For five years, the Philadelphia 76ers have been inextricably linked to former GM Sam Hinkie, who served first as the architect of the most audacious tank job in the history of modern sports, then later as a specter haunting every move his successors made.
The ghosts of Hinkie and his Process — the brand name given to the cynical and obvious notion that languishing in the league’s septic tank for years on end can land a team some pretty good draft picks — have been the defining characteristics of this franchise. But no longer.
Elton Brand killed the Process dead.
“It’s one of those moments you really can’t enjoy because there’s still work to do.”
Brand had just completed a blockbuster deal to bring star forward Jimmy Butler to Philly when he said that to the Bucks County Courier Times in November.
“It was a sigh of relief,” he said then. “Like ‘OK. We got this done. I can do a deal. I did a big deal. Now what else do we have to do?”
Three months on, we know what else was to be done.
In a pair of moves at the deadline, Philadelphia brought star forward Tobias Harris, swingman Jonathon Simmons, center Boban Marjanovic and forward Mike Scott on board. Harris is a star in the making, and Simmons and Marjanovic are quality rotation players. These are get-over-the-hump type additions to a team that already featured three stars in Butler, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. But what came in, while impressive and potentially title-swinging, is less notable than what went out.
The 76ers coughed up two first-round picks and two second-rounders in the Harris deal, along with three players, including Wilson Chandler and his expiring contract (valuable for a team in a salary bind like Philly). In the deal for Simmons, the Sixers recouped a first- and second-rounder, but sent out former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz. The November trade for Butler included Robert Covington and Dario Saric — both favorite sons of the Process era — Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-round pick.
Diminishing the draft pick stores. Shipping out Fultz, who himself was a symbol of the Process’ erosion. Putting the pedal to the metal and consolidating assets, regardless of the ramifications on future salary caps and draft equity. This is a posture 76ers fans haven’t seen before.
“We believe we are in position to contend now,” Brand told ESPN, “and our moves reflect that belief.”
The win-now edict was cemented with the Fultz trade.
Fultz had been drafted by Brand’s predecessor, Bryan Colangelo. (Famously, Colangelo made his his exit after a report from the Ringer exposed a suite of fake Twitter accounts belonging to his wife, which ripped and slandered Philadelphia players. It was the highlight of the offseason.) In exchange for the No. 1 pick used on Fultz, Boston received Philadelphia’s No. 3 pick and a provisional future first-rounder, which will come from either Philly or Sacramento — both playoff teams currently — in this year’s draft. Not a king’s ransom after all, but still a nightmare scenario for one reason: Fultz cannot play.
Or at least, he hasn’t shown the ability to play at an NBA level yet. And for once, Philadelphia isn’t willing to wait around on potential. That’s thanks to the leadership of Brand.
Brand was named GM in September. Best remembered as a bruising but skilled power forward (and most fondly remembered for his withering reply to a Duke alum who took issue with him leaving school early after bringing the school to the national title game), Brand has breathed life into a franchise that was in good position but forever glued to the starting blocks.
I’ve been tough on the 76ers across the centuries of the Process tank job. I called them “Capitalism’s Diarrhea” in 2014 for their cynical manipulation of not only the lottery system, but the contract structures of second-round rookies, whom the team could squeeze to take below-market deals. Brand’s moves reverse course on many of those sins, and signal a reversal in attitude to the penny-pinching, given the luxury tax ramifications of acquiring Harris while shipping out Wilson. And they also go some way to correcting wider issues afflicting the league.
While the NFL has been under fire in recent months for its failure to produce a pipeline for minority coaches, this is an issue that affects all major sports. The NBA has had difficulty promoting black executives in a predominantly black league. One driving factor has been the advent of the analytics movement, and the schism that creates between players who know the game as it is played and analysts who hail from Silicon Valley disruption culture. Take one look at the demographics of Stanford’s computer science program and you’ll see why exalting that group creates a crisis of diversity.
Brand can break that mold, and with it, many of the bad tics developed by asset-obsessed front offices that overcorrected for the old bad habits of throwing money at any 20-point scorer who could fog a mirror.
As it happens, Brand’s big prize at the deadline, Harris, is an analytics darling. He scores with great efficiency, works off the ball and creates for himself when the offense breaks down. He does everything a modern, successful NBA system could hope for.
You could say the same for his new GM.