Is Philadelphia 76ers' Massive Rebuild Just a Road to Nowhere?

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Is Philadelphia 76ers' Massive Rebuild Just a Road to Nowhere?
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Sooner or later, Sam Hinkie's rebuilding plan for the Philadelphia 76ers will have to produce a result.

That's appropriately ironic for someone as wholly devoted to process as the Sixers president and general manager. Though for what it's worth, Hinkie has been unflinchingly honest about his endgame from the moment he took control in May 2013:

What Hinkie didn't say at the time, and what Sixers fans couldn't have known, was that reaching that goal would require a prolonged period of deliberate failure. Sure, Philly would use those defeats to acquire the talent necessary to form a foundation—but there was going to be losing.

Lots of it.

Hinkie dealt away All-Star Jrue Holiday, drafted Nerlens Noel and embarked on a (purposely) dreadful season last year. It was all part of the plan, and the Sixers nabbed another high lottery pick in the 2014 draft, which, of course, Hinkie used on another injured big man.

After Noel and his torn ACL in 2013, Hinkie doubled down with Joel Embiid and his fractured foot.

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

And with Embiid potentially missing the entire season as the Sixers do everything they can to play the long game, another lottery berth seems virtually assured.

Hinkie told reporters in a post-draft press conference (via CSNPhilly.com):

Guess what our approach will be? We will focus on the long-term health of the player. We've had this discussion before. ... It is all that matters, the long-term health of the player. Will we be smart about that? Of course. Will we be thoughtful about that? I hope so. Will we be patient? Yes. We will give him every chance to be as healthy as he can be.

Rinse. Repeat.

Bottoming out has become a widely accepted method of reaching the top in the NBA. The notion of throwing away seasons understandably rubs many critics the wrong way, but it's not like the Sixers are the first team to aim for the lottery and a fresh start instead of mediocrity.

What Hinkie is doing isn't new. What is somewhat novel, though, is his willingness to just keep doing it.

The Sixers are in no position to compete this year regardless of how much growth Michael Carter-Williams shows in his second season. And a breakout from Noel won't change much, either. Those two are nice pieces, but there are still loads of questions surrounding both of them—questions the Sixers hope to find answers to as they throw their young talent to the wolves.

Michael Perez/Associated Press

Barring something wholly unexpected, this year will look a lot like last year. The Sixers just hope to have a little more information at the end of it.

It's critical to remember that Hinkie has only been in charge of Philly's basketball operations for 14 months. Even though it feels like the 76ers' rebuilding process has been going on forever, the truth is we're really just entering the second season of an ambitious project.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. And if a championship—Hinkie's stated goal—is the prize the Sixers are chasing, it's a comically small speck on the horizon.

At some point, doesn't Hinkie have to take a big swing, whether on a free agent or through a blockbuster trade? The plan can't simply be collecting assets, losing and then collecting more...can it?

After all, championships aren't won with stockpiles of second-round picks and the lottery selections that come with 60-loss seasons.

Then again, maybe what we're seeing right now is the Sixers' big swing. Maybe it's not as satisfying as a franchise-altering trade or an immediate-impact rookie, but the approach Philadelphia is employing has worked before. Plenty of teams have been built through the draft, with the San Antonio Spurs nabbing Tim Duncan nearly two decades ago standing out as an ideal example.

More recently, the Oklahoma City Thunder constructed a homegrown winner around Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And while OKC didn't bottom out as dramatically as the 76ers, that franchise was built gradually with marginal win increases over time.

Oklahoma City Thunder's Gradual Rise
Year Record Note
2006-07 31-51 Earned No. 2 pick in 2007 Draft
2007-08 20-62 Kevin Durant wins ROY
2008-09 23-59 Drafted Westbrook 4th, Serge Ibaka 24th
2009-10 50-32 Reached Playoffs as No. 8 seed
2010-11 55-27 Reached Conference Finals
2011-12 47-19 Reached NBA Finals
2012-13 60-22 Increased Winning % for 6th Straight Year
2013-14 59-23 Durant wins MVP

Basketball-Reference.com

The difference between the Thunder and the Sixers, of course, is that Durant and Westbrook played right away. With Noel and Embiid likely to share the distinction of missing their rookie years, the Sixers' plan feels flimsier.

But at its core, Hinkie's approach has been successful for other teams in the past.

Strange as it sounds, Philadelphia is in a position many teams should envy. It has no long-term commitments to players it doesn't want, owns all of its own picks as well as tons more from other teams and, best of all, has patient ownership and management that isn't intimidated by the process ahead.

It might seem like the Sixers are muddling around, just waiting for something to happen, but the opposite is true. Everything Philly is doing is part of a plan. Only the lack of instant gratification makes it seem like there's no goal in mind.

Confident in their approach, the Sixers are happy to wait.

Unfortunately for Hinkie and his team, the NBA may try to force a change of course.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

According to Grantland's Zach Lowe, a lottery reform could be coming soon that would give the league's four worst teams an equal chance at winning the top pick in the draft:

The goal of this initial proposal is obvious: to prevent out-and-out tanking among the league's very worst teams for the no. 1 pick. Equalizing the odds for the five worst teams, and giving the next few clubs odds very close to that 11 percent chance, goes a long way toward removing the incentive to race toward the bottom. That slice of the reform targets team's like last season's Sixers and the 2011-12 Bobcats, both of which rather blatantly constructed rosters designed to be as bad as possible in those particular seasons. 

A revamped, anti-tanking lottery system will complicate matters, but it probably won't alter the Sixers' deliberate approach. Hinkie does everything with purpose, and as long as the Sixers are building, expect them to continue maximizing their chance to acquire high-value assets in the draft.

The plan will remain unchanged.

It would be one thing if we were in year five of Hinkie's master plan and the Sixers were still in a position with more potential than potency. But we've only just completed the first year of his reign, and if we're being objective, the Sixers are in a far better spot now than when he first took over.

It's always been hard to ask for patience, and the age of insta-contending superteams built through free agency has made it even tougher. But Hinkie has made patience the keystone of his plans.

Maybe we owe it to him to adopt a similar stance when evaluating the Sixers.

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