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May 27, 2017

Why do Philly fans trust Sixers' process but have little faith in Phillies' rebuild?

Two weeks ago, more than 3,000 people packed into XFINITY Live!, the 5-year-old sports bar/entertainment venue in the epicenter of the South Philadelphia Sports Complex.

No, the Eagles were not playing in Phoenix – this was in May. No, the Flyers were not playing in a critical postseason game deep into a second-round series. If there was a Phillies game on, no one noticed.

The 3,000-plus people were here to watch ping pong balls. Or, more accurately, to watch an NBA executive open up 14 envelopes that came as a result of the bouncing ping pong balls, a process that would unveil the winners and losers of the Draft Lottery.

To say that it was exciting television would really depend on your definition of such … drama. Perhaps you enjoy “The Bachelor” and “Dancing with the Stars.”

But even before the drawn-out theater actually took place, a funny thing happened inside XFINITY Live! Some crazed fans decided it would be a fun idea to raise a banner for a Sixers executive of the past, Sam Hinkie, the former general manager and president of basketball operations of the Sixers, or perhaps more accurately, the god-like figure who authored The Process.

Hey, I’m sure it was a grand old time at the Sports Complex. We’re not here to boo on your version of fun. Really.

In the last four seasons, the 76ers have gone 75-253 (a .229 winning percentage), but none of that matters to a healthy portion of Philadelphia sports fans of a certain age. They’re OK with losing because losing means winning … winning a chance to strike rich in the Draft Lottery, an opportunity to land a legitimate future All-Star and franchise-shaping player than can turn your team around in an instant.

The NBA, unlike any other league (with the exception of the NFL if you land a franchise quarterback), is a superstar league. With one LeBron James or Tim Duncan, a franchise can piece together others parts quite easily and field a championship-contending team for a decade.

So, it’s understandable, in a way, the desire for a going-nowhere NBA franchise to tank a season or four in the hopes of striking such luck, in landing the next Kevin Durant with a top-three pick. The alternative, being one of the final teams to clinch a postseason berth, likely getting bounced out in the first round of the postseason, and ending up with a mid-teens draft pick, isn’t very desirable and doesn’t seem like the best method to improve as a franchise.

But the acceptance of losing (because of the potential payoff of winning, for the long-term) hasn’t become just commonplace among many Sixers fans (and Philadelphia sports fans at large), but also the hip and trendy thing to do. If you disagree, you’re a square or a witch who must be burned at a stake alongside the freshly-raised Hinkie banner.

OK, perhaps that’s a step too far. 

Still, here is what we found interesting in the two weeks since the celebration of the Draft Lottery envelopes in Philadelphia (where they were completely OK with not landing the No.1 pick, even – I know, I heard from them on Twitter that night!) and the only other thing going on in the city’s current sports landscape:

The acceptance of losing and trust in a rebuilding process hasn't quite made its way across Pattison Avenue.

The Phillies, like the Sixers, haven’t finished a season with a winning record in a half decade. They entered play on Saturday with a 223-309 record (.419 winning percentage) since the start of the 2014 season. 

The Phillies’ management and ownership, like that of the Sixers, officially embarked on a rebuilding project (in October of 2014) that saw the gradual dismantling of its team with the hopes of building from the ground up, forming a sustainable winner in the long-term while they’d take their lumps in the short term.

The feeling here – and I’m not alone on this, it’s been discussed in sports circles among other media types recently – is that there’s a pretty big disparity between Philadelphia sports fans who have put trust in the Sixers’ process but aren’t at all thrilled with the Phils’ rebuild.

Why is one team permitted to lose while the other must do everything possible to field a winning product right now?

Of course, baseball and basketball are different sports with different rules and restrictions in building franchises. But there are some obvious ones that could help to explain this interesting gap between the faith behind one team’s rebuild and the other’s in the last two-plus seasons.

• Instant Gratification. March Madness is easily one of the best times of the year on the sports calendar. Two months before the NBA Draft Lottery takes place (and, really, the entire college basketball season that precedes it) allows everyone the opportunity to feast their eyes on incoming NBA talent. In the 24/7 sports media world, we see college basketball players in games, highlight reels, and even cable documentaries. When they put an official NBA hat on in the June draft, we know, injury permitting, they will be suiting up for our team in a few short months, giving us hope that winning is literally right around the corner.

In baseball, Mickey Moniak, the No.1 overall pick of the 2016 MLB Draft, is probably 4-5 years away from sniffing a major league field on the day he’s drafted, and he has to endure the sometimes challenging and oftentimes uncertain obstacle course that is the minor league system.

He is likely wearing four or five different minor league uniforms before he graduates to a big league uniform. And projecting what he’ll be when he gets there is far more challenging than looking at a college basketball player from Kentucky and seeing how his talent might translate to the NBA court. 

• Baseball is Every Day. You know why it’s more difficult to accept a losing baseball team? Because it’s the only game in town for four months (and five months when both the Flyers and Sixers aren’t participating in the postseason ... which is most often). There are no other distractions. And there are games every day, so if you’re a diehard sports fan (read: not a bandwagon fan) and are watching regularly, you’re demoralized on a nightly basis, even if you have some understanding of the big picture/direction of the franchise. Sure, it’s easy to endure the Sixers losing a couple of times a week during the winter, you can switch on the Eagles every Sunday or see what great college basketball matchup is on TV on a Wednesday, or, hey, college football is fun, too! From May through August, the Phillies play 110 games and are the only game in town. Yo, that’s a lot of losing to sit through, you cannot possibly sit through all of that with the hope that those kids on the farm are actually going to be players next year and that the front office will use their resources to compete with the Yankees and Dodgers in The Great Free Agent Race of 2018-19.

Other Opinions!

But, listen, it’s possible as a Phillies-specific sportswriter that I’m hearing from a vocal minority via social media and my email inbox. With that in mind, I enlisted the help of several other non-sports specific media members (and bloggers!) from the Philadelphia area and asked them this simple question:

Why is it a lot of folks in Philadelphia seem a lot more confident in the Sixers' 'process' than in the Phillies' rebuild?

Here is what they said:

Bob Ford, long-time Philadelphia Inquirer Sports Columnist who has written about sports in Philadelphia since 1981.

“People get excited about a team and gain confidence in its direction when they see a true star on the roster. Although a lot can still go wrong with the 76ers building process, I think what fans saw from Joel Embiid last season -- even in a limited number of games -- is the reason for the buzz around the team.

“Comparing basketball and baseball in terms of roster-building is difficult because those are so different. But I would say the Phillies have not developed a single "star" player upon whom the fans can hang their hopes. All of their pitchers look like No. 3 or No. 4 starters, and their position players are either so-so or have regressed somehow. It's hard to have confidence in that. Even if the excitement concerning the Sixers is premature, it is real, and that's something the Phillies badly lack.”

Marc Farzetta, host of CSN’s The 700 Level Show and contributor to 94-WIP’s Morning Show

“I really hate ‘The Process.’ I'm all for breaking it down to build it back up, but ‘The Process’ has become something bigger than the teams. Whether they're the Sixers, Flyers, Eagles or Phillies. In my mind, nothing or no one is bigger than the team. 

“The reason Sixers fans are more inclined to accept a long rebuild than Phillies fans is because they know that the worst thing is to get stuck in that NBA limbo. Where you're good enough to make the playoffs, maybe even win a round, but you're not really going to compete for a title. In other words, the Iguodala lead Sixers weren't anything close to Kobe's Lakers, Lebron's Cavs or Duncan's Spurs. You're either part of the elite 3 or 4 teams or you're just badly .500. You have to be patient for that superstar player in the draft, then build around him. I never hated Hinkie. I liked what he was doing overall, but at some point he needed to show he could actually draft or sign players that could play together even a little bit. That would have helped his cause while waiting for Saric to come over or Embiid to get healthy. 

“The reason the Phillies don't get the same break is because baseball is something we're watching or subjected to every day with often no local sports teams to offer a distraction. Also, unlike the NBA, one 19-year-old isn't gonna have a huge impact on the upcoming season. It's easier to see an end in the NBA. Baseball, you could get the #1 pick out of high school, like Mickey Moniak and then its half a decade before you actually see him, if you're lucky. Then after all that, there's the lack of a salary cap. So in other words, we know baseball teams have money, so why aren't they spending to get better!!! Not saying that's right, just saying a lot of fans think that way. 

“Now with all that said, I want to be optimistic. I want to think that everyone who implements a rebuild or a 'Process' in either sport knows what they're doing and that a championship is on the way. But the realist in me says, 'Yeah, hopefully but what if this isn't a ‘Process’ at all? What if our teams just suck? Then what an awful waste of time we've experienced.'"

Jody McDonald, longtime radio host on 94-WIP

“To me, there are two main reasons why Sixers fans are more patient/enthused by their rebuild over the Phillies. No.1 Sam Hinke. Hinke was so blatant in doing the ‘scorched earth’ rebuild, it was legitimately termed ‘tanking!’ It was different. It was outside the box. Just because it wasn't the same old, same old that Philly fans had seen before, it was considered cool. Nothing guaranteed, but cool.

“Personally, I thought it was over the top to ask the fan base to watch as much bad basketball as they have been forced to do so, but there are ‘process servers’ who are willing to extend their patience even further. The Phillies’ rebuild has not been unique and has not shown even flashes of results, therefore the criticism!  

“No.2 basketball is a capped sport. Salary restrictions make it more difficult to improve the team. Baseball salary drags are much less restrictive. Buy your way out in baseball. Strategically add free agents in basketball. Strategically equals patience, which Sixers fans seem to have while Phillies fans possess less!”

Zoo With Roy, the the world's foremost authority on both wanting to go and having gone to the zoo with Phillies ace Roy Halladay. (He runs a blog and tweets or something)

“No. 1, The Architect. Sam Hinkie is probably the most polarizing figure in Philadelphia sports in a long time. This ‘Process’ of his has also captured the national spotlight, spawning countless arguments and conspiracy theories. It's sexy, and evokes strong feelings. I believe that most people appreciate the approach and/or the giant brass ones it took for Hinkie to go through with it. As such, there's more collective buy-in. Matt Klentak seems nice and all but he's basically some dude. Like, he and Todd Zolecki could be standing in line to buy funnel cakes and I'd be hard-pressed to tell them apart (other than that Todd Zolecki would never be in line to buy a funnel cake because he's a scab pig scumbag). That MacPhail guy isn't very enticing, either. In short, it's naturally easier to get behind Hinkie, be it because you legit believe in the plan or like trolling your super serious no fun old school sports fan friends. 

“No. 2, Baseball v. Basketball. It only really takes one or two guys in the NBA. We have seen LeBron make it all the way to the Finals with four random donkeys out there, and win it all with two legit bangers and two total donkeys. In baseball, it takes forty-two years for a first round pick to actually make it to the big leagues, plus you need to build depth at a much broader scale. Going back to the LeBron example, future Phillie Mike Trout hasn't won much of anything while (stupid) teams like the Cardinals and Giants- without megafart superstar big names- win the World Series every other year. 

“No. 3, The Drafts. The NBA Draft is way fun and MLB Draft couldn't be less relatable and more boring. The former is great TV, the latter is awful. Seeing the Sixers get Ben Simmons feels like instant validation, while reading about how Mickey Moniak is at Lakewood and could reach the bigs in 2022 doesn't really fire anyone up. Also, most of us don't even know how acquiring some players in baseball works. Like, all these Cubans and Dominicans, how the fart does all of these slots and pools factor into things? I can't get totally behind a rebuild if I don't know how you get all of the humans on your team, nor when the guys we get will actually be playing on the Phillies. That's not the Phils' fault, mind you, but why baseball rebuilds anywhere won't be as cool as NBA ones. The NBA, by virtue of how the game itself works, is more conducive to hope of a quick turnaround.”

Kyle Scott, creator and contributor of Crossing Broad, the popular Philadelphia sports blog that’s been around since 2009

In the NBA, bottoming out to start over is almost required. You need stars to win. League-dominant players. It’s the only way. The best way to get them, by far, is through the draft. It’s the one sport that is most easy to translate success from college to pros. All the other sports, with the exceptions of a few positions in football, require long developmental periods making it hard to predict. In the NBA, a top 3 pick usually turns out to be pretty good.

“The Sixers went for this aggressively – they hit a number of bumps along the way and you could argue went too far, but had a plan and mostly stuck to – and have put themselves in a position to have two potentially transformational talents with more lottery picks to come.

“The Phillies are sort of doing the same thing, but bottoming out in baseball doesn’t yield nearly the same benefits as doing so in basketball, where getting just one or two top-3 picks gives you an excellent chance of getting a star player. There’s less certainty in baseball, and so being bad doesn’t directly lead to ‘drafting a superstar.’ There’s also not a true salary cap, and the Phillies are flush with cash. They can simultaneously develop young players and put a respectable product on the field. Worse, the young guys they have – Franco, Odubel, Joseph, Nola, Velasquez – hardly look like they form a workable core. Their minor league prospects aren’t exactly tearing it up.

“So now you have a team that positively stinks, young guys who aren’t improving – and are perhaps regressing – and no clear vision. The Sixers’ plan was obvious. The Phillies isn’t. The ages of fans are also different, so the younger person more accepting of Sixers process isn’t there with Phillies. They have continually gone backwards since 2012 with no sign that things will improve.”

David Murphy, former Phillies beat writer and current Philadelphia Daily News sports columnist

“My sense is that in the NBA, tanking is seen as a quick fix, much more so than in baseball. Draft Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in back to back years and The Process isn't really a process at all. It doesn't work like that in baseball. In baseball, the draft is far less certain, and any payoff is years away. In basketball, you stink one year and get a star the next. In theory, anyway.”

Howard Eskin, long-time host and contributor on 94-WIP and current member of Fox-29 TV's sports team

“You think the circus is over, no, Sam Hinkie probably put it out of business. Because he was a guy from Barnum & Bailey who ran a Ponzi scheme. Look, Bernie Madoff made how many millions of dollars? Sam Hinkie just conned the people. And they believed in it because every year they got good draft picks with the hope.

“People just don’t understand that baseball is a longer process. And that’s the bigger problem. They just don’t understand it. And the Phillies didn’t get rid of all of their good players to lose. The Sixers did. But, do you just want to be in the playoffs every year and not get anywhere? It’s so ridiculous when they compare other teams to the Sixers. The Sixers intentionally getting rid of any good player they had, intentionally tried to lose, and for years, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid were injured players, so they knew they wouldn’t play their first years, and by doing that you continue to lose. So they even continued to try to lose with the picks that they made.

“Here’s what the world is: it’s an internet world and they can always find numbers to support what they’re doing. But the numbers they missed, in the NBA, tell me how many teams that had top-5 picks, who played to get top-five picks, that won a championship? I can only think of two, without free agents coming: Tim Duncan with San Antonio and Dwyane Wade (with Miami) before LeBron came. You can’t tell me Cleveland, because LeBron left and came back as a free agent. So, it really doesn’t work, but they’ve been programmed, by drinking enough Kool-Aid. That’s what they did, they drank Kool-Aid, to believe it would work.

“The Phillies are just building. How long were the Cubs bad? But they were patient, and they built, and they built with young players. The problem is they don’t understand how much different baseball is. You’re not just going to get rid of all of your good players because you want them down the line as you build. In basketball, you only need one or two guys. In baseball, you need at least two good (starting) pitchers, at least two good relievers, (and offense). And (because of the minor league system) it’s not immediate. Where, in basketball, you get a guy one year out of college.

“But I don’t understand why they (Hinkie-Sixers fans) believe it, I don’t understand. When you draft a guy that’s 19-years-old, you don’t even know if he’s going to be any good. I don’t know if Ben Simmons is going to be any good. I know he’s very talented, but I don’t know if he can play point guard and I know he can’t shoot. So, really, how many No.1 picks haven’t made it, No.1 in the draft? More than enough. But they believe in it.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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