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Philadelphia 76ers Are Trading in Bad for Boring

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 22, 2015

Philadelphia 76ers' Jahlil Okafor looks on during introductions prior to the first half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Monday, Dec. 7, 2015, in Philadelphia. The San Antonio Spurs won 119-68. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Chris Szagola/Associated Press

If the Philadelphia 76ers ever get this thing right, they won't do it with the bold, innovative, grit-your-teeth-and-commit gambit that many called half-crazy and some called much worse.

Thanks to recent changes designed to take the edge off the sharp pain of tanking, the path to respectability will feature many more conventional elements.

That's kind of a shame because we'll never get to see whether general manager Sam Hinkie's brave headlong dive into failure would have resulted in success. The Sixers' hiring of Jerry Colangelo changes everything, as he's never been the type to exercise franchise-building patience, and his age, 76, suggests he's on board as Chairman of Basketball Operations to make an impact now.

"The 76ers’ rebuilding plan will take a detour under Colangelo," Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today explained. "The 76ers still want that game-changing draft pick, but routinely finishing at the bottom of the standings with no end in sight to the losing while trying to get that player is no longer the only plan."

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Mike D'Antoni is already on board as an associate head coach alongside recently extended Brett Brown, and the pursuit of veteran players could be next. ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst shared more rumblings on that front Tuesday:

Brian Windhorst @WindhorstESPN

Chuck Hayes & John Lucas recently visited Philly to meet with coach Brett Brown, sources told ESPN. Sixers considering adding some veterans.

At any rate, you don't throw around the term "void of leadership" like Colangelo did in his introductory press conference unless you're going to do something about it.

With the roster as it is, a total philosophical about-face isn't possible at this stage. A true change of course can't happen until free agency hits this summer. So whatever Colangelo does in the short- and mid-term future will have to be pretty measured.

Regardless of when the changes come, ownership has determined they're necessary. Because after a little over two years of bottoming out and digging deeper into the hole, decision-makers like owner Josh Harris weren't satisfied.

How you feel about the Sixers abandoning (or at least softening) the "Process" depends on where your NBA loyalties lie.

Though disappointing for those with no emotional investment in the Sixers, anyone with a real devotion to the team could be forgiven for embracing the shift. NBA basketball is an entertainment product. It's supposed to be a diversion. A hobby.

The "Process" made it feel like work.

And it was hard work to support a team specifically designed to lose. Intellectually, those of us who didn't tune in 82 times a year or pay for season tickets could enjoy the Sixers' approach as an experiment. We could follow the teams we cared about and check in on Philly's progress from afar.

But that wasn't an option for devoted followers. They had to sit through all that ugliness, consoled only by the possibility that an expanding pool of assets would eventually lead to a worthwhile payoff.

A Better Way?

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Unfortunately, this hasty pivot toward a more measured rebuild is far from foolproof.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, Detroit Pistons and Phoenix Suns all have longer playoff droughts than the Sixers, who made the postseason in 2012. All of them have also adopted more conventional rebuilding plans, but none provides evidence a traditional approach is more likely to get results.

Those teams are all somewhere in the NBA's middle, and the best you can say about their roads to that modest destination is that they were just good enough at various points in the journey to trick fans into thinking they were seeing progress.

The willingness to be deluded is an important part of fandom. And at least conventional rebuilds offer the opportunity to believe in something for a while—even if it's not really there.

This free-agent overpay will fix everything!

A push for the eighth seed helps develop our young talent!

Perhaps the Sixers' mistake, one which they're looking to correct now, was denying their fans the opportunity to see false progress.

Or maybe it's deeper than that.

Maybe the Sixers' blatant efforts to game the system, to pile up losses in pursuit of lottery odds, was a tacit admission that they didn't believe they could win by playing it straight. Because while it's true that the Sixers' old plan could be viewed as a cold, objective attempt to maximize their chances of landing a superstar in the draft, it could also be viewed as something else: a lack of confidence that their executives can just out-think their peers on equal terms.

Was there a danger of that unstated insecurity seeping into the rest of the organization and roster? Could it have sapped the confidence of the coaches and players on hand?

John Bazemore/Associated Press

If the overriding organizational belief is that it makes more sense to exploit the rules than to compete on equal footing, doesn't that have to impact the roster somehow? Doesn't that, on some level, disempower everyone involved in the plan?

Now, the counter argument is that the Sixers were actually being braver and smarter than other teams in rebuilding positions. They went for it, and they didn't care about previous norms because they'd analyzed the problem and arrived at an optimal solution.

Hiring Colangelo suggests they've decided old-school, conventional wisdom—and perhaps the idea of beating opponents straight up without gaming the system—has more value than they thought.

Missed Opportunity

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Can the Sixers do this? Can they build a winner with a mix of Hinkie's practical, economically principled approach and Colangelo's orthodoxy?

Sure. Every team gets it right eventually. Playoff droughts don't last forever, and the Sixers' won't either.

It's just too bad that whenever this thing turns around, we won't know whether Hinkie's plan was the real reason. We should want to know, and so should the league.

Commissioner Adam Silver didn't like what the Sixers were doing, per his comments to FiveThirtyEight.com's Neil Paine: "Am I fan of that strategy? Put it this way: No. But does that mean that it’s not acceptable under the league rules? It doesn’t."

But wouldn't it have been valuable to him and the owners for whom he works to find out whether the plan would have succeeded? Nobody was exploiting the lottery rules more enthusiastically than Philadelphia, and it wouldn't have taken too much longer to see if the loophole it thought it saw was real.

If the Sixers had gone on to fail for four, five or six years, Silver and the league would have had great evidence that the lottery rules were fine as they were. And if Philadelphia had succeeded in building a championship contender (at a cost of a half-decade of purposeful failure), maybe the conversation about changing the rules would have gotten serious.

Whether the league had a big hand in changing Philly's plans is up for debate. ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst reported Silver intervened, but the commissioner has since denied that. Either way, we've lost an opportunity to find out how effective the Sixers' bold plan could have been.

That abandonment of a brave, controversial approach feels unfair and disappointing for a league that has long embraced new ideas and unconventional thinking.

The Sixers will be good again someday, but the path they'll travel to get there just became a lot less interesting.

Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.

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