The bottom of the league is a somehow a dull, yet bright place to be. For the Sixers, it was a purposeful race downwards to change what was once a consistently stagnant low-seeded playoff run. Spearheaded by the polarizing and analytical-minded Sam Hinkie, Philadelphia dismantled their roster with one goal — lose as many games to get the best chance to win the top pick in the draft. The Brooklyn Nets have had a different story. Their basketball inadequacy has gone unrewarded, thanks to an absence of any substantial assets.
The two organizations have been fighting along the underside of the NBA for close to half a decade, yet one was able to reap the benefits earlier. It almost seems like the two franchises’ paths were dramatically altered in the similar years. For the Nets, it started with a Russian mogul and a former a Sixers general manager. When Mikhail Prokhorov purchased the New Jersey Nets, an imminent move to Brooklyn followed. The bold new owner declared made waves by stating that if the Nets don’t win a championship by 2015 (they didn’t), he’d get married (he didn’t).
General manager at the time Billy King may have been working with strings attached to his back, but his moves following the franchise’s new ownership’s comments dramatically hindered the team’s future. It could also be argued that it changed the landscape of the whole league. The “win now” attitude was not on display until the move to Brooklyn, where King traded a 2012 first-round pick for Portland scorer Gerald Wallace. This deadline move was in reaction to two situations; Dwight Howard remaining in Orlando for the 2012-13 season, and then-All-Star Deron Williams on the verge of leaving.
Keeping Williams was of the upmost importance if the Nets truly wanted to be contenders. Unfortunately for them, that pick turned into an impact guard by way of Weber State — Damian Lillard. King’s next major move wasn’t horrible, as he brought in highly-paid guard Joe Johnson to form a hopeful big three. Though Wallace was an instant dud, Johnson and Williams fed off of the All-Star season by Brook Lopez to lead Brooklyn to the fourth seed in the East, a huge jump from 13th the year prior.
One would think this success was enough to prove that Brooklyn could compete with the league’s best, even if the the Miami Heat were a notch above the rest of the league. But a 7-game series loss to Chicago in the first-round was hardly good enough. With two years left in Prokhorov’s marital promise, the Nets needed a splash.
The summer after the 2012-13 season was pivotal for both Brooklyn and Philadelphia. After making the playoffs 4 of the previous 6 years, the Sixers found themselves in a dreaded limbo of low-playoff seeds and just missing the postseason. A new, analytical minded ownership group headed by Josh Harris and David Blitzer hired the understudy of Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey. His name was Sam Hinkie, and he would go down amongst the most polarizing figure in Sixers history.
The goal was simple. Tear down a team that was never getting by the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, suffer through the leanest of years, and accumulate enough assets until a star is landed. Simple enough, right? Teams were tanking for as long as the NBA Draft was implemented. Hinkie did not hesitate in putting his plan’s gear in motion.
The Sixers traded for the 6th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, drafting injured Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel. The cost was beloved guard Jrue Holiday, who seemed like a promising young All-Star who could make an impact. The thoughts on the trade were split, as Hinkie drafted Noel knowing there’d be a slim chance he’d even play that season. The Sixers were to head into an era of intentional losing that was unbeknownst to rabidly passionate Philadelphia sports fans.
The same summer Hinkie made his mark, Billy King got his big splash, or so he thought. King contacted Danny Ainge about a deal that would sap one franchise for over five seasons, while allowing the other to both rebuild and compete at the same time. The Nets were trying to capture the glory of the Celtics’ big three, five years after the fact. The Nets sent a 2014 first-round pick, a 2016 first-round pick, swapped picks with Boston in 2017, and a 2018 first-r0und pick as the centerpieces of a deal for 37-year old Kevin Garnett, a 36-year old Paul Pierce, and a 36-year old Jason Terry.
The Nets seemed to be throwing a 50-pound dart from 300 feet away at a bullseye with a three centimeter-wide diameter with a trade that was a last gasp at winning a title. They complimented this risk by hiring rookie head coach Jason Kidd. The marriage of aging players with strong personalities got Brooklyn past the first round of the playoffs, just to get steamrolled by LeBron James and Miami.
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, the Sixers finished with the worst record in the league, but secured the third pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Sam Hinkie’s decision to draft another injured center in Joel Embiid caused an uproar. A choice that would later give Philadelphia one of the best centers in the league. To intensify the criticisms, Hinkie also traded back in the draft to select Dario Saric, a Croatian prospect who was a clear stash candidate. The Sixers were still looking to lose, but had uncovered gems in the meantime.
That same summer, Hinkie signed NBADL scorer Robert Covington, who has now blossomed into the team’s starting wing and one of the most coveted contracts in the league by executives.
King would enter his last season and a half as an NBA executive, watching his failed experiment drop in the first round of the playoffs to Atlanta. Prokhorov dropped the axe on King in the middle of the 2015-16 season, leaving behind a franchise with a drought of assets.
The winter of the 2015-16 season was also a difficult period for Sixers executive Sam Hinkie. With the team winning at a record-low rate and under the assumed guidance of commissioner Adam Silver, Jerry Colangelo was hired as a Sixers advisor to work closely with the young GM. The power struggle was forecasted from the start, and Hinkie would take himself out of the polarized rebuild he spearheaded by way of an oddly interesting resignation letter. In that letter, he pleaded for the Sixers braintrust to keep hold of Joel Embiid, who would become, along with eventual draft pick Ben Simmons, Hinkie’s legacy as a team builder.
The Nets have been gaining praise under new GM Sean Marks, who has been taking bits from Sam Hinkie by scraping for talent in the developmental league as well as taking on big contracts to accumulate assets. It has netted him the likes of Caris LeVert and D’Angelo Russell. His rebuild has been on the favorable side of the media, due to the miraculous findings of promising players despite no real assets during major low-points.
The Sixers, by way of nepotism, hired Jerry’s son, Bryan Colangelo, as Hinkie’s replacement. Colangelo has done well thus far with the overload of assets he inherited. His biggest move being trading future assets for the top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft which turned into Markelle Fultz. The Sixers are now sitting pretty with playoff hopes, while the Nets will reap none of the benefits of being a lottery team.
Both of these simultaneous moves bring upon an view of two extremes. The Nets risked the future for a shot to win it all. Sure, it was a horrible attempt at it, but an attempt it was. Billy King changed the NBA. Not in the way he expected to, however. Damian Lillard has put Portland as a perennial playoff hopeful. Draymond Green, whom was the second-round pick King traded to Golden State for Brandan Wright, has been an integral part of a Warriors dynasty. The Boston Celtics have stockpiled young wings through their picks, taking promising players Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. They also acquired star Kyrie Irving with Brooklyn’s 2018 pick being the main meat of the deal.
Sam Hinkie, through a phrase coined by Sixers podcast The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, had the city of Philadelphia “Trust The Process”. A process that entailed intentional losing to give the franchise the highest chance of winning on draft night. A process that gave Philadelphia Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and the means to trade for Markelle Fultz. A process that forced the competition committee to reform the lottery heading into the 2018 draft.
Two different methods, two different ideologies, two different results. A winning-first mentality is always deemed commendable, but when it cripples an organization for years, is it really an acceptable ideology? Tanking will always be in place as long as the NBA Draft stands as is. While the business side of basketball winces at the thought of tanking, it is the best way for a struggling team to set itself up with a promising future. Both ideologies take luck and an understanding of organizational timing.
Timing that has been thrown off due to the dominance of the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors, whom have been the power source for the rest of the league to feed off of in terms of emboldening their own respective ideologies, have changed the timeline dramatically for teams. Are teams rearing to go all in? The Rockets have done a measured job at competing, while Cleveland might go broke to stay relevant in 2018. Others are tearing down until this Warriors reign passes.
Many factors go into team building, but perception is what beats all when it comes to a GM keeping his or hers job. Billy King built a flimsy playoff team by giving draft picks out like free brochures, but held on to his job until what he built collapsed. Sam Hinke was run out of town, just before his orchard of assets blossomed into tangible on-court figures. The directions of both franchises are trending upwards, but the Sixers are a few laps ahead of Brooklyn. The teams with inverse ideologies now have seemed to flip roles, but are in a better starting position than its Atlantic Division counterparts.