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.

Joel Embiid On Pluses And Minuses

Joel Embiid’s professional career began this year, almost two-and-a-half years after he was drafted. Due to the length of his time away from the game, and due to the reasons why it was exactly that he was away from the game, basketball fans had every single reason to be dubious about Embiid’s ability to substantively contribute to the otherwise moribund 76ers. Sure, he might be a talented big man, we all thought, but he was brittle, and really, how good could a player actually be if he never got onto the floor?

The answer, as it turns out, is really quite good. Embiid’s numbers are not jaw-dropping – he is getting 19.7pts/7.7rbs/2ast/2.4blk per game – and are stunted significantly by how little he is allowed to actually play. He has only been on the floor for 709 of the team’s 1872 total minutes, owing to the 76ers’ very understandable reservations about asking too much of a big man who certainly seems as though he is prone to injury. The team figures that getting anything out of Embiid is vastly superior to getting nothing out of him, and has played him accordingly.

One thing to remember about the 76ers is that it is a comically awful franchise, having gone a staggering 47-199 in the organization’s last three seasons. This was achieved entirely by design after the team’s GM – the utterly bonkers Sam Hinkie – calculated that the team’s best chance for future success was an immediate and prolonged bottoming out. As a result, he stripped the team of all assets as part of a broader plan to lose basketball games, the thought being that the team’s fastest hope for a rebuild was positioning itself to get draft picks. This was how the team ended up with Embiid (and Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel too) as part of its bizarre triumvirate of wildly athletic big men that might not be actually able to play together.

Predictably, this was a plan with problems. For starters, it turns out that fans actually want to see competitive basketball, and the league’s other owners were none-too-pleased by the ticket sales generated whenever the woeful 76ers came to town. The team also did little to actually develop its allegedly prized rookies, choosing to simply hope that those youthful guys would figure it out, rather surrounding them with the sort talented and experienced veterans who could help young players adjust to the league’s professional expectations. Finally, it accounted not at all for what happens when a team loses game after game after game.

Hinkie was eventually dismissed, just as his mad plan appeared to be coming to fruition. The 76ers had most of their Literal Big Three back at the start of the season, and although the returns have been varying – Okafor might not be good and Noel cannot stay healthy – the 76ers are on pace to win a staggering 20+ games. And the reason is almost certainly Embiid.

Again, remember that he has only played 709 of the team’s 1872 minutes. During Embiid’s time on the floor, he is a +48. That means he and his teammates have outscored their opponents by 48 points. His next best teammate, Ersan Ilyasova, is +14. That’s okay. Then comes Chasson Randle. He’s a -4. From there, the numbers are…not good: -11 (Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot), -21 (Jeryd Bayless), -43 (Nerlens Noel), -69 (Nik Stauskas) (Nice), -75 (Richaun Holmes), -90 (Hollis Thompson), -109 (T.J. McConnell), -119 (Sergio Rodriguez), -134 (Robert Covington), -135 (Dario Saric), -141 (Gerald Henderson), and -195 (Jahlil Okafor) (Oh My God). Want to see a visual version of this nightmare?

Philadelphia Plus Minus

Have a little respect Jahlil Okafor. Good grief. Anyway, the point is this: if Joel Embiid is actually able to stay healthy, and even though he is surrounded by what appears to be outright detritus, his future is as bright as any that we can possibly imagine. If only he can stay healthy.