Process Stories, or Who Loves the Sixers?




The day after Rudy Gobert tested positive and got the NBA shut down, which was not incidentally also the day after a lot of people in the U.S. realized COVID-19 wasn’t a hoax, the day after maybe the last normal day, I pressed play on my favorite podcast, The Rights to Ricky Sanchez. The Ricky, as it’s known among the faithful, is a podcast about the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team hosted by two Philly natives, Spike Eskin and Michael Levin. It was a weird episode. Technically the Sixers had played the previous night—and won!—but Gobert’s live diagnosis during a Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder game paired with the growing mainstream concern about the pandemic stepped in front of a modest home win against an ailing Pistons squad. But Eskin and Levin seemed strangely comfortable with the new context, buoyant in the face of disaster. They weren’t cavalier about the global impact of this unprecedented health crisis. In fact, Levin, who is often the pod’s voice of political urgency when necessary, delivered a satisfyingly angry monologue about the federal government’s failure at communicating the seriousness of the virus to the public. But talking about basketball in a time of crisis was already the Ricky’s brand. This was just a bigger crisis than usual.

Eskin and Levin started the Ricky a few years before the beginning of the Process, an unprecedented three-year teardown of the Sixers orchestrated by then general manager Sam Hinkie.

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When I moved to Philadelphia for grad school, I fell in love with the city, as well as a woman who just happened to have been born and raised there. On the day that the person I’d fallen in love with had invited me to a South Philly bar to watch a Phillies game with her and her brother, I walked to City Sports on Walnut Street, and I bought a blue, unstructured Phillies cap from the sale basket on the front counter. I wore that hat that day to signal my devotion to her; in the months and years to come, I’d wear it to signal my devotion to the team; but, underneath all of that, I wore it to signal my devotion to a city that was becoming my home. I had always only cared about basketball as a kid—being from Pittsburgh, I had no pro team to call my own, though my parents lovingly took me to see traveling stars on their way through Cleveland—and I assumed that, eventually, I’d become as immersed in the Sixers as I was their neighbors in South Philadelphia. But those were baseball years, it turned out—wearing a Phillies hat on the street between 2007 and 2011 meant getting random high fives and greetings of “Go Phils” from a lot of people who would have been scandalously rude to you otherwise. I’d never lived in a city before, and living in one during an era of transcendent sports success was pretty thrilling. Enough so that that feeling, alongside budding romance, helped me overcome the shame of bandwagon-jumping. (Reader, forgive me.) At the same time, it was hard to get too excited about the Sixers, mired, as Sam Hinkie would eventually find them, in snoozy mediocrity. The Phillies, on the other hand, were contenders, with all the high drama that entails. It was easy to feel vindicated or disappointed by that baseball team; it was hard to feel much of anything at all about the Sixers.

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The idea of the Process was simple, kind of: in the NBA, there are three classes of team. The upper class are the championship contenders. They have superstars and lots of fans and they win. Because they win, they can attract other superstar free agents and media attention and their games get broadcast on national TV. The downside of winning is that these upper-class teams have to pick last in the college draft. Their success in the present is purchased at the cost of future prospects, but, as they say, banners fly forever, and most teams are willing to sacrifice those long-term, longshot odds for the chance at a championship.

Then, there are the lower-class teams. They don’t have superstars, or they have frustrated superstars who feel alone at the bottom. These teams have declining ticket sales and stymied hopes and ambitions, and they lose, a lot. Because they lose, they can’t attract high quality free agents, no matter how much they overpay. There’s no way out except the college draft, but the college draft is weighted in their favor. The more you lose, the earlier you get to pick, and the better chance that you get to draft and sign, for relatively little money, a young superstar. Teams at the bottom are miserable, but they live in the hope that one day, with a combination of luck and savvy, they’ll draft one or two players that will change everything.

Then there’s the middle class. When Sam Hinkie took over the Sixers in 2013, they were the very definition of the middle class. They had good players, but no stars. They had a loyal fan base, but years of missing the playoffs or topping out in the first round had made Philly’s famously irascible sports fans, well, extra irascible. They didn’t win enough for the wins to mean anything, nor did they lose enough for the losses to mean anything. They had no way up or down—exiting the playoffs early, picking in the soft middle of the draft. So, Sam Hinkie called it. The Sixers, of their own volition, would descend into the underworld, only to re-emerge more glorious than before. The Sixers, in other words, would tank.

That’s the big thing about the Process, but it’s the little things that made it alternately ingenious and infuriating. Losing wasn’t the only part of the plan. Hinkie, who came to the NBA not as a former player or agent or scout but as a former financier with a Stanford MBA, wanted to lose and then maximize the rewards given to losers. The best players would be traded. So too would the okay players. The Sixers would accumulate assets in the draft by giving away the things they didn’t need: good players and the budgetary flexibility to sign them. Not only would the Sixers trade their stars for a king’s ransom of other team’s draft picks, they’d agree to absorb bad players on long, expensive contracts from good teams in exchange for even more draft picks. They would give big league playing time to waived players, undrafted college vets, discarded risks. They would use analytics to evaluate talent and find value. The idea wasn’t just to suck in order to get the number one pick in the draft—though that was one of the goals, and it would indeed come to pass—it was to give yourself as many chances as possible to find someone special, the sort of player who would do more than put up good stats, the sort of player who could transform a franchise. If you trusted the process, if you believed that the moves were sound and the philosophy wise, then you could ignore the results (the losing) until they changed.

Sam Hinkie was hired by the Sixers in 2013.

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In 2013, we left Philly for St. Louis.

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And, with that, the Process began.   

The Process is the story of an ambitious analytics experiment, the backlash to an ambitious analytics experiment, the cult-like following that developed around an ambitious analytics experiment, the bizarre saga of an old-school basketball executive taking over the reins of an ambitious analytics experiment he didn’t care to understand, bad luck, good luck, foot fractures, face masks, and trust, earned and betrayed.  It’s a parable of an unfinished revolution that feels somehow more poignant to consider in the midst of what seems like it might end up being an unfinished year on earth.

In his new book, Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports, sportswriter Yaron Weitzman tells that story. As it should be, the book is teeming with palace intrigue. Weitzman, a writer for Bleacher Report, tells this long tale at length, but he has an online writer’s sense of speed. What could easily read as an arduous transaction report or collection of inside baseball (basketball?) anecdotes comes off as a kind of high-stakes HR melodrama.

I mean that in the best way. The Process isn’t Moneyball. It’s not The Boys of Summer. It’s not Friday Night Lights. It isn’t a story about a team coming together to triumph over adversity. It isn’t about a renegade innovator transforming a league. Hinkie didn’t introduce analytics to the NBA. In fact, it’s possible he’s as much to blame for the bad reputation analytics have amongst the old-head commentariat as any of the old-heads themselves are. It doesn’t have a charismatic protagonist or a clear villain. (Hinkie declined to be interviewed for the book, but even if he had, he’s famously bad at offering compelling, extemporaneous explanations for his decisions.) As it stands now, Hinkie isn’t even the sole author of his Process anymore. This is actually one of Weitzman’s challenges as a narrator—Hinkie’s reign only lasted for three years, and lots of weird and interesting things have happened since. Who is this book even about?

The Process Era Sixers are something of an Exquisite Corpse story—Hinkie wrote neither its middle nor is he writing its end. This story is, thus, a story about an organization, a story in which the main character is this ineffable, amorphous, transhistorical thing called the Philadelphia 76ers. Neither Sam Hinkie nor his successor Bryan Colangelo nor his successor Elton Brand nor star Joel Embiid nor coach Brett Brown are the main character. The main character is this thing that exists at the center of the collective imagination of all those men plus all the people of Philadelphia plus all the haters and believers across the US and the world. That’s sort of an amazing and impossible subject, and Weitzman tackles it with economy, clarity, and a fluency with the logistics of these sorts of things. Tanking to the Top, in terms of genre, is a Process procedural. The biggest problem with that ambitious focus, though, and its understated method, is that, in ways both literal and metaphorical, the Process isn’t a story about winning.

Or at least it isn’t yet. Hinkie is long gone, and so too are his usurpers, but the team his strategy produced is only just getting started. Weitzman has chosen to publish this book in medias res, to some extent or another. There’s Joel Embiid, the giant, charismatic core of the team. At seven feet, he moves like a dancer and apparently talks to opposing players like Don Rickles. (He especially loves telling lesser centers—like Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond—that he “owns real estate” in their heads.) A meme-lord, a troll king, a trash-talking defensive monster—the ideal athlete for the people of Philadelphia to fall in love with. Then there’s Ben Simmons, quiet where Embiid is gregarious. He is supernaturally precise with no-look passes, but, given even an inch of space, he’ll hurtle toward the basket like an asteroid. But he wouldn’t shoot a jump shot   for love or money. He’s the Sixers’ enigmatic, fatally flawed, basketball genius. And these guys are not done yet. Even on the Ricky, the actual length of The Process is up for debate. Some people imagine the Process to have died with Hinkie, others imagine it to be ongoing. The most convincing timeline for Process Trusters seems to be that the Process ends when Joel Embiid either wins or fails to win a championship in a Sixers uniform. Embiid, not Hinkie, is, in ways both spiritual and now legally official, “The Process.” He has adopted the name of “The Process” as his own, he embodies the improbability of Hinkie’s scheme, he is, as Weitzman notes, a particularly analytically driven basketball thinker, and, most notably, he is the only remaining Sixer who was drafted by Hinkie. So, Weitzman’s story of the Process can’t end in triumph, nor can it in ignominy and defeat. “Tanking to the Top” is a misnomer, because it’s still unclear where the tanking has taken the Sixers.

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I’ve now officially lived longer in St Louis than I ever did in Philly, and I still wear my Phillies hat, but I don’t get any high fives. That hat tells people that this place can only ever sort of be my home. I am an expatriate, it says. And even though I’m not from Philadelphia, I’m not from here either. But that’s a stressful way to live. The truth is that it was hard to memorialize what I’d lost in moving from Philly by way of a fandom I only knew how to do in person. Watching the Phillies on TV in the Midwest felt less like being there again, conjured less of that belonging, than it felt like watching video playback of a party all your friends attended without you. I missed Philadelphia, but baseball wasn’t a particularly useful or helpful way of dealing with that longing. When you leave a place, you can’t keep eating at the same restaurants, you can’t keep walking on the same streets, you can’t keep exchanging knowing looks about Shane Victorino with the same strangers. But at the same time that I was coming to terms with the contingency of my Phillies fandom, the Sixers were building something else.

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The outline of the Hinkie era, in its simplest terms, is this:

2013: The Sixers’ finance bro ownership group (led by Apollo Global Management’s Josh Harris) hire Sam Hinkie as one of their own and sign off on the Process. Hinkie hires Brett Brown to oversee the Process on the floor as coach. Hinkie’s first big trade sends All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday to New Orleans for Nerlens Noel—a young center with a busted knee—and an additional first round pick in the next year’s draft. Everybody thinks Hinkie is crazy. Noel misses his entire rookie season because of the knee thing.

2014: The Sixers finish the season a hideous 19-63. With the third pick in the draft, Hinkie takes Joel Embiid, a young center with a broken foot. With the pick from the Holiday trade, Hinkie takes Elfrid Payton who he immediately trades to Orlando for Croatian pro Dario Saric and a second-round pick in the next year’s draft. Embiid misses his entire rookie season because of the foot thing.

2015: Hinkie trades former rookie-of-the-year Michael Carter-Williams to Milwaukee for a future high first-round pick. Everybody thinks Hinkie is crazy. The Sixers finish the season a marginally worse 18-64. Hinkie takes another young center (that’s three in a row), Jahlil Okafor, 3rd in the draft. He doesn’t get injured, but he’s terrible. The Sixers start the new season 1-21, and Harris hires veteran basketball executive Jerry Colangelo to babysit Hinkie. Hinkie does a really weird trade with Sacramento—known now as the “Pick Swap” trade—that becomes one of the primary miraculous evidences of his sainthood. Embiid misses another season with another foot thing.

2016: The Sixers finish a hellacious 10-72. Hinkie, after coming under intense pressure from Colangelo and Harris, resigns. He does so with a 13-page manifesto about the Process. The Ricky raises enough money to rent a billboard across the highway from the South Philly sports complex with Hinkie’s face on it that says, “HINKIE FOREVER.” One month later, the Sixers draw the number one pick. Jerry Colangelo hires his son Bryan to replace Hinkie. The Sixers pick Ben Simmons (a point guard who, at 6’ 10” can plausibly play center) first in the draft. Perhaps as a tribute to Sam Hinkie, Ben Simmons breaks his foot anyway and misses his entire rookie season.

The uncharitable read on this is that Hinkie blew most of his high picks, he drafted too many centers, and he mismanaged the team to such a degree that Josh Harris had to hire a grown-up to run things. The charitable read is that three years of sucking got the Sixers two top-twenty players—in Embiid and Simmons—on rookie-scale, team-friendly contracts, and that’s more than most teams ever have. Hinkie didn’t get shit-canned because he screwed up; he got shit-canned because ownership didn’t have the stomach to trust the Process and because all that intentional losing was causing a league-wide scandal. In the 2016-17 season, the Sixers went 28-54. The following season, with Simmons and Embiid healthy and on the floor together for the first time, the Sixers won 52 games and made it into the second round of the playoffs. Hinkie had to watch from home.

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I didn’t watch a Sixers game in 2013. I couldn’t have told you what kind of accent Brett Brown had in his press conferences. I didn’t exchange a knowing look about Nerlens Noel, nor would I have had anyone to exchange it with. But, in 2015, the same year we gave in and canceled our MLB.tv subscription, I read an article in ESPN the Magazine about the Process. The piece, by Pablo Torre, is one of the most electrifying, narratively gripping pieces of sports journalism I’d ever read. It was like discovering a new sport. So that year, I started following the Process. Like compulsively reading Wikipedia synopses of horror films without watching them, I paid attention to Hinkie’s moves, to the injury status of players I’d never seen play, to the long game philosophy. Casually, at first, I began to become a fan of an idea that could easily survive the move to the basketball desert of St. Louis.

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So why was Hinkie exiled? At the heart of this question is another question: can a team that’s built around valuing players-as-assets value players-as-people too? Weitzman’s answer is somewhat of a mixed bag. He tells stories about coach Brett Brown’s deep familial connection to Ben Simmons, and of Brown and Hinkie’s generosity to Embiid after his younger brother’s unexpected death. Lots of fringe NBA prospects benefitted from Hinkie’s Process, like TJ McConnell and Robert Covington, but they stay mostly at the fringes of Weitzman’s book. Indeed, much of the book is about detailing the organization’s failures at communicating and developing trust with young prospects. Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Markelle Fultz (drafted by Colangelo)—all of these players were selected with high draft picks, all vastly and spectacularly underperformed, and all eventually left the organization with some degree of bitterness about how they were treated in Philly. The Process brought two stars to Philadelphia, but it left a lot of casualties along the way.

Part of the Process philosophy of accumulating the greatest number of assets was an acknowledgement that any general manager, even their best, would make a wrong call now and then. “I don’t even care if [the shot] goes in,” Hinkie said, “I’m all about, ‘Should it go in?’” To really execute a plan like this you have to be realistic about what draft picks can do and trust that your process is the right one. You need to come to terms with the idea that, to get one or two truly great players, you’re probably going to have to pick lots more who don’t end up that great. That’s the way it works. Weitzman’s book, however, citing lots of behind-the-scenes information and interviews people who would know, more than suggests that the failure of these players is as much about an organization unready to deal with them as it was about players unready to deal with NBA competition. Hinkie, in Weitzman’s account, might have designed a Process that could acquire transcendent talent, but he hadn’t necessarily designed a Process that could nurture it.

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Becoming a fan of the Process meant dealing with its criticisms. I was not then, nor am I now, bothered by the common arguments against Hinkie. The idea that all that losing would produce a “losing culture,” for instance, always felt more like hocus pocus amateur psychology than anything else. And, while those busted draft picks were infuriating, you have to be willfully ignoring the basic premise of the Process in order to be able to cite them as evidence of its failure. But there were other things. The Sixers, during this time, became infamous for what’s called the “Hinkie Special.” The Hinkie Special is a four-year contract—offered to late draft picks or undrafted players who don’t enter the league with an automatic minimum contract—that locks in the player at or slightly above the league-minimum salary for that length of time but also makes either some or all of those years non-guaranteed. In other words, it signs prospects to a contract for the longest possible amount of time at the least amount of cost to the team and with the least amount of security for the player. In the best-case scenario, like that of Robert Covington, the Hinkie Special gives more time for an unheralded player to prove himself at the highest level. In the worst-case scenario, as ESPN analyst Amin Elhassan put it, it feels a little like “indentured servitude,” especially for players who’d been drafted just a few spots short of a guaranteed contract.

Professional basketball players are wealthy and famous and beloved, but they are also workers. Sure they make more money than their immediate supervisors—coaches, GMs—but that doesn’t mean they can’t be exploited, that they can’t be alienated from their labor. And, even outside of the rare, marginal deals like the Hinkie Special, there can be something fundamentally unsavory about a class of (predominantly white) managers insisting on referring to a class of (predominantly black) players as “assets.” These problems weren’t created by the analytics movement, they are not unique to Hinkie’s philosophy, and plenty of teams are less generous with young prospects—they’re just also less conspicuously clever about it. The Hinkie Special is the purest form of what’s called a “team-friendly” deal. The implication, of course, is that the team and the player are different. What’s friendly to the team is often unfriendly to the player.

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In a lot of ways, though, this is simply the story that was available for Weitzman to tell. A significant footnote to this book is that the ownership group for the Sixers forbad any current employees from being interviewed. And that dictum seemed to have traveled to most former players and executives as well. So, while there’s plenty of inside information and gossip, there’s no Hinkie, no Brown, no Embiid. The people who would be most invested in defending the Process weren’t in a position to defend it. That’s not to say that Weitzman isn’t even-handed, but the cumulative weight of the stories of players who flamed out and the unfinished nature of the Process in general produces a certain narrative regardless of the spin. When your job is to recount the life of a basketball team that suffered as many bizarre and catastrophic setbacks as the Sixers did, though, it’s hard to be so sanguine about the architect. What made the Process such a unique event wasn’t just the losing or the criticism, it was everything else that happened. One of the Sixers’ logos is a Revolutionary Era snake chopped up in pieces. Sometimes, those pieces join together and free themselves from tyranny; sometimes you get bit by the snake.

For that reason, Weitzman’s book is a rare journalistic experiment. Plenty of sports monographs appeal mainly to fans. You read Andre Iguodala’s autobiography because you love Andre Iguodala or you want the inside account of the Warriors dynasty. You read Buzz Bissinger’s book about LeBron James’ high school career to dwell in all the possibility of his young life. Books like Moneyball transcend that a bit inasmuch as they tell a story that has applications outside of baseball or team. You don’t read a biography of Galileo or Bill Gates because you’re really invested in astronomy or computer programming. You do it, if you do, to read about the lives of innovators. This is not to say Moneyball’s hero Billy Beane is Galileo, but you know what I mean. Tanking to the Top, again, is not Moneyball. Perhaps one day a book will be written about Hinkie and the theory of his revolution. (I sort of hope Hinkie writes it himself, to be honest. His resignation letter is a real piece of found literary art.) Underneath all the stats and transactions, Weitzman has written a book about how weird it is to be a fan of a sports team.

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For me, in exile in St. Louis, the Process was perfect. It was abstract, it was complex enough to hold my attention, it was filled with frequent incidents and plot twists. More than that, I didn’t mourn the loss of players I didn’t really know. His managerial practices helped to create the perception that Hinkie was unsentimental, even cold. Hinkie traded every player a fan could love, he produced a situation where the team never had a chance to win, he cratered Philadelphia’s hope. But, as the Ricky’s legions would testify, the Process was hopeful. There is, of course, cynicism to a project like this. There’s a refusal of the romanticism of sports in the immediate moment. There’s the way it foregrounds the idea of players as assets. It’s easier to fall in love with even a flawed center than it is to fall in love with the draft picks he would net in a trade. But the whole rigamarole is about optimism, about the romance of the future. It’s about picturing, in ways blurry and real, the kind of team it’s impossible not to love. And it’s about finding community within that space. When Brett Brown was hired by Hinkie, at his opening press conference, he looked at the reporters and said, with a look of marvel in his eyes, “Can you imagine if we get this thing right?” The Process wasn’t about high fives on the street—at least not yet—it was about imagination.

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Hinkie’s hiring and tenure is the central event of the book, but it begins years before and ends years after. It is, in ways largely implicit, about the schizophrenic nature of fandom. (The Ricky gets its own chapter.) Philly sports fans are notorious for their passion, their willingness to boo their own players, their willingness to violently defend players they might have been loudly booing moments earlier, their appreciation of hustle, tenacious defense, and other athletic virtues often branded “blue collar.” Philly fandom is a generational practice—I’ve married into it. But Philly teams do not automatically inherit such spirit in the same way. Last season, the Sixers made a huge trade in November for prickly star Jimmy Butler, and then again another huge trade for the decidedly not prickly star Tobias Harris in February. Brett Brown joked at one point leading up to the playoffs, that he’d coached three teams in one year. Philly fans, likewise, have rooted for countless iterations of the Sixers over a twenty-year period. The fans are the same but the teams change all the time. Weitzman’s book is a fascinating chronicle of the way they change, the reasons they do, and the poignant and frustrating experience of trying to process all that upheaval, inside and out.

The Ricky episode that dropped before the coronavirus episode was entitled, “Everybody Hates the Sixers.” At the time of Gobert’s diagnosis, things weren’t going particularly well for the team. Two successive general managers had traded away the last of Hinkie’s substantial treasure trove of draft picks and good players on “team-friendly” contracts. When Weitzman ended his book—the 2019 offseason—things looked a little different: the team had used up the last of its trade chips, sure, but it had acquired stars. Al Horford, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson—big name players were playing in Philly. In a lot of the pre-season coverage, it was widely suggested that the Sixers would have possibly the best—or at least biggest—starting five in the league. Weitzman rightfully gives Hinkie credit for this, even in absentia. So the book ends, not on a note of finality, but on a note of tentative optimism. This, it looked like, could be the year.

As the 2019-2020 season progressed, though, it became increasingly clear that those prized assets might have been misspent. The Sixers were fine, but, after two years of second-round playoff defeats, they didn’t look any better than they had before. What’s more, the new team played with a strange, sloggy, clumped-up style, mostly dictated by the awkward fit of the new players alongside Embiid and Simmons. (Ironically, the starting five had, arguably, too many centers.) The electricity of the previous two seasons felt more like a science experiment gone wrong—and both Simmons and Embiid seemed to be playing without the joyful ferocity that had put the league on notice two years earlier. At its best, the team could smother opposing offenses and generate just enough of their own to prevail. It could be effective, it made sense, but it lacked almost everything that makes the contemporary game so light and lively and charming. To watch these Sixers win a playoff series would not be fun; it would be punishing. Mike Levin said, on an earlier Ricky, that he thought it would be perfect for this team—that nobody in Philly particularly liked, that worked a thousand times better on paper than on the court, that played ugly, anachronistic basketball—to win the championship. That would be a fitting end to the Process.

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I went to one Sixers game at the Wells Fargo Center (then the Wachovia Center) in the pre-Process days. I don’t remember a single thing about it. In 2018, though, we were in Philly for the holidays and my birthday. As a surprise, she bought us tickets to see the Sixers play the Spurs, alongside all of our friends from the old days who hadn’t left. None of us had ever had so much as a conversation about this team until that night, but there we all were. I bought a hat—a cream-colored, structured “City Edition” hat. My first Sixers hat. That hat means something different when I wear it out here in the basketball desert of St. Louis, a sign of life. It’s not about what differentiates me from other people on the street, still not high-fiving; it’s about what I brought with me when I came here. When Simmons and Embiid—playing their first full season together—pulled out the win in the final minutes as we sat at the top of the arena, and the infectious disco-era “1,2,3,4,5, Sixers” victory song began to play, it felt like coming home to a place I’d never been before.

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There’s been talk recently that, if the NBA returns to finish the season, it’ll likely do so with no fans in attendance to minimize risk of infection. No crowd noise, no context, no sentiment. For me, at least, that would be the most fitting end to the Process. A team nobody seems to like, playing in a way nobody else plays, winning a championship in an empty gym. It’d feel like we’d been there the whole time.

 

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