The Process is a success.
Not on any of its nominal, publicly-espoused terms, of course. Those terms, laid out by former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, were that the Sixers were going to aim higher than other teams ever dared, by aiming lower than other teams had ever dared—that by tanking season after season, hoarding draft picks all the while, Philadelphia would build a championship-worthy roster from scratch. The best that can be said for the actual basketball dividends of that plan is that if you squint reeeeeeaally incredibly hard, maybe the very first and easiest step, converting years of deliberate losing into the rights to a few promising-looking young players, sorta looks vaguely close to complete.
If you imagine away the recurring injury problems that have limited center Joel Embiid to fewer completed months of healthy basketball (two) than leg surgeries (three) in the three years since the Sixers drafted him; if you imagine not only a return to full and stable health for forward Ben Simmons, but also no lingering rust from the foot injury that stole his rookie season, and also that he will be better in the NBA than he was playing against scrubs in the Summer League; and if you grant presumed first overall pick Markelle Fultz that he will completely fulfill his potential as a Sixer ... then the Sixers might have a better young core than that of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who lost 51 games last season.
Sixers fans are declaring victory, today: Their team completed a trade, this morning, sending the rights to the third overall pick in this Thursday’s draft to Boston, for the rights to the first overall pick. (The Sixers will also send a future first-round pick Boston’s way as part of the deal; next summer’s lottery drawing will determine whether it is a 2018 or 2019 pick.) With the top choice, the Sixers presumably will select, in Fultz, what they hope will be the foundational guard they’ve needed for years. This has set off a wave of triumphal touchdown-dancing on the part of Sixers fans, across the internet, treating the vindication of The Process as now self-evident and undeniable, and its critics as definitively refuted.
So it seems worth noting that, if Fultz is the superstar scouts and fans picture him becoming, today’s trade puts the Sixers a good couple of millimeters farther along the smoothest and friendliest section of the path leading from irrelevance to the kind of sustained championship contention the ideological framework of The Process asserts is the only worthwhile goal for a professional basketball team. They have some kids who might eventually be good, or who might eventually be healthy, or who might eventually be good and healthy. Getting these kids was the easy part; developing them into high-quality NBA players, and high-quality NBA players into a consistently championship-contending team, will require luck and skill, would be difficult under better circumstances than those now prevailing in Philadelphia, and probably won’t ever happen. That doesn’t seem to matter all that much, at least to those to whom it matters most.
More and more I am convinced that the heart of The Process, the market inefficiency Sam Hinkie recognized, had nothing to do with second-round draft choices or rookie contracts, but rather was a simple marketing observation about fans: Namely, that if a front office could sever the relationship between favorable-seeming off-court personnel moves and the actual on-court basketball success those moves usually are expected to produce, then a broad subset of fourth-brain-panel fans not only would exult just as much in the former as in the latter, but would turn out and cheer even—maybe even especially—if the latter never happened.
A truth about pretty much all sports fans is that as soon as one season ends, fantasizing about what might happen in the next one becomes their favorite activity. Plenty of coaches and general managers, across sports, have had the cynical idea to redefine “next season” farther into the future, to signal that This Year Doesn’t Count: In the NFL, for example, drafting a rookie quarterback is as much an investment in job security as it is in the future of a franchise. As long as the indefinitely distant and ever-receding future looks bright, fans are all in. That’s nothing new. Hinkie’s key insight was not about how to reset the timer on this hustle continually, but about how to get rid of the timer altogether and induce fans to root for the hustle itself.
Presentation is the key. This is the insight Hinkie, an avowed acolyte of Silicon Valley, picked up from that dystopian ecosystem: That with the right application of game-theory buzzwords, superficially counterintuitive Gladwellian framing, and techno-messianic pomp, you can sell a $400 robot that squeezes the juice out of what amounts to an extra-extra-large Capri Sun pouch, or a city bus line as an alternative to public transit. As long as your product looks and sounds and feels like the future, people will want to buy it.
And so. Unrealized assets are the only worthy repository for money or enthusiasm. All those other teams and fans, sweating the standings, hoping their teams will win basketball games here and now, are suckers. The smart team, the enlightened one, cannot be found up near the top of the standings, but at the bottom: It does not let the cheap bauble of near-term success distract it from the real competition, which is to stockpile leverage and flexibility. The smart fan knows this; the smart fan recognizes that near-term success is worse than worthless, because it devalues potential future assets, like lottery odds. A plan is proven not when it delivers success on the court, but when it uses its assets to extract the highest potential value from a high-leverage instantiation of the market for assets, like the trade deadline, or the draft lottery, or a pick-swap before the draft. Maybe your team is winning basketball games now, but it isn’t providing its fans with a claim to having outsmarted its competitors in optimizing its leverage for the indefinite future; therefore it is Nero, fiddling while Rome burns. Dithering. Jerking itself off. Did your team win the draft? Was it able to trade its way into the most privileged position in the draft? That is what matters.
The Process is a success because it has finally altogether convinced its fans not just that NBA roster construction and NBA basketball have no relationship whatsoever, but that the latter is entirely irrelevant. There are real, actual fans, too many to count on Twitter and elsewhere, who will argue—who currently are arguing—that The Process has attained its goals and that its critics should be eating crow right now, not because the Sixers have achieved stable, sustained championship contention, or even developed any young players who look like they might be foundational pieces of a good team, but because after this coming Thursday’s draft, the Sixers—after years in the toilet and with zero proven NBA players on their roster—will have assembled a credible claim to having won the most desirable asset in three of the past four drafts, and no one can expect to have done better than that.
If reality matches what you see when you squint, the actual on-court product could be entertaining as hell very soon. The 54-loss Sixers of last season desperately needed at least one guard who had any business being in the NBA; in Fultz, they could have a terrific one. If Simmons gets healthy, they could have two athletic and creative passers in their starting five. If Embiid gets healthy, those passers could be feeding open shots to one of the most gifted young big men in all of basketball, and to forwards Dario Šarić and Richaun Holmes, who look like they could become useful players on a good team, and Philadelphia could have a likable, bushy-tailed upstart squad, a fun kind of team to root for and watch.
The Sixers could become, in other words, exactly the kind of basketball team that Hinkie and his Process cultists viewed with contempt—a team with no plausible chance of contending for a championship in anything close to the near term, but one capable of game-to-game feistiness. Such feistiness, The Process preached, was the sort of thing moron fans wanted, because they did not appreciate the subtlety of long-term asset-acquisition strategies.
So after four years of intentional, catastrophic basketball failure, Sixers fans find themselves with reason to hope the matrices of probability might serve them up a universe with a decent basketball team in it—just as Timberwolves fans hope Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins will develop into the most lethal inside-out combination since the Shaq-era Lakers, or Pelicans fans hope Anthony Davis and Boogie Cousins can be twin towers capable of thwarting Golden State’s spaced-out small ball, or Kings fans hope Buddy Hield blossoms into Steph Curry 2.0. Hope is what fans of bad teams always have. The paradigm-shifting innovation in Philadelphia was, through intentional hopelessness, to convince fans that hope itself was the outcome they’d been promised.