Sixers take the long view to contending

Posted: July 01, 2013

Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die, as the old saying goes. That's the way it works, though, especially in the National Basketball Association, where the price of happiness in the great postseason beyond requires the death of all competitive dreams for at least a season or two.

It is a cynical world in that regard. Teams are rewarded for being bad, and the greatest rewards are for being very bad. The top draft picks in a given year are bestowed on general managers who are either lousy at their jobs, and whose teams lose on pure merit, or ones who are smart and brave enough to plot a murky path to daylight.

Sam Hinkie didn't need all his brains to analyze the problem in front of him and decide what the 76ers should do to escape from the quicksand in which the NBA encases most of its teams. He has the support of the organization and he has time to make the plan work. So, the plan is to stink on ice for a while.

That won't be fun, but it beats the alternative of another decade of mediocre basketball like the one that just finished. In the last 10 seasons, the Sixers averaged 38 wins, didn't make the postseason in half of those years, and lost five of six playoff series when they did, beating only the crippled Chicago Bulls for an advancement coach Doug Collins later called "fool's gold."

There are only two ways out of jail in the NBA and the new ownership group tried the other one last year. The previous front office went for the Hail Mary of a quick fix and pulled off a trade for a center who, when healthy, was considered the second-best big man in the game.

No sense in picking that scab again. Joshua Harris still has to be commended for authorizing the risky effort, just as he has to be commended for giving Hinkie the OK to shave another 3,000 or 4,000 off the paid attendance next season.

What the Sixers are undertaking by stripping down the roster and playing for position in the rich 2014 draft is something that should have been considered long ago. Under the grumbling stewardship of Father Comcast, that just wasn't going to be allowed. The team held onto Allen Iverson too long because he sold tickets and the front office had to perform an annual patch-and-fill on the roster to keep it nominally afloat. The result: 38 wins, usually.

There is no guarantee the new strategy will work. No team sport can be dominated by a single player like basketball and no success is so dependent on getting one of those special, rare players. The Sixers haven't gotten him yet. They got three promising defensive pieces in big man Nerlens Noel (op. cit., "when healthy"), guard Michael Carter-Williams, and undersize rebounding freak Arsalan Kazemi - three guys who led the Analytics League. But it will take lightning with one of their two first-round picks in 2014 to really ignite the franchise. Hoping for lightning, however, beats hoping to win 41 games instead of 38.

It is ironic, or maybe just fitting, that Hinkie came to the Sixers from the franchise that tanked so hard in 1984 that David Stern had to institute the draft lottery so teams might not make it quite so obvious. The Rockets played their way down into a coin flip for the top pick and got both their wish and Hakeem Olajuwon. (Houston lost nine of its last 10 games, including the final five in a row. The Rockets didn't leave much to chance. In the 81st game of the season, they went overtime against San Antonio, and 38-year-old Elvin Hayes, playing the next-to-last game of his career, was left in for all 53 minutes of the contest. Hayes had averaged 12 minutes per game that season.)

If things are handled right, it doesn't have to be quite that cheesy. You don't really have to tank games. You tank the roster and the games take care of themselves.

The Sixers will get themselves a coach and he will be given a very young team with some pieces that might develop into something. Just not this season.

"I don't think you'll see us try to do a lot of quick fixes or fill holes immediately that we can fill over time," Hinkie said Friday. "It's not Dr. Doom to say that [competing for a title] won't come overnight. The best way to guarantee ourselves a chance to be in the mix long-term is to focus on it with a little longer lens than others might."

Maybe someday the league will come up with a better way to distribute incoming talent that doesn't require mediocre teams to get bad, and bad teams to get worse. The system is badly flawed because of that.

Regardless, it is the system, and Sam Hinkie has done the analysis on how to beat it. He's pulled the patient off life support and sent him on his happy way to heaven. The in-between step isn't going to be very pleasant, however. It never is.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @bobfordsports.

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