"Teams have to make their own strategic decisions. That's not something we are looking to legislate from the league. The jury is out from a strategic standpoint whether that's the right way to build a championship team in the first place," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. "If you looked at what's happened [in Philadelphia] over the last several years, it's badly needed. Somebody needs a plan. Somebody needs a vision to win here. And I think that's what's happening."
There have been plans for the Sixers before, but they didn't work, and those plans never included stripping the team bare in order to improve. Under the ownership of Comcast-Spectacor, taking the short-term financial hit was not viewed as an attractive option, so the team was patched together as well as possible.
When Josh Harris bought the team in 2011, he inherited a popular 60-year-old head coach who wasn't interested in chaperoning a rebuilding process, and when Doug Collins took the Sixers to within one game of the Eastern Conference finals in Harris' first season, there was no impetus for change.
A year later, after the disastrous Andrew Bynum trade, Harris wanted a new direction, and that meant a coaching change and a dismantling of the front office. He hired a general manager in Sam Hinkie who matched his analytical bent, and the new GM was up-front from the start that the process would be long and painful.
Hinkie played for the future by trading his only all-star, point guard Jrue Holiday, on the night of the 2013 draft for center Nerlens Noel, the No. 6 overall pick who would sit out the entire season recovering - and then some - from a torn knee ligament.
Along with subtracting Holiday, he built a bench for the coming season that was almost entirely lacking in talent, particularly veteran talent. It worked to the extent that the Sixers were already dispirited and mired in a nine-game losing streak when the Feb. 20 trade deadline arrived and Hinkie then euthanized the team with a series of moves that would result in a 4-23 record to the end of the season - and would start a lot of that chatter about how it looked.
In four separate deals, Hinkie traded Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen, and Evan Turner and a pair of conditional future second-round picks that he might never have to convey in exchange for Earl Clark, Danny Granger, Eric Maynor, Byron Mullens, and Henry Sims and a total of six future second-round picks.
Two of the deals involved the Sixers taking on players and their salaries, and getting second-round picks, while giving up essentially nothing. Hinkie likes to stockpile those selections as future chips and he appeared willing to pay $1 million per pick. In getting two second-rounders in a three-way deal with Washington and Denver, the Sixers took on Maynor and the $2 million he was still owed on his contract. In a trade with the Clippers that brought one second-rounder, the Sixers accepted Mullens and the $1 million left on his deal.
Within a few days of the trade deadline, the team came to an agreement to buy out the expiring contract of Granger and let him become a free agent, even though he was the only truly serviceable player acquired while Hinkie was sending off Hawes, Turner, and Allen, two starters and a regular member of the playing rotation.
"That's the one that raised some eyebrows," an NBA source said.
Whether too blatant or not, Hinkie's strategy is understandable. He took on a team that was dead in the water and - here's a bonus - was also on the hook for two of its future first-round picks as a result of its previous unsuccessful plans.
If the Sixers can stay in the lottery long enough, those picks, one given up in exchange for the fabulous Arnett Moultrie and one lost in the Bynum deal, will each become a pair of second-rounders. That's why Hinkie is playing the long game, and that's also why he's so intent on stockpiling second-round picks.
The Sixers didn't do anything wrong. Their general manager studied the system and decided upon the best way to operate within the framework of that system. It might not work. Building through the draft is a perilous business. A No. 1 pick can add a player who turns out to be LeBron James or one who turns out to be Kwame Brown.
Where the strategy almost certainly will succeed, however, is in bringing about the next tweak in how the NBA operates its draft.