The Philadelphia 76ers’ hiring of USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo as chairman of basketball operations sent shockwaves across the NBA Monday, as general manager Sam Hinkie and his beloved “Process” appeared to be dealt a fatal blow.
Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski referred to Colangelo’s hiring as an “usurping” of Hinkie’s authority, adding, “it is immediately unclear how long Hinkie will want to stay on the job with reduced power in the organization.” He also reported several league executives were wondering whether Colangelo could influence the team to hire his son, Bryan, “into a high-ranking team position.”
Before writing the epitaph on the Process, though, remember this: Ownership, not Hinkie, is the driving force behind the franchise’s organizational direction. Only when they lose patience with the rebuild and begin taking shortcuts to return the team to relevance more quickly can the Process be declared dead.
During the press conference announcing Colangelo’s hiring, co-managing owner Josh Harris said he believed “we are entering the next phase of our process.” With the team sitting at 1-20 at the time—and en route to a 50-point thrashing at the hands of a Kawhi Leonard-, Manu Ginobili- and Tim Duncan-less San Antonio Spurs squad that night—ownership’s position shouldn’t surprise even the most ardent Hinkie supporter.
With the league soon to be awash in cap space, the Sixers have little choice but to begin accelerating their rebuild, as Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and Nik Stauskas will all become eligible for extensions within the next two years. Robert Covington, the star of the team’s “uncover young diamonds in the rough” philosophy, will be an unrestricted free agent following the 2017-18 season. If the Sixers don’t begin to acquire complementary pieces between now and then, they’ll have missed the chance to use their prospective cornerstones’ rookie contracts to their advantage.
In theory, Colangelo will only help in that regard. While Hinkie seemingly has a miserable reputation among agents—”some agents claim they have already steered willing guys away” from Philly, according to ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe—Colangelo presumably has one of the league’s thickest rolodexes. He also has at least some relationship with a number of the NBA’s top stars, as Harris alluded to during the question-and-answer period of the press conference, thanks to his time with Team USA.
“It will be extremely helpful to have someone as experienced, as wise, as highly regarded and respected as Jerry,” Harris said during his prepared remarks in reference to how Colangelo will help the rebuild advance. “It is a big positive, and it will help our organization moving forward.”
While rumblings about Hinkie’s job security quickly began to emerge following the presser—beyond Wojnarowski, USA Today‘s Jeff Zillgitt said Colangelo “wouldn’t be with Philadelphia if he wasn’t going to have authority to make decisions,” while an NBA executive told the Philadelphia Inquirer “there’s a new sheriff in town”—it doesn’t necessarily mark an end to the Process as a whole.
“This is not a deviation from our plan,” Harris said during his prepared opening remarks. “Rather, it is an opportunity to drive our organization forward in an impactful way by adding an invaluable mind.” He later expressed his confidence in Hinkie, saying, “he will continue in his current role, leading us with the day-to-day basketball operations, and more importantly, I want Sam in the position.”
Frankly, Sixers fans shouldn’t concern themselves with the front office dynamics, even if they have the makings of a power struggle in its nascent stages. Whether Hinkie or Colangelo ultimately has the so-called “final say,” ownership, not either one of them, will determine how far this ambitious rebuild goes.
If they decide to cash in some of the Sixers’ accumulated chips between now and the trade deadline, pursuing a few extra short-term wins to appease the bloodthirsty masses, it could deal irreparable damage to the team’s chances of seeing this thing through to its logical conclusion. Once the first-round picks from the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder all failed to convey last spring, the 2016 offseason immediately became the most critical period in the Sixers’ Process. Staying at the bottom of the league’s standings, thus increasing the odds of the Lakers’ top-three-protected first-round pick conveying, is critical for the franchise’s chances of accelerating the rebuild.
With upwards of four first-round picks set to join the team alongside Joel Embiid and possibly Dario Saric, the Sixers could well have the foundation of a competent basketball team come July 1, 2016. Will Colangelo’s hiring alter their approach to free agency? If head coach Brett Brown’s comments are any indication, perhaps:
— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) December 7, 2015
As Brown indicated, however, Colangelo’s hiring does not signal the end of the Process as we know it. The Sixers know it’s easier to acquire a franchise cornerstone through the draft rather than free agency or trades. They figure to round out their roster better moving forward, reducing their reliance on undrafted free agents such as T.J. McConnell, Jakarr Sampson and Hollis Thompson, but they’re not completely jumping ship on a draft-centric plan revolving around developing young players.
If anything, Colangelo’s hiring is exactly what Harris declared it to be: the beginning of the next phase of the “Process.” Rather than relying almost exclusively upon the draft and salary-dump trades to bolster the roster, the Sixers will begin to explore additional avenues of improvement. Seeing as salary dumps figure to largely disappear due to the impending salary-cap boom, thus negating one of Hinkie’s most exploited avenues of improvement to date, the timing is right for the Sixers to slightly shift their organizational focus.
Though Hinkie has made some missteps along the way, there’s no denying the Sixers have the potential for a far brighter long-term future than they did when he took over. Former Brooklyn Nets executive Bobby Marks recently highlighted what Hinkie inherited when he took over in May 2013:
Little better perspective on where the 76ers stood on June 27, 2013 and 2 trades pre-rebuild that never worked out. pic.twitter.com/9Ahdu4J8B6
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) November 28, 2015
Compare that to what Hinkie has accrued in the past two-and-a-half years:
Sixers asset ranking, where the 25-plus % shot of Ben Simmons passes Noel and Okafor. pic.twitter.com/rdtf7V36tS
— Hoop76 (@Hoop_76) November 30, 2015
Between Joel Embiid’s second foot surgery, Jahlil Okafor’s off-court incidents and some not-so-great lottery luck, the Sixers’ Process has endured some speedbumps along the way. Theoretically, Colangelo will help shore up some of the weak spots, particularly when it comes to behind-the-scenes relationships with agents and prospective free-agent targets.
It’s up to ownership, though, to see the Process out to the end. No matter which front office executive is ultimately in charge, beginning to take shortcuts now would have devastating ramifications—and could ultimately make these three lost seasons all for naught.