By DERON SNYDER
The Philadelphia Sixers have become NBA darlings this year, featuring a pair of otherworldly players drawing national attention and acclaim.
But the emergence of point guard Ben Simmons and center Joel Embiid doesn’t erase four years of putridness or change a simple fact:
The so-called “Process” was an atrocity.
Now, Sixers fans chant about their faith in former GM Sam Hinkie’s tanking plan. Embiid has embraced the controversial strategy as his nickname. Philly already has more wins this season than it totaled in 2015-16. Wells Fargo Center has gone from crickets to sellouts, boasting the league’s second-best average attendance.
This is a charming story on the surface, a franchise finally rewarded for its patience in rebuilding.
Simmons is running away with the Rookie of the Year award. Embiid is playing like an All-Star after missing his first two-plus seasons due to injury. They have blended with an unearthed gem (Robert Covington), a veteran sharpshooter (J.J. Redick) and an up-and-coming Croatian (Dario Saric) to form one of the NBA’s most exciting teams.
But Hinkie’s decision to strip the franchise bare was an affront to everyone involved. To the players, who knew they had little chance of competing as they took the floor each night. To the employees, who manned the phones, fielded the emails and interacted with the public. To the fans, who continued to show up and root for an organization that wasn’t even trying.
Losing 152 of 199 games “paid off” with top draft picks, just as Hinkie planned before he was forced out for brazen tanking. But even now there’s no guarantee that his shameless tactics will result in a championship.
The Sixers had a top-three draft pick in each of the last four drafts. Two (Simmons and Embiid) have lost full seasons to injury; another (Jahlil Okafor) became a bust playing with no help. Philly drafted Markelle Fultz No.1 overall this season, but he’s out indefinitely with “scapular muscle imbalance” in his right shoulder, which has sidelined him since Oct. 23.
Intentionally fielding subpar team only ensures subpar seasons, like 10-72 or 18-64 or 19-63, the Sixers’ records from 2013-16.
Granted, Philly has some real ballers now. But they might never surpass what, say, Oklahoma City accomplished. The Thunder retained honor and built respectability while amassing Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden. OKC reached the Western Conference finals four times and advanced once, but is yet throw a parade.
The Warriors are another example of achieving success with dignity.
Golden State didn’t win a lot of games before drafting Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but it didn’t willingly sink to Philly’s historic depths, either. Smart personnel choices, good health and good luck played a role in the Warriors capturing two of the last three NBA titles.
That’s the winning combination, not going in the tank.
As much as I enjoy Simmons and Embiid, rooting for their organization is difficult. I don’t want the past disdain for honest effort and competition to be rewarded.
Thankfully, the league has taken steps to dissuade other franchises from following suit.
“I haven’t made a secret out of the fact that, in terms of the so-called ‘process,’ we actually just changed the draft lottery,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told NBC Sports Washington last week during the Washington-Philadelphia game.
“Not that the team (Sixers) did anything wrong, they took advantage of existing rules. But in fairness to other teams in the league, you now have a team in the 76ers who had one of the worst four-year records in the history of the league. And that’s not good for anybody,” he said.
Under the new lottery system, having the worst record could lead to the No. 5 pick. And having the 18th best record provides a better chance at the overall No. 1.
Winning the race-to-the-bottom no longer leads to the top prize.
“I accept that a certain amount of rebuilding needs to happen, and is appropriate,” Silver said. “But you want to have continuity. You want the players to feel like they’re part of something.”
He means something other than 60-plus losses.
I know, I know. Players have fat paychecks, fancy lifestyles and fabulous perks. You’d gladly sit on the bench for multiple 0-82 seasons if given the opportunity, so you don’t want to hear any complaints.
But if you were going to be in the league anyway, your pride would kick in at some point. Likewise, if you work for the team or cheer for the team, premediated losing must get old. Especially when there’s no assurance of a payoff during your time.
Trust the process? Hardly.
Trash the process.