Luckily, teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder offer a useful template for small-market teams desperate to contend: the acquisition and subsequent development—patience though it no doubt requires—of cheap, young assets and talent.
Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie doesn’t merely believe in this team-building blueprint; he worships its most esoteric details.
So how long, exactly, before Philly turns its roundball religion into something actually worth following?
The short answer: At least two more years.
The long answer: Possibly longer.
After finishing with the second-worst record in the NBA, the Sixers entered the 2014 draft with nearly enough picks to field a 31st NBA team.
And while the resulting haul was as impressive as it was varied—Kansas center Joel Embiid being the quintessential high-risk, high-reward highlight—none of Philly’s rookies will be good enough to prevent another season chained to the Eastern Conference basement.
In other words: All in a day’s work for Hinkie.
The Sixers want to win eventually, of course. Fielding a perpetual loser, while potentially profitable, has never been a sustainable business strategy. Or a good way of keeping one’s job, for that matter.
As of August 1, the Sixers boasted just under $32 million in committed salaries, a full $31 million below the NBA-sanctioned $63 million salary cap for 2014-15. Even after dishing out a handful of rookie contracts, Philly will likely barely cross the $40 million threshold, leaving it nearly $17 million shy of the salary floor (the minimum teams must have committed before the end of a given regular season).
That’s more than enough to secure some legitimate talent, particularly with so many stuck playing the summer’s free-agent waiting game. Truth be told, it’s enough to go from a bottom-dweller to something resembling a competitive basketball team.
If only “being competitive” was the actual goal.
Take the strange case of Eric Bledsoe, the two-way backcourt force and restricted free agent currently in the midst of a contract dispute with the Phoenix Suns, per Yahoo Sports’ Dan Devine. The Sixers have both the money and the positional need to make Bledsoe—one of the league’s hottest up-and-comers, let’s not forget—a max or near-max offer.
Why don’t they? Simple: Signing Bledsoe would make Philly too good.
Good enough to make the playoffs? Probably not. Good enough to jeopardize their lottery standing come next June? Most certainly.
Still not convinced the Sixers have a concerted interest in maintaining their strategic losing initiative? Think again.
According to ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst, Philly has voiced strong opposition to a proposed overhaul of the lottery system by the NBA front office. In a nutshell, the initiative would recalibrate the current odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick (the team with the worst record has a 25 percent chance, as things stand) such that the bottom five or six teams would each have roughly equal odds of winning.
Writing at Grantland, Zach Lowe pointed out just a few of the reasons why the Sixers—committed as they are to a very particular rebuilding plan—are up in arms:
The NBA has raised the possibility of implementing lottery reform as early as next season, and the Sixers have a point about changing the rules midstream. Their new owners green-lit a long-term rebuilding plan under the set of rules in place, with no indication those rules might change so soon.
And they are not alone. Teams dealt first-round picks with various protections under lottery rules the league now wants to scrap. Take the situation between the Lakers and Suns: The Lakers owe Phoenix a top-five protected first-round pick in the 2015 draft, the last goodie Phoenix will get from the Steve Nash trade. The Lakers keep that pick if it falls within the top five; otherwise, it goes to the Suns.
It takes having a very particular roadmap back to contention for a fix as seemingly gradual as this to send a team reeling off on some never-ending detour. Augmenting specific pick protections would seem a fairly easy—and temporary—fix to make. That teams like the Sixers are making this specific clause their legal Waterloo underscores just how deep-seated their strategy is.
That still leaves us pondering the principal question: When will Philly be ready to spend and contend?
As things stand, the most obvious play is to wait until either next summer or the summer of 2016 to make their first true free-agent splash. Depending on how Michael Carter-Williams, Embiid, Nerlens Noel—the latter two of whom, it's worth noting, were drafted knowing full well they'd be sidelined for at least a year recovering from a major injury—and the rest of the Sixers’ youth-laden core develop, they could take one of two somewhat similar approaches:
Either they reel in one big fish next summer (Klay Thompson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay, etc.) while still leaving enough room to either trade for or outright sign a second star the following year. Or Philly remains in a lottery holding pattern for at least one more season with the goal being to load up in 2016 and 2017 when Kevin Durant, Al Horford and a host of high-end talents hit the open market.
While arguably the least likely, there is a third possibility, namely that one of Carter-Williams, Noel, Embiid or one of the Sixers’ picks from next summer suddenly develop into franchise-altering superstars in their own right. At that point, it would merely be a matter of building around assets which, by virtue of the league’s collective bargaining agreement, Philly would find much easier—if not more affordable—to keep.
For his part, Hinkie has been loath to lend much of any insight into what, exactly, is the long-term play. It’s a level of radio silence that has ruffled the feathers of many a media voice, including Liberty Ballers’ Roy Burton:
After a year in which we were forced to watch Lorenzo Brown attempt to play basketball for 224 minutes, we don't want an owner to tell us that a 19-63 season was a "huge success."
We want some answers, and we want them now.
Dr. J was wrong. He wasn't the one who owed us one. You do.
Short of a sudden public relations about-face, Sixers fans must read what they will into Hinkie’s past, particularly his professional history. And while being a disciple of Daryl Morey is bound to earn you accolades aplenty, it’s worth noting the Houston Rockets—for all their clever roster calculus—haven’t exactly set the NBA standings on fire.
Still, you can’t say Philly’s front office isn’t on the same page, a fact illustrated by Hoops Habit’s Miles Wray in a post that includes a rather telling tip from Sixers head coach—and Gregg Popovich understudy—Brett Brown:
Next year, when you look at it, it’s going to be an educated science project where we try some different things and look at some different things with players and give young players a chance. So that we can have a shot polishing up something that really is a talent.
“Educated science project” might incite nods and backslaps from the advanced-stats set. As a long-term winning strategy, the jury remains out on a very long lunch.
Add up all the disparate brushstrokes, and there emerges an image of an organization with a very particular plan in place—one that seems uniquely beholden to a billion things breaking the right way.
Despite all this, the Sixers remain, in function as well as theory, a young, intriguing team. And there might well be light at the end of the tunnel. After all, loading up on young talent is not only cheap and effective, it also gives you the option of pitching both money and upside to potential high-profile free agents.
Just ask LeBron James.
The alternative, of course, being the Spurs route—rolling the dice on your current core effectively growing into a contender together.
All the same, waiting two or three more years for a major move assumes a level of fandom patience not exactly known for keeping up with Philly’s traditionally incendiary stock.
Here’s what we know: Barring some fantastic unforeseen leap, Philly is very much doomed to a few more years in the doldrums. Getting fans to buy into that reality—selling the future to a fanbase forced year after year to endure the pains of the past—requires a clever, almost political level of cunning.
Good thing for Hinkie, then, that he only has to worry about winning one vote.