BY PAUL MANCANO — The NBA Draft is a mere month away, meaning Sixers fans are just a month away from either rejoicing at the acquisition of an almost-unibrowed guard, or hurling their “Trust the Process” shirts at the wall in disgust (learn how to pronounce the names Mario Hezonja and Kristaps Porzingis).
The draft has become the focus of the rebuild that was devised by Josh Harris and the other owners two years ago. Sam Hinkie, the Doug Stamper to Harris’ Frank Underwood, drove the Sixers nearly to the basement of the league two straight years to acquire top-tier talent, while filling in the rest of the pieces with a combination of second-round picks and undervalued free agents. Hinkie is smart to do so—the draft is the best place to find raw, young, franchise-defining players that can be molded by a coaching staff that he’s handpicked. And with the NBA market set up in such a way that teams can fairly easily retain stars before they hit the open market, it would be irresponsible to rely on free agency to try to build a championship contender—only one team is going to end up with Kevin Durant in 2016, and it’s probably going to be the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But there is another way for the Sixers to obtain a transcendent player. Back in February, Pablo Torre of ESPN wrote a great piece that gave the general public some insight into the enigma that is Sam Hinkie. In rereading it, one part in particular stuck out to me. In the following section, Torre writes about how Hinkie won the respect of the ownership group at a dinner meeting.
“Hinkie … walked into dinner carrying a laptop, complete with a massively detailed PowerPoint presentation that Sixers executives now recall as an ‘investment thesis.’ Its centerpiece was a diagram that illustrated, arrow by arrow, transaction by transaction, how Houston had amassed the assets — two first-rounders and a second-rounder, along with guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb — to acquire superstar guard James Harden from the Thunder in October … a month after the Sixers had hired DiLeo. Hinkie’s abstract vision for artfully delayed NBA production suddenly felt concrete.”
Burried in that paragraph is a word that has inspired the Howard Eskins of the world to scoff at The Plan: assets. Not seen in this paragraph is the now infamous buzzword optionality—a term Hinkie would coin the same day this article appeared on ESPN’s website—but it is certainly applied.
Aside from the draft and free agency, the only way an NBA team can acquire players is through a trade. In the heat of tanking, most Sixers fans haven’t thought of trades as much more than a means of collecting more second-round picks for overvalued role players. But as Rockets general manager and Hinkie’s muse Daryl Morey reminded us in 2012, occasionally a team outsmarts itself, and coughs up a bearded wonder.
The Rockets were able to rebuild without tanking by slowly acquiring first-round picks and hitting on second round picks—something Hinkie has already quite well so far in Philadelphia. Houston then swapped those assets for the 2015 MVP runner-up in one of the most lopsided trades in history. It’s rare for a 23-year-old budding superstar to find himself on the trading block, but when it happens, the only teams with a shot at landing him are the ones with multiple first-round picks, lots of young talent, and extra cap space.
If my math is correct, and it’s probably not, the Sixers have 20 second-round picks over the next six years in their back pocket. They could have as many as four first-round picks in 2016. They have cheap youth in Tony Wroten, Jerami Grant, Robert Covington, and others. They could fit the Queen Mary onto their roster with all their cap space (and she’d probably be the team’s third option on offense). And most importantly, they have optionality.
Hinkie could still use all five fist-round picks over the next two years to select players. He could continue to load this team with young prospects in the hope that one or two of them become top-10 players. But if ever an up-and-coming stud like James Harden is being shopped, expect Hinkie to be the first guy teams call.