The strategy has generated some extreme viewpoints over the past year, ranging from rabid support to outright disgust. If all goes according to plan, however—and that remains a big if—the payoff could be nothing short of monumental.
During his post-draft press conference, Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie shed some light on his modus operandi since taking the job in May 2013:
I've been here 13 months. I think we've been pretty consistent about what we've been focused on during that time, which is: How do we add more and more talent to our team? And how do we bring in more and more players that can help us move forward, with a goal of trying to build something that can really be championship-caliber. That doesn't happen overnight; we've been really open about that.
Delayed gratification isn't a concept often found in the NBA. Owners who spent hundreds of millions of dollars on their franchises rarely have the patience to embrace multiple consecutive losing seasons. The win-now mentality is far more pervasive throughout the league than long-term rebuilds.
The Sixers, however, aren't interested in winning now. They're not going to sacrifice the chance of landing a potential franchise cornerstone in favor of making a shortsighted playoff push. They're content to take advantage of other teams' impatience by accruing additional assets, slowly building their way toward possible championship contention.
That method of team building—some would call it blatant tanking, others would say it's "started-from-the-bottom-now-we're-here" rebuilding—requires an extraordinary amount of patience and thicker-than-leather skin. The Sixers ownership group deserves a tremendous amount of credit for allowing Hinkie to execute his long-term rebuilding plan with minimal interference.
It's a plan that—in five years' time—could very realistically pay off in one or more championships.
How They Got Here
After buying the team in October 2011, Joshua Harris and Co. sprung into action nine months later. They sent swingman Andre Iguodala to Denver, then shipped young prospects Nikola Vucevic and Moe Harkless to Orlando (along with a future first-round pick) in a four-team traded that netted them center Andrew Bynum.
It was the epitome of a gamble; one that, as we know now, blew up catastrophically in the Sixers' faces. Bynum battled chronic knee problems throughout the entire 2012-13 season and never once suited up for the squad.
To the credit of Harris and his colleagues, they didn't fall for the same trap that ensnares many other meddling owners. Instead of attempting to plug the holes on their roster with short-term fixes, they realized the best plan of attack was to tear the whole damn thing down and start from scratch.
They allowed Bynum to walk as a free agent, traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for the No. 6 pick in the 2013 draft (Nerlens Noel) and a top-five protected 2014 first-round pick, and they sank to the bottom of the league's standings accordingly.
Sixty-three losses later, they wound up with two top-10 draft picks (No. 3, their own, and No. 10, from New Orleans), which netted them Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, a 2015 second-round pick and their own 2017 first-round pick, which they had previously traded to Orlando.
With Embiid sidelined by a foot fracture and Saric likely stuck in Europe until 2016 (at the earliest), the 2014-15 Sixers aren't likely to make major strides in the wins column. Twenty-five victories is a reasonable baseline to expect from this roster, which adds Noel and rookies K.J. McDaniels, Jerami Grant and Jordan McRae.
The Sixers' Plan
In his introductory press conference last August, Sixers coach Brett Brown began alluding to the painful rebuilding process the franchise was about to endure:
I was not going to take the job without the four years (guaranteed). And I am extremely grateful to the owners where they took a step back, and I think it's a tremendous reflection of what they truly think too. It's going to take time. They really do have a tolerance. There is a patience. And as much as it was security for myself, I felt like they made a statement to the marketplace that they're for real. They really do see this being a long-haul type of position.
Throughout the season, as the Sixers hemorrhaged points and racked up a record-tying 26-game losing streak, Brown never lost sight of that long-term mission.
"To truly rebuild and grow something is going to take three to five years," Brown told reporters in mid-March. "That is just the way it goes. It is too talented a league and too well-coached. The experiences we are going through now will be distant memories when these guys start getting older. "
Though their 19-63 record might suggest otherwise, the Sixers' rebuild had one bright spot last year: point guard Michael Carter-Williams. He was the first non-top-10 pick to be named Rookie of the Year since Mark Jackson in 1987, and just one of three rookies in NBA history to average at least 16 points, six rebounds and six assists per game (along with Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson).
This coming season, Philly will add Noel to the mix after the former Kentucky big man sat out all of last year to rehab a torn ACL. Though it's foolish to put too much stock into summer league performances, Noel was simply electric in his Orlando Summer League debut, giving Sixers fans even more reason for optimism.
What Comes Next?
Though more pieces of the squad's championship puzzle have begun to come together, it's clear just how much work remains. Hinkie isn't shying away from that reality.
As he told reporters the day after the draft:
I have been borderline shocked in the last few months at sort of a bunch of things: One, just how smart our fans are and how much they understand sometimes the price you have to pay to go where you want to go. I've been shocked at how interested our fans have been generally in an organization that would focus on a goal that is lofty and hard to reach, and a path that could easily be difficult, in an effort to get back to somewhere that they all want us to get to, that we all want to get to. To get back to being a finalist again. To get back to winning a title again.
It has been remarkable to me to sort of watch the level of intrigue and the level of, I would say, from what I see, patience and understanding. Brett's talked about this when he's addressed our fans as well, that it's been remarkable to see just how thoughtful I think all of our fans have been about what it is we're trying to do.
Hinkie, recognizing that the careers of the fabled 2003 draft class will be on the downswing in a few years' time, has structured the squad to start peaking right as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and their draft mates begin their descent.
Just like with the Bynum trade, the Sixers are taking another educated gamble.
Health permitting, this one appears far more likely to pay off in the ultimate reward: one or more NBA championships.
It just might take a while to get there.