For the second straight year, the Philadelphia 76ers have conceded the season. In June.
In 2013, the Sixers traded a 23-year-old All-Star for injured prospect Nerlens Noel and a future first. Then new GM Sam Hinkie basically sat out free agency, worked it so that Noel wouldn't play at all in 2013-14 and traded two of his few actual NBA players (Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner) at the deadline for basically nothing. When that first domino fell in June -- the Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel trade -- we knew what Hinkie was doing. In fact, I even praised it.
In all likelihood, the Sixers will have their own very high pick in addition to a pick that lands anywhere from No. 6 to No. 15 or so. In the best draft in ages. That's a helluva way to reboot a franchise mired in the mid-rung of the East.
Noel and MCW have a lot of pressure on them as the new stars of the team, but help will be on its way because Hinkie will be on the hot seat to make it all pan out. The general public is already skeptical of him based on his background: he's a numbers guy, which some folks still see as being in opposition to the scout guys (which is inane by the way). Trading a young All-Star is really risky, but when you look at the long play, it's a no-brainer move. A Sixers team that lights this fuse will end up in a potentially much stronger position than one that continues to plug along tinkering with the edges.
The Sixers ended up with Nos. 3 and 10. They weren't quite the worst team in the NBA this season through no credit of their own: the Bucks were just especially unfortunate. With those picks, plenty of salary cap flexibility and coming off a disgusting season, you'd think Hinkie would look for prospects who could, along with a healthy Noel and Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, give the Philly faithful something to cheer about.
Hinkie picked injured big man Joel Embiid and staying-in-Europe Dario Saric. Neither is likely to play much, if at all, in the NBA in 2014-15.
In a vacuum, these are good decisions. Embiid, though a risk, is a solid All-NBA bet down the line. Reasonable analysts call him the next Hakeem. That he's out six months to recover from foot surgery is unfortunate, but not necessarily fatal to his chances to change a franchise. Saric is a thrill. He just signed a new European contract with NBA outs after each of the next two seasons. He's expected to jump the pond in time for the 2016-17 season. He's potentially going to be very good, and Hinkie managed to pick up extra assets while taking him. The Sixers took Elfrid Payton at No. 10, and dealt him to the Magic for Saric, a future second and a Sixers first that Hinkie's predecessor had included in the four-way Dwight Howard/Andrew Bynum deal. Moving down two spots in the late lottery and grabbing a first is a damn good deal.
The problem is the implication of drafting two lottery picks who won't help a 19-win team next season. The Sixers will get Noel, and Hinkie did trade a second-rounder for exciting young guard Pierre Jackson. And there's the possibility of Hinkie messing around in free agency and the trade market; heaven knows he has assets to deal. But right now, in June, it's abundantly clear that the Sixers have great odds of being totally horrible again. There's a really good chance that Philly won't hit 20 wins again, that the Sixers will be back in the top three for the Jahlil Okafor derby a year from now, that the Sixers aren't a year or two from being interesting to actually watch, but are more like three or four years away.
Has Sam Hinkie made the Sixers too awful?
Philadelphia lost by 20 to the Bucks on Monday. Is it possible that Sam Hinkie has stripped the team too bare?
You can sell hope in the NBA, especially to sophisticated fans. But you need to sell some tickets, too. You need to keep your fans within an arm's length so they don't ditch you for more fruitful passions. You need to not have your team name become synonymous with failure. Basically, you need to avoid becoming the Bobcats or the pre-CP3 Clippers.
Hinkie is flirting with that zone on purpose, to strategically build a powerhouse. It's brilliant in a selfish way, because by deferring expectations years down the road, he avoids criticism for a lack of performance now. You can't kill him for the Sixers being awful when he's made the Sixers as awful as possible on purpose. He's pursued the most naked, arguably myopic form of rebuilding possible. He's owned it completely. Because of that, because it's so obvious and out in the open, it's hard to criticize.
But it's even harder to stomach. As the Sixers get out to something like a 4-20 start this season, the push to reform the lottery and end tanking will grow stronger. GMs and owners will be more vocal in decrying the obvious multi-year ploy for high picks. The Hinkie Gambit will be vilified as a perfectly legal but perfectly gross exploitation of the NBA Draft system. You may hear someone like Thaddeus Young or Carter-Williams lash out (though they are smart and classy fellows, so perhaps not). You'll certainly hear thrashing from the Philly media.
This is a huge turn of events for Hinkie, for Philadelphia, for the NBA. Full-steam tanking for a season is one thing. Trying obviously to be the league's worst team two years in a row is something else entirely. We're going to be talking about the Sixers' 2014 draft haul a lot, and not for the right reasons.