At some point in the midst of the shortest, most muted championship victory lap of all time and a free-agency period in which fans stalked and pined for the rights to Kawhi Leonard, then a Toronto Raptor and a freshly minted Finals MVP, it became clear that nobody really believed one bird in the hand was worth two in the bush.
Sure, fans love to win. But in an age when diehards spend as much time sniping at each other online as they do drawing up absurd trade scenarios, you wonder if they’d rather win arguments than championships.
Ironically, a squad with less talent is usually equipped with more talking points to evangelize about the future. Open salary-cap space becomes a blank canvas on which to project hope. Cheap assets lay in wait for the next disgruntled superstar to ask for a trade. The modern NBA fan – and as a result, the modern NBA – traffics in fantasy over reality, in the future over the present.
Having a plan has become more important than winning a nondescript amount of games, so much so that the Charlotte Hornets drew ire across the board for not trading Kemba Walker, their franchise cornerstone, at the deadline and allowing him to walk in free agency.
These days, that sounds normal. Offloading stars on expiring deals – even those with sentimental value – has become standard operating procedure, but there was a time when other considerations trumped logic, when extreme rationality was synonymous with a level of ruthlessness that triumphed in the boardroom but stopped short of the playbook.
Six years ago, former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie set forth on one of the most ambitious experiments in professional front-office history. In the spring of 2016, he resigned. Some think he was forced out by the NBA, not for losing, but for losing on purpose and putting the spotlight on a broken system that rewarded bad teams with high draft picks. In reality, tanking was just one aspect of a multi-pronged approach to stockpiling young talent, from trading Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a draft pick to taking on opponents’ expensive contracts as long as they came with sweeteners in the form of draft picks.
Hinkie wasn’t the first front-office executive to tear down a team or try his hand at asking for an extra pick swap at the 11th hour of a negotiation, but when The Process — love it or hate it — became a movement, its tenets became unignorable. The Sixers’ success, even in his absence, inevitably bred copycats. “I think it was definitely almost like a catalyst,” said Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, whom Hinkie worked for before leaving for Philadelphia. “How much it was talked about raised awareness at the ownership level that this is something that teams should be looking at. Because it was successful and helps with decision-making, it was going to happen anyways but for sure it was an accelerator.”
Hinkie’s infamous 13-page resignation memo included a bit about taking advantage of the risk-averse behavior of the 76ers’ opponents. Then came a flurry of unprecedented deals. The Raptors traded the most beloved player in franchise history, DeMar DeRozan, for a year to woo Kawhi Leonard. The Los Angeles Clippers staged a retirement ceremony from the future to retain Blake Griffin and traded him less than a year later for a younger star, Tobias Harris, and cap flexibility. Then they traded Harris too. In exchange, the Raptors got a championship and the Clippers got Leonard and Paul George. This was the year that everyone — even Russell Westbrook — turned into an asset, and unsentimental risks got validated.
Michael Levin, a Sixers fan who co-hosts the Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast with Spike Eskin, recalls the 76ers being the fourth-most popular team in Philadelphia before Hinkie took over. They were a rudderless .500 team that didn’t garner much interest. Then something interesting happened. Being offensively bad gave the 76ers an identity, a sense of direction. Forward-thinking media personalities, led by Levin and Eskin, turned “Trust The Process” into a clarion call against detractors who considered the Sixers’ plan a disgrace to basketball.
“There was a real avenue to seize the narrative of, ‘No, this is actually why this is good: They finally have a plan,’” recalled Levin, whose fondest memory of the last decade includes watching a pick-swap option in a 2015 trade between the Sixers and the Sacramento Kings bear fruit two years later, allowing the Sixers to move up from fifth to third in the 2017 NBA draft. “That just felt like such a satisfying coda to the Hinkie era,” Levin said. “He’s been gone for a year and a half, but I was just so invested in the pick swap and it benefiting us that when it happened, it was just so delightful.”
In the light of Sixers fans as invested in the appreciation of an asset as the progression of a player’s jumpshot, a former NBA executive considers The Process — and the media-frenzy surrounding it — a legitimate selling point for front offices trying to sell their ownership groups on a rebuild. The Sixers were proof that sacrificing the present for the future wasn’t just smart. It could be good for business. As much as Hinkie, who guarded himself from the media, undervalued the front-facing aspect of the job, he paved the way to make his approach more acceptable for others.
The Process popularized a second style of fandom. Hinkie, alongside other front-office execs — #InMasaiWeTrust, anyone? — became deified. Armchair coaches morphed into armchair GM’s. Long-term thinking seeped into the mindset of fans.
Going into this season, there are only seven or eight teams that aren’t rebuilding or vying for a championship. It’s championship or bust from here on out, and according to Morey, more teams are willing to accept the boom-and-bust cycle that governs team-building as inevitable.
“When you’re working with a team that’s on the same part of the cycle, it’s harder [to make trades],” Morey said. “I think people are valuing things more similar. But it actually becomes easier with a team that’s at a different level of their life cycle. If it’s a team that’s in rebuild mode that’s operating well, they’re actually pretty easy to trade with if you’re on your upswing. Both sides are valuing assets differently.”
Sentimental factors, conference rivalries and small-market loyalty matter less and less. The teams that still cede to them are losing edges. The Spurs, for example, reportedly wouldn’t trade Leonard to the Lakers two years ago, because they didn’t want to satisfy his desire to be in Los Angeles. And then, instead of accepting that the good times eventually had to end, they traded for Toronto’s less appealing, win-now package centered on DeRozan. The New Orleans Pelicans, on the other hand, extracted a haul from the Lakers in exchange for Anthony Davis.
Three years after his exit, the NBA has become a league made by and for the Sam Hinkies of the world.
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