Conspiracy Theory: Trash The Process

Sam Hinkie was and is an alltime weirdo. It barely takes any digging at all to confirm this plainly obvious thing. Hinkie is the man who developed the years-long Process, a scheme to repeatedly tank entire seasons in an attempt to stockpile top draft picks.

Hinkie’s argument was simple enough: there are only so many great players that teams can actually sign, and so in an attempt to avoid the inevitable bidding wars that result from pursuing those players, an organization’s best bet to get better is to find players in the draft. So began Hinkie’s The Process, which involved getting as many picks as he could in an attempt to assemble a young superteam.

The results were…underwhelming.  Hinkie’s picks included Michael Carter-Williams (who isn’t good), Joel Embiid (who is great but constantly injured), Ben Simmons (who is an unknown, and injured), and Dario Saric (who actually plays and contributes and who isn’t routinely injured…yet). Hinkie also routinely made trades – twelve-thousand of them, by some estimates –  that netted the team players like Nerlens Noel (who is good, but also routinely injured) and, uhh, other guys too.

But the problem with young players is that they are very rarely NBA ready, something that, under Hinkie, the 76ers took took inability to the absolute extreme, losing everything all of the time, and if there is any actual doubt about that, here are the team’s win totals under Hinkie: 19, 18, 10. That is not good.

Eventually, the 76ers brought in The Colangelos to fix the team. The popular explanation for this having happened is that Hinkie needed help running the team. The understood meaning of that explanation is that what Hinkie was doing – although entirely legal within the game’s rules – was embarrassing. His team wasn’t drawing on the road, and opposing owners were beyond horrified at the absurd gate receipts that resulted from such a non-entity coming to town. His approach was also cynical, in that he seemed to be pulling back the curtain on the lie that is the NBA’s free agency market, and that he was embracing losing (literally the antithesis of competitive sport) as an end-around.

But it seems entirely possible that The Colangelos were brought in to do something else entirely: to make sure that The Process never actually had a chance of working. Because one of the biggest problems for The Process’s critics was what appeared to be the potential for significant success at the end of this season.

All of the following are true:

  • Joel Embiid, although frequently injured, is in fact as good as advertised, and perhaps even better.
  • Nerlens Noel, although oft-injured, is a potentially beastly defensive presence.
  • Dario Saric can play.
  • Jahlil Okafor remains a player that other teams are interested in, even if his ability to substantively contribute in the modern game is more questionable.
  • The team has oodles of cap room available to go and get people.
  • And oh, by the way, the team still has draft picks stockpiled in what is being described as a very loaded draft (including the possibility of getting two top-ten picks if the Lakers do not end up in one of the draft’s top-three positions).

In other words, the 76ers are a young team stocked with thoroughly good/okay/decent players, and with money to spend, and with draft-picks remaining. They are in a perfect position to actually become something, but if that happens, then The Process actually worked, and if The Process actually worked, there is a legitimate threat that other teams would attempt the same thing.

The NBA (the league or its owners) cannot have that. This, perhaps more than anything, explains yesterday’s tremendously awful Nerlens Noel trade.

Noel was traded for literally pennies on the dollar, going to Dallas for all of the following: Justin Anderson (who nobody has ever heard of), Andrew Bogut (who is injured and will be immediately bought out), and a 2017 first-round draft pick. That seems like a slight haul but there is, in fact, a catch: the first-round pick is protected for the draft’s first 18 positions. What this means is that Dallas has to be one of the league’s last 12 teams standing for the pick to go to Philadelphia. But Dallas sucks, and isn’t going to make the playoffs. Its pick will be much, much higher than 18; Philadelphia ain’t getting it. What Philadelphia will be getting is two second-rounders in next year’s draft instead. Which means that the 76ers traded a prospect full of potential for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut, and two second-round draft picks.

The 76ers got screwed. Intentionally.

As did the team’s fans. Those fans are worth noting, as they have been the ones also enduring The Process. Their beloved team has been craptacular for a very long time, but they have remained loyal, and now, on the very precipice of a five-year promise coming to fruition, The Colangelos trade a significant piece of that promise away for nothing. Making things worse, they’re lying about it, telling fans repeatedly that they’re getting a first-rounder for Noel when in fact nothing of the sort is true.

Why? It cannot be that the 76ers actually believed that they were getting fair value on Noel – they are implicitly admitting as much by lying about what the team is getting in return. And it cannot be that they simply got fleeced by a better front office – The Colangelos have been doing this a long time, and had to know that what was being offered was insufficient to make the trade fair. So then there must be another reason for it.

That reason is undermining The Process in such a way as to make sure that nobody ever knows if it was every actually going to work. That lack of knowledge is what will make other teams more skittish in making their own attempts at it, and will save the league from simply rejiggering how the draft actually works (Hinkie only instigated The Process because drafts are, to a certain extent, gameable).

The organization and the league could no longer count on injuries doing the team’s work for it. It had to make sure that a team led by Embiid and Noel – and boosted by incoming draft picks, having signed available free agents, and filled out with players like Okafor and Saric – never actually saw the floor. Because that team might have worked out. That team might have done something. That team might have shown that The Process, although a very ugly thing, actually was capable of producing dividends worth the cost of investment.

Freaking Millenials

Several years ago, my father had a very mild heart attack. The doctors asked if he had a family history of heart trouble. He replied in the following way, “No, I don’t think so. I mean, my father had a heart attack, but he smoked, and his brother had a heart attack, and his father had a heart attack, and my great-uncle had a heart attack,” and while he was continuing to list every single male family member of his who had, in fact, had a heart attack, the doctors were turning to look at me.

“You’re next,” they said, which was worrisome.

As a result, I have continued to stay…well…passionate isn’t exactly the word…involved in my own health. I go a gym M-F and try to stay active on weekends. My father goes to the same gym – after a triple-bypass, he is likely healthier now than he was before the very mild heart attack.

Anyway, this is a gym at the local university, and it is staffed by both faculty and students. The students are young(er) (than me) which is by itself a criminal act but they are very nice and very helpful and I like going there very much.

Today, I went in wearing an NBA shirt that I happen to own and my student helper asked me, “Hey, are you a Clippers fan?” I said no, but that I loved basketball. “I only asked because I’m from California. I’m a Warriors fan!”

He was understandably very excited about his team. Any Warriors fan should be. The Warriors are great, even if they did blow a 3-1 lead in last year’s NBA Finals. I said as much to him. He said, “We didn’t have much to celebrate before that.”

I said, “Well, that’s true. You did have the Run TMC team, which was one of the all-time great What-If teams, but you’re too young for that, but you also had the Baron Davis Dunk and the Mavericks upset. That must have been pretty cool?”

This is the Baron Davis Dunk:

It is one of the greatest dunks in NBA history. It includes all of the following: an awesome dunk, over an awesome defender, in a playoff environment, in front of what was arguably the most-hyped NBA fanbase ever, with an announcer’s perfect call.

That dunk came after the greatest upset in NBA history.

This one:

Here is more about that upset.

His response to me having cited two of the greatest things about the Golden State Warriors? “Nah man, I don’t really remember any of that.”

So I killed him for being aggressively, unacceptably young.

Two 2nd Round Draft Picks Each Get Historic Triple-Doubles

The rarest players are the ones whose transition to the NBA is a sure thing. Shaquille O’Neal was a sure thing. Tim Duncan was a sure thing. LeBron James was a sure thing. The overwhelming majority of most basketball players are not sure things.

This is part of what makes basketball such an incredible sport. Players who excelled at previous levels can flame out spectacularly at the game’s highest level; players who merely whelmed at previous levels can become literal phoenixes. Within the last week, we have received two remarkable reminders of this second phenomenon.

Draymond Green

Does Green famously kick his opponents in the testicles? Yes. Is Green arguably the most important piece in Golden State’s juggernaut? Also, yes.

But unlike Kevin Durant (2nd overall pick), Steph Curry (7th overall pick), and Klay Thompson (11th overall pick), Green was selected 35th overall. Scouting didn’t see his rise, arguing that he compared favorably to players like Jared Dudley and Luke Harangody. Look at this evaluation of the man:

Weaknesses: One of those great college basketball players that doesn’t excel in any one particular area … Tweener, undersized for a physical forward yet lacks the athleticism of a wing … Lacks explosiveness, agility, elusiveness and quickness off the bounce … Under the rim finisher, which is troublesome when you consider his size … Not a threat to shake his defender off the dribble … Minimal upside … Vulnerable defending quicker guards on the perimeter … Could stand to drop some weight …

Are scouts dumb? No. But they were limited in their ability to imagine what Green might be able to accomplish which, to this point, is an NBA Championship, two All-Star teams, and two runner-ups for the NBA’s Defensive Player Of The Year.

Part of what those scouts were unable to imagine is just how effective a player willing to minimize scoring can actually believe. Green proved the point Friday night, posting the NBA’s first ever triple-double that didn’t involve points. His line – a staggering 4pts/12rbs/10ast/10stl/5blk – is simply unheard of and, to boot, it was one point shy of a 5×5, one of those odd statistical anomalies that only the most multi-tooled players are capable of achieving.

If Green’s triple-double underwhelms, perhaps the only other thing worth noting is this: only one other player has ever gotten double-digits in rebounds and assists and steals, and that player was in the process of producing a quadruple-double. Needless to say, Green’s achievement was exceedingly rare.

Nikola Jokic

Jokic was drafted even later than Green – he was taken 41st overall. Draft experts talked predictably about the Serbian:

 Weaknesses: An average athlete lacking great speed and leaping ability … Foot speed is a big liability. He may struggle to stay in front of NBA athletes at the center position … Needs to improve as a post player, gain strength and develop a repertoire of back to the basket moves … Defense is a real weakness at this point due to lack of lateral speed and lack of strength. His length is a big plus, but he’ll need to continue to work on becoming stronger and learn to anticipate in order to overcome his lack of quickness … Despite being a younger guy, his upside appears limited by his lack of explosiveness and foot speed …

And again, the issue here is imagination, because Jokic achieved his own unheard of triple-double the other night. In an absolute evisceration of, oddly, Green’s Golden State Warriors, Jokic posted 17pts, 21rbs/12ast, making him the only guy who has managed do that. (If you ignore the points, his achievement is still worth celebrating, as he is also the only guy to get 12 or more assists and grab 21 or more rebounds in a single game.) To look more closely at what Jokic achieved, a broadening of the search terms to players who achieved 10pt/20reb/10ast triple-doubles reveals a predictable who’s who of great players: Charles Barkley, Chris Webber, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Garnet, Pau Gasol, Dennis Rodman and (website favorite) Fat Lever.

Conclusion

In both cases, scouts and their teams failed to imagine a player’s maximal possibilities. This is understandable of course, especially considering how many players fail to achieve even a quarter of what Green and Jokic both have. But if their drafts were redone today, and given perfect vision, it seems quite likely that both of these players would have been top-five picks at the minimum, as both of them have proven value well beyond what was originally imagined. They have also each achieved a little bit of something that this post’s first three players never did.

Charles Oakley Banned From MSG, James Dolan Not Banned from MSG

Here is the sum total of everything James Dolan has ever achieved in his life:

Not that such an inconsequential existence would slow the man. He was born into incredible wealth and, because somebody had to inherit all of it when his father died, he finds himself still fabulously wealthy. So he owns the New York Knicks, not because he ever did a goddamned thing to deserve it, but because parents decided to have him.

Dolan assumes that the world owes him respect by virtue of his birth’s happenstance. This probably tends works in his world. There are plenty of shameless suck-ups willing to offer seemingly endless praise to those who have money and Dolan has no doubt surrounded himself with precisely these types of people. Lampreys are generally considered unwelcome parasites; to Dolan’s, they are evidence of the world’s rightness.

But not everybody considers the merest possession of inherited wealth to be evidence of a person’s inherent goodness. One such person is Charles Oakley. Have you heard of Charles Oakley?

Here he is in a preseason game – a preseason game – throwing punches:

Here he is breaking Paul Mokeski’s nose after being fouled:

Here is his throwing a Sam Perkins off of the court after Perkins attempted to intentionally foul him:

It is tempting to look at these videos and draw a conclusion: that Charles Oakley is the NBA’s version of an NHL enforcer. But Oakley is more complicated than that. He was the 9th overall pick in a halfway decent draft. He played in the NBA for 19 seasons. He scored 12,000+ points and grabbed 12,000+ rebounds. The list of NBA players who finished their careers with 12,000+ in both categories is a slight one, and even though Oakley finishes near the bottom of it, there is simply no denying that the man could play the game.

Oakley is a man who spent 10 years playing for the New York Knicks. That is – *quickly does the math* – more than half of his career at Madison Square Garden. He did so at a time when basketball, by virtue of its rules, allowed for a more violent, aggressive version of the game to be played, and because the Knicks perennially lacked the game’s best players (Patrick Ewing was great, but he wasn’t Michael Jordan or Hakeem Olajuwon), they found that the next best thing was dragging the game down into the gutter. Which the team did. Constantly.

Everybody else might have hated the Knicks for it, but the fans loved it, and why not? The team’s ugly, brutal basketball got them as close to a return to a championship as anything had, before or since. Oakley was a big part of that and remains beloved to this day.

But he will forever be the man he was: one who backs down to nobody and nothing. This includes the aforementioned James Dolan, a man whose family once signed contracts with Oakley, and a man whom Oakley loathes, which is just so weird what with how hard-working people usually love the spoiled children of fantastically wealthy families.

Which brings us to last Wednesday. Oakley wanted to see the Knicks play, and apparently got himself a ticket that was not only near the court, but several rows back from Dolan himself. If you’re imagining that things ended up going well, there is some bad news. And some more bad news. And some very funny bad news. And some more bad news. (That Dolan would have the temerity to suggest that Oakley has a drinking problem is, uhhh, rich, all things considered.)

The remarkable thing about all of this is that the Knicks organization (under Dolan’s orders) apparently believes that it can turn the team’s fans against Oakley. “Yes, we banned a player that you love,” the team seems to be saying, “But once we tell you all about the bad things he said to our beloved owner, surely that will have you siding with us!” That only works when teams give their fans anything to believe in, but for the second decade in a row, the Knicks are positively terrible, at 23-33 in a terrible Eastern Conference, ranked 12th out 15 teams, and seemingly getting worse by the day. Adding insult to injury is this year’s team being saddled with incomprehensible contracts, as well as an ongoing dispute with its best player, as well as a steadfast refusal to embrace the team’s future, and a GM whose primary hobby is creating bonfires, so when all of that gets coupled with attacking a beloved legend, this ends up happening:

There is absolutely no way that Knicks fans are going to side with Dolan on this. Frankly, Oakley could have Mokeski’d Dolan’s nose in front of the crowd and not lost their favor. And yet, Dolan continues to comically insist on doubling down, and doubling down, and doubling down. This weekend’s double-down – that former Knicks not named Oakley still love Dolan – was understood immediately be yet another attempt to save face with fans who would rather never see him again.

Even the New York Post, a publication that usually loves to worship at the altars of people like Dolan, knows the score. Here’s a write-up describing Dolan in its second paragraph:

In an attempt to show his strong relationships with Knicks alumni in the wake of the Charles Oakley ban, a desperate Dolan sat between the mercurial Sprewell — with whom he formerly feuded — and Bernard King during Sunday’s 94-90 matinee stunner over the Spurs at the Garden.

Here is an obvious piece of advice for a billionaire who is incapable of listening: Dolan needs to just take the loss already. Doing so shouldn’t even be that hard for Dolan. The team is 595-783 since he took over.

The Wizards Are…Hold On…Good?

Twenty games into their season, the Washington Wizards were sitting at a very Wizardian 7-13. It would have been entirely understandable if the team’s fanbase – comprised entirely of my friend Justin – had abandoned ship. But he stuck it through, mostly because if there is anything that Justin has gotten used to in his time as a fan, it is the Wizards being simultaneously underwhelming and tantalizing.

Since that poor start, the Wizards suddenly rewarded Justin’s fandom with a 22-7 run, pushing their overall record to 29-20, good for 4th in the Eastern Conference and, given the ongoing struggles of the Toronto Raptors, the possibility that the team will climb even higher.

What is going on?

The most obvious place to begin is the team’s health. Previous seasons have seen the team routinely undermined by the fact that its arena and practice facility are built on an abandoned graveyard full of broken mirrors and black cats. But this year’s team is currently healthy. It’s a funny thing but as it turns out, having all of your best players available to actually play in the games turns out to be hugely beneficial. The Wizards have been built around a ferocious backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal – easily a top-five NBA backcourt, and for even more funsies, maybe a top-two NBA backcourt – but the team has rarely been able to put the twosome on the court together, owing to Beal’s body having been built out of balsa wood.

Beal has only missed four games this season* and, after a relatively unimpressive start to his season, one in which he was likely playing himself back into the shape necessary to contribute at a routinely high-level in actual NBA games, Beal has cooking. He is averaging 22pts/3.5ast per game since the start of the new year, and he is looking like every single bit of the player that fans have thought possible.

And then there’s Otto Porter. Long the subject of “What if this guy gets better?” type conversations, the former third pick’s fourth season has seen him getting career highs in points (14.2 per night), rebounds (6.5 per night), and three-point shooting percentage (a staggering .463, up from a previous high of .367). This is the kind of development that gets fanbases excited, especially because he is still relatively young.

Which brings us to perhaps the team’s most important piece: John Wall. Although Colin Cowherd (a bag of utter garbage) would have his listeners believe otherwise, the fact of the matter is that Wall is one of the NBA’s best players and, perhaps more importantly, one of the league’s fastest players. He is, simply put, a blur.

Speed isn’t everything of course – Wall’s shooting is…uhh…well, it could be better, let’s say – but his ability to get to the tin in the blink of an eye makes the missed jumpers slightly more tolerable. Meanwhile, like Beal and Porter before him, Wall’s game is sharper than ever: he’s averaging career highs in points (23), assists (10.3), steals (2.1) while fouling at a career low. Dude is good.

What this means for the Wizards’ outlook is hard to say. This team functions so well when all of its pieces are operating at full pace, but that happens so rarely that it is impossible to imagine the team being able to maintain its momentum if an injury inevitably occurs, especially since we have seen what happens when all of its players aren’t available.

But thinking of the bad is no fun at all. So for the time being, let’s not do that, and let’s instead a Wizards team that finally – FINALLY! – looks like a genuine threat to be as good as the one that we have all imagined for so long.

* -knocks so hard on a piece of wood that it literally turns into sawdust-