By Paul Mancano – Wiggins, Embiid, Parker. Or Embiid, Wiggins, Parker. Or maybe Wiggins, Parker, Embiid. It depends on which mock draft you check, which Chad Ford article you read. Will any of them turn out to be long-term productive NBA players? Who knows. Does it matter? Yes, but not right now.
As a fan of the second-worst team in basketball (and since the trade deadline, the worst team in basketball, and it wasn’t even close), I’ve been obsessing over the upcoming draft for almost a year. Last June, my beloved 76ers, led by Sam “Big Ping Pong Balls” Hinkie (see what I did there?), traded away their All-Star point guard for a center with a bum knee and a first-round pick in this year’s draft. Just like that, our vision of the franchise’s future was gone. And in Philadelphia, the reactions that followed were a bizarre spectacle.
At first, the reactions were of shock and outrage. Jrue Holiday was a young star, and the only Sixer that had truly captured the hearts of fans. How could you trade away your best young player? Holiday is the kind of player you build a franchise around, not trade away to rebuild. Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams seemed like a poor replacement for our former All-Star. Not to mention the team was now banking its future on another center with a bad knee. This time it was just Nerlens Noel instead of Andrew Bynum. “What is Hinkie thinking?” we cried. “We’re gonna be terrible next year!”
And then it hit us. We’re gonna be terrible next year. A horrendous year means a better chance at winning the Andrew Wiggins lottery. During the 24 hours that followed the 2013 Draft, Hinkie’s approval rating went from George W. Bush’s to FDR’s. The next day, every Philadelphia talk show host was lauding Hinkie, and by the time he took to the podium that afternoon, he had become a kind of a rockstar in the city. #TankforWiggins became a thing. The team that had struggled ever since the loss of Iverson finally had a direction.
Loyal Sixers fans then endured the team’s worst year since the 1995-96 season – the one that led to the drafting of Allen Iverson with the first overall pick. At the trade deadline Hinkie traded anything of value for a second-round pick, including Evan “Froggy Voice” Turner and Spencer “Ray Allen” Hawes. Much to the embarrassment of the franchise, the team stumbled through a league record-tying 26-game losing streak. We sucked. Hard. But it was all good, ’cause we were getting Wiggins.
Lottery time came. And because God decided to make up for allowing Cleveland to become an utter dumpster fire of a city, the Cavaliers nabbed the first overall pick. Again. The Sixers were stuck with the third overall pick, plus the tenth, which they got from the Pelicans for Holiday. So now it gets interesting.
Who will fall to the Sixers? Can the team get a good player at #10? And most intriguing, will Sam Hinkie pull off another stunning, high-stakes trade on draft night? Dozens of rumors are swirling, and they’ll only grow in number and get more outrageous the closer we get to draft night. Some involve trading Carter-Williams, the reigning Rookie of the Year. Others suggest selling Noel before he gets to play a single game in a Sixer uniform. Throw in veteran Thaddeus Young and this team has enough valuable, moving parts to do just about anything. The next month will seem like an eternity for Sixers fans as they ponder all the possible picks and trades that could go down. But that’s half the fun.
Grantland’s Bill Simmons wrote an article in February about the rise of the NBA junkie. Like every other Bill Simmons article, it rambles on for way too long. But his point is this: the NBA now has almost as many nerdy followers as fans. And there are a lot of people who fall into both categories. Why? For the same reason baseball fans have become obsessed with stats, football fans have become obsessed with the draft, and fantasy sports is a thing: because it’s fun. It gives us a chance for us to try to predict the future – to try to craft our perfect team. It’s easier in the NBA because of the small roster and limited number of superstars. The Internet has facilitated the growth of the junkies, giving rise to thousands of mock drafts and fake trades. As Simmons puts it, “Many NBA junkies care about building teams almost as much as they care about watching them.” And Sam Hinkie is the basketball junkie’s soul mate.
Philly loves guts, and Hinkie’s got them. Hinkie makes fantasy sports-like trades. He dangles the biggest and best pieces for trade bait. We try to predict his next move. We want to be the one making these trades and building this team. Like with any beloved athlete or celebrity, we love him because we want to be him. On lottery night, Sixers fans were seen in bars donning t-shirts with his nerdy-looking face. “In Hinkie We Trust” has become the city’s unofficial motto. Hinkie can trade anybody and anything for a draft pick. He’s got a plan, and he’s sticking to it.
What will happen when the draft rolls around? Nobody knows, not even Hinkie himself. But on that fateful night in June, he’ll be in his workshop, tinkering away, making the 76ers we love younger and better.