam Hinkie is making all of these moves to string fans along as part of what Grantland’s Rafe Bartholomew has jokingly called the NBA’s first pyramid scheme. Hinkie and the Sixers want to be great — not just good — and they think this blueprint is the best way to do it. It might even work. They might be a title contender in five years.

But it’s pretty stupid.

Or, at least, it’s no smarter than what other teams are doing. Some Philly fans might see this column and think, Another hot take on Hinkie! No. This is a hot take on Hinkie:

The little boy with a Michael Carter-Williams jersey will never understand why his favorite player is not a Sixer anymore. How are we supposed to explain to a child what “optionality” is?

There’s a column like that every other week. No one has any idea what Hinkie is doing, the Sixers roster is a sideshow, and it’s all a disgrace to Philadelphia. Sometimes you find all of the above, but only in the best Marcus Hayes columns. The dumbest, most emotional reactions actually work in the team’s favor. All of it insulates the Sixers against any legitimate skepticism. Anyone who doubts this plan must be a fool, because look at all the other fools doubting this plan!

That’s my real problem with what the team is doing. It’s not the plan that’s been unbearable, it’s the cult of Sixers fans and media members who insist on mocking the skeptics while they marvel at Philly’s brilliance. The NBA system incentivizes losing, they say. Lose to win. Here’s a GM who’s smart enough to exploit the system for as many chances as possible.

I get it. I really do. The only thing wrong with what Philly’s doing are the people who think it’s some profound approach to basketball philosophy. Just because something is counterintuitive doesn’t make it more intuitive.

Start with the fundamental idea: lose to win.

Are We Sure Tanking Actually Works?

There have been three triumphant NBA tanking efforts. The first involved the Spurs. When David Robinson broke his foot at the end of 1996, their season crumbled, and San Antonio decided to keep Robinson on the sideline and bottom out. Spurs fans will deny this happened, and I guess you can’t prove it one way or another. But San Antonio landed the no. 1 pick at the end of Robinson’s prime, drafted Tim Duncan, and won five titles over the next 17 years.

The Celtics also tanked in 1996-97. They went all in to get Duncan and came away with Ron Mercer and Chauncey Billups. They didn’t make the playoffs for another five years.

Boston’s tanking success didn’t come until 10 years later. With a roster built around Paul Pierce and younger players like Al Jefferson and Rajon Rondo, the team was going nowhere. So when Pierce went down with a vague “stress injury,” Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge held him out for most of the second half of the 2006-07 season. A starting lineup that featured Ryan Gomes and Allan Ray finished out the year at the bottom of the league. That spring, they got screwed in the lottery and wound up with the fifth pick. Then they got lucky. They turned that fifth pick into Ray Allen, and then Kevin Garnett wanted out of Minnesota, and Ubuntu was born. Boston won a title 10 months later.

The other side of that Ray Allen Celtics deal is what the Sixers are chasing. Seattle stripped its roster in 2007, in part to rebuild around Kevin Durant and (maybe, possibly) in part because the owners were gearing up to move the team to Oklahoma City. They traded Allen and Rashard Lewis, and while Washington state was stalling on stadium proposals, attendance suffered — it certainly didn’t hurt that the basketball product became borderline unwatchable (even with Durant). Over the next two years, all the losing birthed a title-contending nucleus that also featured James Harden, Serge Ibaka, and Russell Westbrook. It’s just that they played in Oklahoma City.

In other words, the only recent examples of tanking to a title come from two teams that already had franchise players and used one bad season to rebuild on the fly. That’s why it always made the most sense for a team like the Knicks to sit Carmelo and lose as much as possible this year. You never know what can happen. For everyone else, there’s a chance you could be the ’97 Spurs, but there’s a much better chance you will be the ’97 Celtics. The only recent example of a full-scale, multiyear tanking success story comes from a team that quite possibly used that strategy to kill basketball in its own home city. That’s the dream.

I’m not saying losing deliberately is a horrible idea, but it’s OK to look at the history before we call it brilliant. If the Sixers are going DEFCON: TANK for several seasons in a devious play to maximize the probability of landing a title nucleus … shouldn’t it matter that this only really worked three times in 20 years? Is this plan really that devious?


Winning Helps Draft Picks Develop

The Sixers are building with young players.

Young players learn how to play in the NBA by listening to veterans and playing meaningful games.

What happens to young players if there are no meaningful games and no veterans?

I remember hearing Stan Van Gundy address this at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference a few years ago. He was talking about the Wizards and their young core of JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche, and Nick Young. He said they all had talent, but that the NBA wasn’t a video game and young players didn’t just automatically improve. The Wizards trio was destined to fail because they never had an opportunity to learn. When those guys took a bad shot or fell asleep on defense, there was nobody else to play, so they didn’t get benched and they just kept making the same mistakes.

It’s not much different in Philadelphia. The Sixers are betting on young players without investing in the veteran infrastructure that could help those bets pay off. Van Gundy’s position isn’t grounded in analytics, but the anecdotes are all over the league. There’s a reason most of the worst teams stay that way year after year.

They could try to address this in free agency by stealing someone like Mike Conley Jr. in 2016, or maybe they trade for a star the way Hinkie landed Harden in Houston. They could dip into their endless reserve of first-round picks for the next disgruntled superstar (Boogie?), and all of this could start to turn around as early as next season. The only potential hole in this logic is that it assumes players with leverage would ever embrace coming to the Sixers after the past few years. Can you imagine Goran Dragic’s face if his agent starts pitching the Sixers to him? That’s the other hidden cost that comes with a culture of losing.

The only way this plan will look smart is if Philly lands a rookie who can transcend how dumb his surroundings are. That can happen. Durant was so good that playing for a horrible Seattle team didn’t change his trajectory at all. Eventually players like that make everything look better. It’s happening with Anthony Davis in New Orleans this year. It happened with LeBron, too. Andrew Wiggins is doing it in Minnesota. Maybe the Sixers will find that guy. It could be D’Angelo Russell or Karl-Anthony Towns as early as June.

But while Philly searches for hypothetical superstars, their real players like Carter-Williams and Noel have been stuck with an uphill battle. Speaking of which …

Tanking Works Only If You Draft the Right Players

It’s one thing to gut the roster and stockpile as many draft picks as possible, but at some point those picks have to turn into superstars. This is obvious. So far in Philadelphia, it’s not going well. Hinkie admitted defeat on Carter-Williams as early as last June, when he was shopping him to teams during the draft. After sitting out all of last year, Noel has looked decent but not dominant, and there’s always a chance he could be dealt too.

Here is where you can criticize the scouting department. If the core philosophy of the Sixers has been to take the player who can be great — next season be damned! — why didn’t they use one of those two lottery picks on someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo? Or Dennis Schroder? Rudy Gobert? It would be one thing for a regular GM to miss on those players, but this is the team that’s thinking outside the box. Hinkie doesn’t care about winning. The Sixers are thinking long-term and building a core group over several years in the draft. If the goal is home runs, shouldn’t it matter that Philly is getting singles?

There’s also Dario Saric, a late-lottery pick last year who may not come to the United States until 2016 or 2017. But this is another stroke of brilliance, you see. As Pablo Torre wrote in ESPN The Magazine:

Another front office might have been afraid to select a player who might not come to the U.S. for two years. But here, as with injury, the cost of a young, foreign centerpiece not immediately playing for the Sixers is exceptionally discounted. Even better, an NBA team doesn’t even pay an overseas pick who has yet to suit up for it, meaning that the rest of the planet can effectively serve as a free minor league system. Hinkie, who has modeled exchange rates for foreign-to-domestic stats, has four other prospects — all second-rounders — still ripening in Turkey, Germany, China and Australia.

Right. If Hinkie had drafted Antetokounmpo or Gobert, they would be be playing overseas right now.

Maybe this is actually for the best in Saric’s case. While actual rookies underwhelm everyone in Philadelphia, Saric can be the home run. And whenever he finally comes to the NBA, he will inherit that rookie deal. It’s one more shrewd wrinkle to help keep the cap flexible, so Philly can spend money to build around … what, exactly?

That brings us to Joel Embiid. When the Sixers lost the lottery and grabbed Embiid third, they drew near-universal praise on draft night. The conventional wisdom went like this: Sure, he won’t play until 2015-16, but he had the highest upside of anyone on the board. If he sits out a year, that will make it even easier for the Sixers to tank again, and they’ll come back in 2016 with even more talent.

Texas at KansasRich Sugg/Kansas City Star/MCT

I was in love with Embiid when he was at Kansas. I studied his highlights and defended his honor in officewide arguments. Anyone who could move that well and score like that at 19 years old was destined to be amazing. Where someone like Noel had Joakim Noah as his absolute best-case scenario, Embiid had Hakeem Olajuwon. The only question was injuries. He’d had a lot of them: a knee injury last year, a back injury that hit in high school and at Kansas, and enough questions about his frame to make you do a double take.

These are not things you want to hear about the next Olajuwon.

One week before the draft, we found out he had a broken foot. This was when the injury questions turned into something like the injury answer. There were rumors about a bone density problem, but the facts were more damning than the rumors. The scariest injuries for big men are back problems and foot problems, and Embiid had both. Since then, he has ballooned to 275 pounds and reportedly clashed with the Sixers training staff, and still hasn’t played.

The one Philadelphia rookie who actually exceeded expectations was K.J. McDaniels. But after Hinkie lowballed him in contract talks last summer, it cost the Sixers any shot at keeping him. Without any leverage, Hinkie traded him to Houston for Isaiah Canaan and a second-round pick.

It may be unfair to hold injury concerns and other teams’ home run picks against Hinkie, but if the idea is that Philly will build around Embiid, a player who supposedly will make all the failure worth it … that might not end well.

What the Sixers Say About Analytics

The Embiid pick is nearly impossible to criticize. The Sixers took the best player available, and they weren’t going to win this year anyway, so the cost of one lost season doesn’t hurt them. This is all part of the process for Hinkie, and the process is all about calculated risks.

This is official Sixers policy. Hinkie himself has talked about it.

If it pays off, great.

If not, it was still a smart gamble.

“One of the things that made [Philly] even more attractive to me,” he told Liberty Ballers last year, “was [owner Josh Harris] standing up publicly and saying ‘[the Bynum trade] is a decision I would do again.’ That is very, very, very important to me.

“We talked a lot about process, not outcome,” he continued. “About trying to consistently take all the best information you can get and make consistently good decisions. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. You should re-evaluate them all, but the fact that [Harris] can stand up after what was considered, and is fair to say, was such a failure, and say that’s a decision he would do again, that means a lot to someone like me.”

But if we’re talking process and outcome, think back to where Bynum went after the Sixers. Cleveland put together a partially guaranteed $25 million contract for a big man who’d just missed an entire season and alienated all of Philadelphia. It was considered a brilliant gamble at the time. No downside. Then he showed up out of shape, didn’t want to play basketball, and (amazingly, like a legend that will never be forgotten) “he was shooting the ball every time he touched it in a practice scrimmage, sources said — from whatever remote part of the court he had caught the ball.”

Shining beacon of practice swag aside, Bynum’s presence hung over the first part of the Cavs’ season. By the time he was traded, the Cavs were 11-23 and in 13th place. Cleveland packaged Bynum with a first-round pick and two second-rounders to land Luol Deng in a last-ditch effort at a playoff run. At what point does the insane result matter more than the “smart” risk?

Everyone in Philadelphia could have told you Bynum’s injuries really were that serious, and that he didn’t seem to care about basketball. It didn’t matter how clever Cleveland’s gamble was. It wasn’t going to work.

That “trusting the process” mantra is a pillar of both the Sixers and the analytics movement in general. It rubs some GMs the wrong way, and aside from putting together an embarrassing product on the court, that near-religious dedication to “process” is probably the biggest reason the Sixers are so polarizing right now. While most of the league is judged on results, the Sixers treat basketball like a science experiment.

Depending on what you read, the war on advanced statistics will either never end or it’s already over. The truth is that analytics are so ingrained in the way NBA teams do business that denying their relevance is an act of desperation that borders on delusion. But the resentment will continue to percolate against quants like Hinkie for as long as guys like him seem to be graded on a separate curve from ex-players like Mitch Kupchak.

The Lakers investing in Kobe Bryant while they rebuild for two years actually isn’t much different from the Sixers investing in Noel and Embiid. Both teams are asking fans to believe in something that’s not really there. But one team is praised for being at the top of this list and one team is mocked for being at the bottom. If the Lakers are in better shape than the Sixers next summer, will anyone issue an apology?

This is the biggest problem with analytics in the NBA. It’s a language to describe basketball that often values methodology over actual basketball. The Sixers are a perfect example of how this can go wrong. Carter-Williams is in Milwaukee, Noel is not a star, Embiid is hurt, and Saric is in Turkey through the next presidential election. The methods behind every move were sound, but the bigger picture is murkier. After four lottery picks and two lost seasons with Hinkie in charge, the rebuilding project is no closer to completion than when it began. The only true on-court success of the Hinkie era has been Robert Covington, a forward who might one day crack the rotation for a playoff team.

It exposes a blind spot in the analytical ideology. When you put your faith in a cost-benefit analysis that produces a flawed outcome, it doesn’t matter whether the process itself was sound.

That’s the final point.

The Costs and Benefits of the Cost-Benefit Religion

From that ESPN The Magazine story last month, we go inside the meeting that got Hinkie hired:

Hinkie … walked into dinner carrying a laptop, complete with a massively detailed PowerPoint presentation that Sixers executives now recall as an “investment thesis.” Its centerpiece was a diagram that illustrated, arrow by arrow, transaction by transaction, how Houston had amassed the assets — two first-rounders and a second-rounder, along with guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb — to acquire superstar guard James Harden from the Thunder in October … a month after the Sixers had hired [Tony] DiLeo. Hinkie’s abstract vision for artfully delayed NBA production suddenly felt concrete.

Again, he’s painted as the John Nash of the NBA — taking laptops to dinner, explaining the labyrinthine means for stealing superstars. Personally, I like Kyle Lowry’s endorsement better:

“Sam’s one of my favorite people,” Lowry said, fully aware that not all of his own friends in Philly are happy with the Sixers right now. “I always said he’d be a GM, and he’ll be a great GM. He just knows the game. He understands the analytics, of course. But he also knows the game. He would come to me and talk about certain things. He was always asking questions: ‘What about this? What do you think about this?’ It was kind of a mutual relationship because he respected what I did as a basketball player, and I respected what he did as a guy in management.”

That quote is why I’d be frustrated if I were a Sixers fan.

Hinkie could be great at his job. He could be winning right now. Don’t let the background in numbers distract you. GMs who believe in advanced analytics are typically some of the best GMs in basketball. Their intellectual tendencies don’t mean they don’t know what’s happening on the court, just that they have a relentless curiosity that makes them good at their job.

This is what Hinkie built his career on, and it’s why you’d have to be insane to bet against him eventually winning in Philadelphia. He will keep working to find stars, he’ll discover great role players like Covington, and he’ll put together a team that’s much better and a lot more fun than the Jrue Holiday–Thad Young roster he inherited. The Sixers’ plan may be stupid, but Hinkie is almost certainly very, very smart.

It just hasn’t made a difference on the court. Two weeks ago, he traded away his team’s best player for a theoretical Lakers lottery pick that may not arrive until 2016. It was another completely defensible, logically sound move. Totally consistent with the Sixers’ plan. The potential benefits (lottery pick) outweighed the costs (losing a potential starter), and Carter-Williams wasn’t very good. Turning him into another lottery pick was definitely a win.

But Carter-Williams was also never given a chance to succeed. He was allowed to turn into a gunner through the second half of his rookie year; he could turn the ball over and there wouldn’t be any consequences, because the Sixers didn’t have another option for most of his tenure there. He could’ve been a pass-first guard, but there was nobody to pass to. We’ll never know how good MCW could’ve been in Philly, mostly because Philly hasn’t been trying for good. Hinkie wants great.

That’s the part that doesn’t make much sense. While the Sixers wait out the next several years to cash in on the benefits that may or may not materialize, there’s a real cost now. It’s hard to explain this to the most evangelical Hinkieogolists, but sometimes it really is more fun to win now — even just a little bit — and figure everything else out later. I speak from experience. The Wizards went on a playoff run last season, and everyone knew the success would mean bringing back a deeply flawed brain trust, but it was absolutely worth it. The playoffs were like a drug, and it didn’t matter what the hangover would be.

With Hinkie, it’s not even a mutually exclusive choice. It’s not like trying to be competitive this year would have kept him from being a great GM who’s always thinking three steps ahead. They could still stockpile assets and try to get lucky. Trying to win would just make the team watchable in the meantime. Instead, trying to win is considered shortsighted. The Sixers pose like a team that’s figured out the NBA, but sometimes I wonder if they understand it less than anyone.

The Sixers’ plan is stupid because it assumes that there’s a smart way to land a championship nucleus. There really isn’t. Cleveland fell ass-backward into LeBron this summer. Seattle landed Durant because Portland’s doctors guessed wrong on Greg Oden. The Wolves landed Wiggins because Kevin Love wanted out of town. The Pelicans bottomed out and landed Davis only because David Stern vetoed a Chris Paul trade that would’ve made them more competitive. The NBA is anarchy. Hinkie should know this from experience.

In that same Paul trade, Hinkie’s former team, Houston, was set to land Pau Gasol, at which point it would have also maxed out the salary cap to sign NeneThose decisions would cost the Rockets a shot at Harden, and David Stern is the only reason it never happened. Was that included in the PowerPoint presentation to Sixers executives?

The point isn’t that Hinkie got lucky, it’s that every great team has to get lucky. Sometimes it’s stumbling into a superstar at the perfect moment; other times it’s landing the top pick in the perfect draft. You can’t plan your way into getting struck by lightning — and that’s really what the Sixers are trying to do. It’s not particularly clever, and it’s not even a little bit complicated. Sam Hinkie is the GM who’s out there in the rain, holding a giant metal pole in the air. Every new lottery pick is another pole for him to wave at the sky.

When it’s over, he might look like a genius, or he might look like a sad man who spent three or four years standing in a storm with a bunch of poles in the air. You might say this whole process depends on the outcome.

Filed Under: NBA, Philadelphia 76ers, Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams, Sam Hinkie, Los Angeles Lakers, Andrew Sharp, Tankonia

Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp