I sighed deeply as I sat down to write this game preview. #TrusttheProcess is such a depressing affair from my point of view. I don’t think I know how my other Knickerbuddies feel about the direction of the Sixers and their Sam Hinkie-led “process,” but I’ve been a pretty vocal critic for a couple of years now. Human beings are not assets. Their talents are not resources. The aspirations that players have for themselves are not things to channel into a basketball machine, like some sort of burnable fuel. At the risk of getting too Marxist about all this, the more you treat basketball like some great machine, the more the players become cogs. The more you plot the direction of your franchise in analytics, at the expense of the art form that is basketball, the more players become big data. Players aren’t born as data points, any more than the rest of us. We’re able to turn the things that happen on the court into a fascinating set of atomic principles to parse and analyze and debate. In a sense, this scientific turn is good for the sport and good for fandom everywhere. Sports are myth, but they are also science. Both can coexist harmoniously as long as there is balance.
The Sixers are not about balance. They are about cold, hard, ruthless probability. They are about a machine-like approach to franchise building that more resembles an attempt to game the system than to respect the spirit of the sport. The Sixers are playing meta-basketball…a game about the game. They are playing derivatives trading. They’re too big too fail.
Superficially, the Sixers have taken a novel approach that seems just clever enough to be genius. From my vantage point, the approach is just clever enough to outsmart itself. It’s an approach that has fallen in love with itself, not despite its flaws, but because of them. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince us he didn’t exist. #TrusttheProcess
Things might look a little different over there if the Sixers had been able to draft Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. There’s still another story to be told about the process, given the possibility that the Sixers could wind up with their own high pick and the Lakers’ lottery pick in 2016. Adding Dario Saric, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and some other young, stud draftee to a pool of assets that includes Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor is a pretty stocked cupboard. It’s also a mish-mash of players who mainly do the same thing at varying degrees of ability. In the end, it could work.
It’s not so much that the plan isn’t “smart.” It’s more that the plan could be unnecessarily painful. Once you have all those assets, and they don’t fit neatly together, you have to trade them and bring in players who fit together. Presumably, you’d want to build around Ben Simmons if you were lucky enough to draft him. Would you trade Okafor? Noel? Embiid? What can you get for those guys? Is there any guarantee that the mix you create will work out? How many more years will it take? What if one of them gets injured? What if there are other teams around you who build better teams? Now, these are all questions that can be asked fairly of every team in the league….which is precisely the point. There are dozens and dozens of team-building strategies to follow. The Sixers are choosing the riskiest and most painful way possible. They’re literally playing the lottery. They’re also taking something inherently human and beautiful and turning it into a cold, calculated affair. They have lost their balance.
The league has become concerned enough that the “process” isn’t playing out in reality as well as it has on paper. The annual tanking in Philadelphia has hurt league revenue and teams have become upset. Okafor’s high profile brushes with the law early in this season have contrasted poorly with the performances of Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis on the main stage. Joel Embiid is better on Twitter than he is on the court, thanks to another injury and another walking boot. Dario Saric looks great in Turkey, but that’s a long way from Philadelphia. Nerlens Noel has actually regressed offensively. Enter Jerry Colangelo and Mike D’Antoni.
The last time the Knicks faced Philadelphia, Jahlil Okafor was serving part of his suspension for assaulting a heckler on the street. The team was 1-15, coming off a win against the Lakers, and things were chugging along as badly as planned. On December 7th, the
Sixers league announced the hiring of Jerry Colangelo to right the sinking ship. On that same day, the team lost to the Spurs by a score of 119-68. In case you struggle with math so complex, that’s a 51 point margin. In the interim, Philadelphia has also hired Mike D’Antoni to serve as “associate” head coach to Brett Brown, after extending Brown a couple more years. The contract extension is the only fair thing to do for Brown, who’s tanked any hope of being over .500 as a head coach in the NBA and suffered through some of the most painful marathons of despair a competitor can bear to endure. The Sixers, 16 days after the Knicks dropped them to 1-16, have gone 0-7.
Tonight’s contest is a classic trap game [cue Admiral Akbar gif]. The Knicks have played some feisty basketball of late, and the team seems to have broken out of its funk with a combination of better defense and some nifty ball-sharing on offense. The Sixers are miserable, but they’ll have Okafor on the floor this time around and they have a bit more health in their point guard rotation. I’m a Kendall Marshall fan, and I think he’s the kind of guy Mike D’Antoni can turn into an effective player. I doubt any of that is going to happen soon enough for tonight’s game, but the Sixers…in theory…ought to be better than the team the Knicks faced a couple of weeks ago. But, that’s the Sixers in a nutshell, isn’t it? Better in theory than in practice, and always better tomorrow than today.