Last week, the last Sixer from the Comcast ownership years was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Luc Mbah a Moute, Alexey Shved, and Miami’s 2015 first round pick. Thad Young had always been a consistent and hard-working player since he was drafted by the Sixers in 2007 after spending a year at Georgia Tech. Even though the 26-year old continues to improve, he did not fit into the the Sixers long-term plans, and was less than enthusiastic about resigning with a team that may be rebuilding for another half-decade. In a vacuum, the trade makes sense: you get two players who can contribute for a year before their contracts expire. As a bonus, Mbah a Moute is Cameroonian, so he may be able to help his fellow countryman, Joel Embiid, adjust to NBA life.
The problem is that this trade did not happen in a vacuum; it is part of a larger plan to blow up the team, collect assets, and hopefully acquire franchise cornerstones through draft or trade. On paper, this strategy makes sense since it’s how contenders like the Thunder and Spurs have seemingly built their teams. However, if you look closer at each team, their rise to contention occurred with a unique mix of strategy and luck. The Spurs have drafted exceptionally well the last 30 years, but since R.C. Buford became team president in 1997, the team has exemplified great scouting. After drafting Tim Duncan first in 1997, they revolutionized international scouting, drafting players like Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker late in the second and first round, respectively. The Spurs also already had David Robinson, so they had the advantage of contending while those players developed, winning championships in 1999 and 2003.
The Thunder, on the other hand, have been unbelievably good at drafting high in the draft. In a four-year period they drafted five starters, including three All-Stars: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden, and Eric Bledsoe. Their current big three were picked in two consecutive drafts. However, unlike the Spurs, the Thunder have struggled to make the small moves necessary to support their stars and break through for a championship.
The difference between these two teams and the Sixers is the fact they they bottomed out and had a young superstar within a year and began looking toward actually winning by year two. The Sixers, on the other hand, bottomed out and acquired two players in the lottery who will most likely not play this year, Joel Embiid who is coming off multiple injuries and Dario Saric who will play in Europe until at least 2016. They do have Nerlens Noel debuting this year, but they literally have nothing else around them. It’s one thing to accept growing pains as players and chemistry improve, but how are Michael Carter-Williams and Noel supposed to improve if they are getting demolished every game surrounded by expiring contracts and D-league players? Is Carter-Williams even in the team’s future if they do not expect to improve or have their full team playing together for at least two more seasons? How long can fans be patient if the payoff continues to be pushed down the road?
The word that currently gets thrown around a lot when talking about the Sixers has been “assets.” They are collecting assets so the front office is prepared to go after the right players, whether it be a superstar or complementary players we need in the future. The problem is, you are not dealing with inanimate objects. You are dealing with human beings who have their own hopes and agendas. Players will not play or stay in Philadelphia just because the front office has some long-term plan, they want to be able to see success in the near distance, if not directly in front of them. Even though it is one of the biggest media markets in the country, there are several markets more desirable to NBA players and the limitations on contracts make it impossible for a team to acquire a star by overbidding all over teams, especially since their last team can offer more years and money than other teams.
Hinkie is a disciple of Daryl Morey, who never let the Rockets bottom out, but continually made deals looking toward acquiring superstars, which he did with James Harden in a trade in 2012 and signing Dwight Howard in 2013. Morey has been criticized for overthinking and not recognizing the chemistry and other intangibles that often go beyond the numbers and make it hard to examine basketball analytically in the same way you can for a more individual sport like baseball. Just this offseason, he did not extend a qualifying offer to Chandler Parsons because he thought he could sign Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, or Chris Bosh and then resign Parsons. Instead they lost out on a superstar, Parsons signed with the Mavericks, and they had to spend five times as much to sign Trevor Ariza to replace Parsons. Now the Rockets, who last year ended up in fourth place and lost in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, enter the season without Parsons or their overqualified backup center Omer Asik. Parsons aside, Morey has also not drafted or traded particularly well, often swapping mediocre parts to free up cap room to attempt to lure free agents to Houston. In seven season, Daryl Morey has made the playoffs four times and made it out of the first round once, so the impact of a pure analytic approach to NBA players is still questionable.
Hinkie obviously deserves more time. With another collection of picks in the 2015 draft along with the young players who will join the team coming back from injury or Europe in the next couple seasons, he may be building a young rotation that will grow and improve together. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the first wave of young players will still be here when the team is ready to contend, especially with the current TV deal ending in 2016, a new CBA coming up in the next three years, and possible anti-tanking rules creating serious obstacles to the Sixers current rebuilding strategy. Also, no team has ever won a championship without drafting at least one of their top three players. Can Carter-Williams, Noel, or Embiid be a top three player on a contender, and if so, how much longer will it take them to reach that level. The few diehard Sixers fans that still exist seem to have a lot of trust in Hinkie and are being patient as he works within his “plan” to improve the Sixers, but this a franchise with zero championships and one Finals appearance since 1983. How long are they willing to wait on a plan with so little evidence of success?