This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on November 27,2016.
“You know you’re going to have a tough night, no matter what, because they don’t stop playing until that final whistle,” Mike Conley said. “They scrap and claw for every little bit. We’re thankful to get away with a win tonight.”
You’d be pardoned for thinking that Conley is referring to a playoff contender. Well, he wasn’t. Conley was referring to the Sixers. Yes, those Sixers.
Post the abrupt exit of GM Sam Hinkie, the Sixers have found new life. Watching them play, and win games this season makes it hard to imagine that this is the same team that won just 47 of their 286 games in the past three seasons. It was all part of the “process” that, Hinkie convinced both management and fans, would make the Sixers a powerhouse in the East once again.
A Stanford graduate, Sam Hinkie spent some time in Houston, under the prophet of basketball analytics, Daryl Morey. It could be argued that Hinkie was just as instrumental as Morey, in introducing teams to the benefits of advanced statistics in making basketball and personnel decisions.
The same statistics that allowed the Rockets to put themselves in the enviable position to trade for and snag James Harden on the free market and surround him with the right role players. We now know how well that continues to play out.
Hinkie’s process bears fruit after his exit
There was considerable fanfare when the Sixers hired Hinkie as GM in May 2013. But three seasons into his reign, the wins kept drying up, and Hinkie faced vile criticism from fans and experts alike. He resorted to rigging the system (read tanking) in the hopes of landing high draft picks year on year. When that didn’t necessarily work out (Sixers never got a No. 1 pick under Hinkie), he traded away players for picks, most infamously sending away then-reigning Rookie Of The Year Michael Carter-Williams, and crowd favourite All-Star Jrue Holiday. Even unfortunate injuries to Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid were unfairly blamed on Hinkie, assumed to have been staged to tank and attain that high draft pick.
The Sixers management, fearing irreversible damage to the faith fans had in the organization, moved to hire Jerry Colangelo as Chairman of Basketball Operations during the 2015-16 season. There are unconfirmed reports that Colangelo, one of basketball’s most respected statesman, and Hinkie did not get along, eventually leading to Hinkie putting in his papers in April 2016 and drafting one of the most elaborate resignation letters in the process (no pun intended).
With all the drama behind them, and newly appointed GM and President of Basketball Operations, Bryan Colangelo (Jerry’s son) the Sixers can now work their way back into contention in the East.
It will be a slow and painful journey back though. They are still dead last in the East, a conference that has gotten considerably stronger this season. It is also worrying that they aren’t top 10 in any relevant category, offensively or defensively.
But there is some glimmer of hope. The Sixers have won four out of their 16 games, when it took them 37 games to match that total last season.
Embiid, the Sixers biggest hope at redemption, ranks 9th in points per 48 minutes, ahead of MVP front runner James Harden. His minutes are still under restriction as he works his way back from a foot injury that sidelined him these past two seasons.
Jahlil Okafor carried forward his consistent play that saw him average 17.5 ppg / 7.5 rpg / 1.2 bpg last season, and Gerald Henderson, although not the purest of scorers, has held his own improving to a career high 42% from beyond the arc in his first season with the Sixers.
Ersan Ilyasova is knocking on his career high in ppg at 13.1, Dario Saric is as NBA ready as a European rookie can be, and Sergio Rodriguez, the splashy Spanish veteran, is everything the Sixers hoped he would be and more as he dishes out 7.7 apg.
They are also a ridiculously young team, with four rookies and the rest of the team averaging 3.6 years in the league, an average significantly boosted by the presence of 8-year veterans Jerryd Bayless and Ersan Ilyasova.
Then there is Ben Simmons. The No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, who suffered a fracture before the season, sidelining him indefinitely, has been showered with the highest praise, some comparing him to a young Magic Johnson. Simmons’ performance at the Summer League had fans drooling over the possibility of having him run the floor with this young team and play pick-and-roll with Embiid. He already sees the open court like some of the greats and is steps ahead of the defence. He still needs a reliable jumpshot (not uncommon for rookie forwards), and has to show some patience at the NBA level.
Philadelphia finally have the pieces to turn their fortunes around. Armed with a young nucleus, and backed by a management that wants to win now, the team is hopefully edging towards, once again, becoming relevant in the East.
Guess, we will have to wait and watch the process, play itself out.