With every move GM Sam Hinkie makes these days, it seems like patience is getting shorter among Sixers fans, and mockery is getting louder among NBA watchers in general. It was one thing when Our Dark Lord was trading Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a future lottery pick at the '13 draft in his first month of duty, but since then, he's followed up the team's ensuing 19-63 '14 season with a number of moves that will help the team little in their upcoming campaign, almost seeming to taunt the Sixers faithful in the process.
First, there was the 2014 draft, where Hink came away with a primary return of Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, two guys unlikely to join the team until 2015 or later. Then, there was the total inactivity during free agency, in which the team made no signings and were only ever even rumored to be in the hunt for a couple players. Then, the Thaddeus Young trade with the Timberwolves, which failed to return former #1 overall pick Anthony Bennett as many hoped (and a few reported), but rather just near-washouts Alexey Shved and Luc Mbah a Moute, in exchange for our best and longest-tenured player.
Then, there was yesterday's Hasheem Thabeet trade. If there's ever been a move that seemed a true slap in the face of Sixers fans, it was this one. Before we could even get a chance to talk ourselves into Thabeet being a good high-upside gamble for the Sixers and a possible member of next year's rotation--though believe me, he wasn't, in either case--it was announced that the big man would be waived. In the deal, the Sixers received nothing but some cash and maybe some good karma from OKC, assets that might mean something to Hinkie and owner Josh Harris, but certainly do nothing for the team's fanbase.
No NBA team has ever been as transparent in its desire to--well, if we don't want to say "tank" for political reasons, let's just say "wait to attempt roster improvements until ready"--as these Hinkie-led Sixers. Consequently, every move they do make gets a disproportionate amount of attention and scrutiny for being indicative of the team's larger plan of essentially throwing away seasons at a time in order to better their long term outlook.
But even though it seems like these Sixers have been and will be bad forever, the truth of the matter is that in reality, they haven't really been all that long-suffering. They're only on a streak of two straight lottery-bound seasons--the final Dougie-stewarded, Bynum-overshadowed season of two years ago, and Hinkie and new coach Brett Brown's first year at the helm last season. The year before that, they were taking Boston to seven games in the playoffs, one quarter away from the Conference Finals.
Two bad seasons. Even assuming a third next season, that's basically nothing in relative NBA terms. In the 21st century alone, all but five NBA teams have had at least one streak of three years or longer without making the playoffs: The Celtics, Heat, Mavericks, Spurs and Lakers--not incidentally, five of the six teams to win a championship this century. Even if you extend it to four years, you're only adding the Bucks, Magic, Pelicans and Jazz as exceptions, and all four of those teams are on the path to joining that club soon enough. Over a span of a couple decades, nearly every NBA team will go through a spell like this.
What's more, the Sixers aren't even close to having the longest active streak of playoff futility. It's been a cool decade since our recent trade partner the Minnesota Timberwolves made the playoffs, and it's been since 2005 that they were even all that close. The Sacramento Kings' lottery-bound days date back to 2006, with the team not even winning 30 games in a year since '08. 30 games has also been the high-water mark for the Detroit Pistons since last making the postseason in 2009. The Sixers have also made the playoffs more recently than the Suns, Pelicans or Cavaliers, and won a series more recently than the Nuggets, Magic, Bucks, Hornets, Raptors, Hawks, Rockets or even the Mavericks.
All in all, there's absolutely nothing exceptional about the Sixers' recent struggles, it's only the way we've gotten there that's been noteworthy. In the grand scheme of things, it's a blip on the radar--assuming, at least, that we get out of the rut within the next few years.
And for that, we turn again to the model of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The then-Sonics suffered through a couple meaninglessly subpar seasons before deciding to rebuild in earnest, then added a key draftee or two a year to the roster from there--Kevin Durant and Jeff Green in '07, Russell Westbrook in '08, Serge Ibaka and James Harden in '09--all while shedding veterans and basically staying out of the fray in free agency and trade.
OKC won just 20 games in '08 and 23 in '09, but by the end of the '09-'10 season, they were ready to start dealing, making a midseason trade of Green for veteran Kendrick Perkins to complete their roster. They made the playoffs that year, after four years in the lottery, just two of which were actually spent rebuilding. They haven't missed the postseason since, and don't seem likely to again anytime soon.
This, clearly, is what the Sixers are attempting. In '13 they added Michael Carter-Williams. In '14 they add Nerlens Noel. In '15, they'll (hopefully) add Embiid and another high first-rounder. Then maybe Saric and another mid-round pick the year after. And we don't even know who could be an unexpected, Ibaka-like contributor along the way--maybe K.J. McDaniels or Jordan McRae from this year's crop of second-rounders, maybe whoever we snatch with the 1st-round pick from Miami next season, maybe one of our other draft-and-stashes we have toiling away in Europe currently. Before you know it, we could have a roster that's a playoff perennial.
It's not a certainty by any means. As good as MCW has been already and Noel has looked in the summer, we certainly can't rank either of them along with Durant, Westbrook or Harden just yet, and as much potential as Embiid and Saric seem to have, we can't be sure they'll get there either. Health looms as a concern for nearly all involved. The risk of building a "losing culture," if you believe in such things, could become apparent after another hopeless season spent at the Wells Fargo Center.
But when you look at the shortcut paths that some of the other teams with longer-running streaks outside the postseason have attempted, it's pretty clear that that's a path of even greater uncertainty. Who knows where the Pistons could be now if they hadn't reacted to one season of mediocrity by splurging on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva in free agency? Could the Kings have escaped their mire if they'd stopped chasing overrated mid-level guys like Carl Landry and John Salmons? What if the Wolves hadn't bet big on the likes of J.J. Barea, Brandon Roy and Kevin Martin?
In a couple years, if Embiid and Noel are integrated as expected, and the Sixers get an evolved MCW and a couple other players to step up along the way, the memory of these days is going to seem as distant and irrelevant as KD's 20-win rookie season. There's nothing about the losing that the Sixers are doing now that will make them stick out in the history books or give this franchise any kind of permanent black mark. Losing big happens to everyone, winning big only happens to a select few. The Sixers are trying to elbow their way into the latter group, and if they do, having spent time in the former group first will be a price well worth paying.
And what's more, with the trade of Thaddeus Young, there's really no more proactive steps for the Sixers to take to further pare down their roster. All of their veterans of value are gone. The cap is as clear as it's going to get, barring some miraculous return to tradeability for Jason Richardson or Arnett Moultrie. The preamble to the rebuild is officially over, now the actual building part truly starts.
Let's get to work. In Hinkie we (still) trust.