More Sports:

July 03, 2021

The Process was neither a success nor a failure for Sixers; it's simply 'incomplete'

Just because it didn't bring a championship to Philly (yet) doesn't mean that it can't work elsewhere.

Sixers NBA
Joel_Embiid_sad_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid.

Imagine, for a second, that it's the early 1500s and you're hiring someone to paint the Sistine Chapel. I know, I know, but bear with me for a minute.

You bring in Michelangelo and he presents you with a sketch for an awe-inspiring work that could have a lasting impact on the art world. You think it might be a bit ambitious — and are worried it will be difficult to finish as conceived — but you hire him nonetheless. What's a few years when the result could be remembered for ages?

But about halfway through, something changes. After seeing him put just a few more strokes on the ceiling, you decide that you don't like the way he's mixing his colors, the brushes he's using and the fact that he's lying on his back and leaving every day dirty and covered in paint. It's taken longer than you'd hope just to reach this point, and the locals are starting to grow restless over this work-in-progress they consider to be an eye sore.

So what do you do? Do you show the patience he asked for when you commissioned the work? Do you let him finish and see if he can deliver on what he promised? No, you bring in a six year old with finger paints to finish what should have been a masterpiece. You do it because the Catholic Church says you have to do it — and because the six year old in question is the son of a high-ranking bishop. 

How exactly did you think it was going to end? And, more importantly, how can you justifiably blame Michelangelo for having a doomed plan when you didn't even allow him to see it through? 

Sure, that's a bit of an extreme example. But it's also an extremely appropriate one given the debate that's raging on Twitter this holiday weekend. That's right, over five years after Sam Hinkie was forced out of Philly, we're re-litigating The Process all over again. 

And the debate is just as stupid and pointless as it's always been. The problem with all of this is that we're trying to judge a process on the end results, regardless of whether it's over or not. It's like we didn't learn anything from this whole experiment. 

The reason we're in this mess again is because my former colleague Keith Pompey* of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a column on Saturday (as other have in the past) declaring The Process a failure after another second-round exit for the Sixers.

*If you're a frequent reader, you might notice this is the second time this week I'm pushing back against something Keith wrote, but please don't think I'm picking on him! I like Keith; I just happen to disagree with him here. And as for it happening twice in a few days, that's a total coincidence. #HopeHeIsntMadAtMeFlow.

Naturally, that sparked outrage online as the merits of tanking to the top are again being discussed so heavily that it's actually trending on Twitter. 

It's honestly unfortunate that so many people are spending the Saturday of a holiday weekend online debating something like this when there's so clearly only one correct answer to whether The Process was a success or failure in Philadelphia: it was neither. It was incomplete, because the person who sketched out the plan, who began putting it into action just as anticipated, was never allowed to finish it and was instead replaced (the very next day!) by someone who proved to be far more incompetent, the NBA executive equivalent of a six year old with finger paints, a nepotistic mandate handed down from on high because the powers that be were embarrassed by all that losing.

I could nit-pick much of what Keith wrote — like the fact that The Process wasn't actually a four-year tank job like he suggests, since Hinkie didn't even last a full three seasons — but most of it was a recounting of facts that makes it appear as if every move, save for a select few (like drafting Joel Embiid), were the wrong ones. Unfortunately, as we alluded to above, many of those moves were not made by the architect of The Process, and were instead made after Hinkie resigned, back when the team had more assets than it knew what to do with, including an upcoming lottery pick and two future All-Stars waiting to emerge in Embiid and Ben Simmons (not to mention quality players like Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jeremi Grant and others who arrived via the Process but were ultimately shipped out of town).

On one hand, The Process ended the minute Bryan Colangelo took over and began converting the assets Hinkie spent the previous few years collecting into fewer, less appealing assets, trading up to draft Markelle Fultz, and basically abandoning the philosophy that had guided the organization throughout the previous administration. If that's the case, then how can we judge something called "The Process" on its end results when we should really be judging it on its own process, one that was never allowed to finish. 

In that sense, it's incomplete and can never be deemed either a success or a failure, at least not in the ultimate sense of delivering a championship. What isn't debatable, however, is that the last few years have been far more fun, end results notwithstanding, than watching a team tread water as an eight seed year after year, good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to actually contend — and, more importantly, not bad enough to earn the kind of draft picks that can alter the course of your franchise.

On the other hand, even if you don't believe that The Process ended when Colangelo replaced Hinkie, you still must believe that it is still incomplete. As long as the team still has the two best players who were a direct result of all that losing — Embiid and Simmons, and probably even if Embiid is still the only one remaining after this season — then The Process is still ongoing. If Embiid wins the MVP award next season and leads the Sixers to a championship, was it all suddenly a success? Will Keith write another column saying that The Process was right all along? Will we be re-litigating this all over again? 

You can be pro-Process or anti-Process, but deeming it a success or a failure based on the information we currently have is wrong. 

Unfortunately, in trying to bury The Process, Keith might've actually done more to support its merits than anything else by making his main argument that the Suns' and Hawks' success this season is proof that The Process failed.

The success of the Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks this season proves The Process was a failure.

The Suns made their first postseason appearance in 11 seasons. Now, the Western Conference champions will make their third NBA Finals appearance in the organization’s 53-year history. Phoenix turned things around by developing young talent and acquiring Chris Paul from the Oklahoma City Thunder through a November trade.

The Hawks advanced to the Eastern Conference finals after upsetting the Sixers in the conference semifinals. This comes after the Hawks didn’t win more than 29 games in any of the last three seasons. But they improved by developing young players, adding free agents, and making a season-altering coaching change by firing Lloyd Pierce and naming Nate McMillan the interim coach.

Neither team went to the great lengths of tanking the Sixers did in their rebuilding.  []

That, as we call it in the biz, is the nut of his story. But a simple trip down Memory Lane will show you that's a pretty convenient way of framing it. And will serve as a reminder that the idea at the heart of The Process is absolutely the right one, even if it didn't play out in Philly as promised (again, because the plug was pulled before that ever had a chance of happening).

Did the Hawks and Suns lose intentionally? Most likely, no. They were bad thanks to their own basic incompetence. In fact, their results during the years preceding this one aren't all that different than what the Sixers did during The Process years. And after all, the point of The Process was to take a middling team that was stuck in NBA purgatory year after year with no end in site and provide it a realistic path to a title, one based on how other teams around the league had been rising through the ranks. It's essentially a multi-year rebuild where instead of incremental growth, you remain a bottom dweller for a few years, acquire assets (read: quality draft picks and players that can be moved more picks/better players), and maintain flexibility so that when the time is right, you have the "optionality" to move the pieces you've gathered and fill out your roster around the young players you've drafted with those high picks from all the losing. And, the Suns and Hawks are showing, that improvement, with the right players, coaches and executives in place, can happen quickly. 

It's not complicated. It's just different. It requires watching some ugly basketball and losing A LOT of games. And that's what people didn't like about it.

That being said, Hinkie at least had a plan. And he was trying to do exactly the same thing Keith is praising the Hawks and Suns for doing — losing a bunch of games, getting lottery picks (who became guys like Trae Young and Devin Booker), and then flipping that into a winning roster. 

Each of the last three seasons prior to 2020-21, the Hawks finished dead last in their division and went 73-158 (.316), which allowed them to get Trae Young, the main reason they find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Suns' struggles lasted even longer than the Hawks before they posted their first winning season since 2013-14 this year and backed it up with a trip to the NBA Finals. From 2015-2019, Phoenix finished last (fifth) in their division three times and fourth once, posting a combined record of 87-241 (.265) for those four years before showing considerable improvement in a pandemic shortened 2019-20 season. 

Weird. That's almost exactly the same thing the Sixers were trying to do — and saying that the Sixers lost "intentionally" is still a point of contention; it was just more that they weren't actively trying to win, while saying they lost intentionally makes it sound like they were throwing games. The only difference is that at the end of those periods of on-court losing, the Sixers ran their GM out of town and replaced him with Colangelo, bringing in far more front office turmoil than the Suns and Hawks are currently dealing with, as each of their general managers have been there for at least two full seasons to help them transition from being bad to good. 

If anything, the success of the Suns and Hawks proves that what the Sixers were trying to do could've worked if they had been allowed to finish it. (Who knows what this team would've looked like or how many games they would've won had Hinkie's plan been taken to its rightful end?)

But they didn't. And so it remains incomplete, no matter how you look at it.

We can argue forever whether or not it was the best way to try to build a championship contender, whether or not the process behind The Process is a sound one. But what we can't do is judge it on the results. Because we don't know what might've been had it not been ruined by a finger-painting child. Or what they still might be with an MVP runner-up who epitomizes "The Process" so much that he took that nickname for his own. 

The Process might not have brought a championship to Philly (at least not yet), but that hardly makes it a failure. 

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports