The Philadelphia 76ers clobbered the Portland Trail Blazers last night, winning 114-89 for their fifth victory of the season. At one point they were 1-30 with an average point differential of -13.3; now they’re 5-37 with an average point differential of -11.1. They still aren’t any good, but their form in the past 11 games suggests they’re of the same caliber as the meh Nuggets or Bucks, not one of the worst teams in history. And it’s mostly due to Ish Smith.
The Wake Forest journeyman point guard—he’s playing for his ninth team in six seasons—began the season in New Orleans, but was deemed surplus to requirements. Eleven games ago he was traded to Philadelphia, and immediately slotted into the starting lineup, taking over for Isaiah Canaan. He has stabilized perhaps the most important position for the developing 76ers, while at the same time showcasing both everything right and wrong with GM Sam Hinkie’s tanking approach.
The biggest takeaway from an interview Hinkie gave to Zach Lowe last month was how much he was counting on the injured Kendall Marshall this season:
Marshall could have provided two things the howling critics rightfully suggest the Sixers need: a competent point guard, and some sort of veteran mentor for Jahlil Okafor, their wayward rookie star. “This has been hard,” Hinkie says. “We haven’t been proud of this kind of start. We had strong desires for a point guard who could help us play at a high tempo, and get our best players the ball in positions where they could be successful. We want someone to throw a post entry pass. We thought Kendall was that guy.”
Hinkie was roundly laughed at for his lamentation—and to put all your eggs in Kendall Marshall’s basket is pretty damn funny—but Ish Smith has proven his point. Suddenly there is somebody who can actually throw an entry pass to Jahlil Okafor, who can run a proper pick-and-roll to get Nerlens Noel easy baskets, who can direct a fast break to take advantage of the 76ers’ length and athleticism. Nobody is going to confuse him for an elite point guard—he can’t really shoot, he’s undersized—but being just a little bit below average makes him one of the Sixers’ best players.
The 76ers got Smith for two second round draft picks that are likely to be in their 30s, a decent price to pay that’s probably worth it given how many picks the 76ers own. But the thing is, they shouldn’t have had to trade for Smith in the first place.
Smith played 25 games for the 76ers last season, starting 14 of them, to end the season. But the 76ers didn’t re-sign him, and instead he was picked up by the Wizards late in the offseason on a minimum contract. They waived him a week before the season began, and he was picked up by the Pelicans two days later. At pretty much any point the 76ers, $10 million below the salary cap, could’ve signed Smith, but chose not to.
The Ish Smith saga also suggests something pretty worrying for the 76ers: that Hinkie isn’t particularly good at evaluating talent. In fact, he’s basically admitted as much in regards to identifying talent in the draft:
We don’t have any hubris that we will get them all right. We’re not certain that we have an enormous edge over anybody else. In some cases, we might not have an edge at all.
Smith was in the building every day for two months, but the 76ers weren’t smart enough to realize what they had: a competent, valuable placeholder to feed the young kids while waiting for something better to come along. Instead they waited until they were 1-30 and gave up two assets they highly value.
The 76ers are now exactly where they want, and where they could’ve been all along. They are still so bad that they’re going to finish with either the worst or second worst record in the league, but are winning enough games to prevent complete disillusionment from settling in. Enough to reduce media and fan criticisms, and to make the players enjoy coming in to work.
No one (that you should take seriously, at least) is suggesting that the 76ers should’ve overpaid for the Enes Kanters, Wes Matthewses, and Jae Crowders of the world this summer. But the value of having a few decent and cheap NBA-quality players on the roster is self-evident. Young players don’t develop in a vacuum, and it does a player like Isaiah Canaan little good to go up against the even worse Tony Wroten in practice every single day.
The biggest mistake Hinkie and his fervent supporters make is vehemently asserting that it has to be all or nothing, that the only possible way to leap over the Valley of Mediocrity is exclusively churning for high lottery picks. That’s a perfectly fine primary strategy, but one that has to be complimented by an understanding of the reality of the NBA, the awareness that once you select those hopeful future stars you need to provide a stable and nurturing atmosphere for them to reach their potential.
That means spending a bit more money than you’d prefer, winning a few games that you would’ve liked to have lost, and building good relationships with fellow GMs and agents. It seems the 76ers have finally taken these lessons to heart, but not before Hinkie got his legs cut out from beneath him.