The Sixers trailed 77-78 with 2.2 seconds left in Game 6.
Andre Iguodala, who had made just 61.7% of his free throw attempts in the regular season, stepped to the line with a chance to eliminate the top-seeded Chicago Bulls. It felt like he hadn’t made a clutch free throw all year and the fans packing the Wells Fargo Center became nervous and still. As the first free throw found its mark, the arena collectively exhaled in relief.
With uncharacteristic ice in his veins, Iguodala drained the second free throw and fans erupted. A frighteningly-close desperation heave from beyond half court clanked off the back of the rim. The building roared! Head coach Doug Collins raised his arms heavenward in triumph. The Philadelphia 76ers had knocked off the Bulls in the first round of the 2012 Eastern Conference Playoffs.
High up in section 217A, I high-five’d everyone within my reach. My friends and I sang the “Here Come the Sixers” anthem repeatedly as we weaved down from the rafters of the Wells Fargo Center and spilled out into the parking lot with the sea of my jubilant new best friends. The party continued into K Lot. Beers and high fives were exchanged with strangers. We toasted our sporting heroes – Lou Williams, Jrue Holiday, and of course Andre Iguodala.
It was the first time the Sixers had won a playoff series since Allen Iverson led them past the New Orleans Hornets in 2003. The 2012 Sixers would continue to overachieve – taking the Boston Celtics to seven games before falling in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The team was fun, and that surprising season – aided by the fragile ACL in Derrick Rose‘s left knee – was the last time the Sixers made the playoffs, let alone won a series. A team of decent supporting players surpassed expectations in a lockout-shortened season, but lacked the playmakers to reasonably compete with the star-studded casts in Miami, Oklahoma City, or San Antonio.
Enter Sam Hinkie.
Taking over general manager duties in the summer of 2012, Hinkie knew that the teams that win NBA championships have stars – usually at least one superstar – and believed the only reliable way to get those stars was with high draft picks. The Sixers, as constituted in 2012, had reached their full potential. Pursuant of those top picks and (hopeful) stars, Hinkie led Sixers fans through purgatory. During the next four years, the Sixers won 34, 19, 18, and 10 games. For most of this four-year span, the basketball being played by the Sixers was painfully poor and the unintended consequences of all the “Together we Build” and “Trust the Process” -isms have slowly become manifest.
During these Dark Ages of basketball in Philadelphia, fans developed varying strategies for coping with a terrible home team. While some fans simply tuned out and stayed away from the Wells Fargo Center, many took to worshipping the architect of their misery – Sam Hinkie. In no other town, not even in cities that recently won multiple championships, do fans make t shirts, twitter handles, and podcasts in honor of the general manager, rather than the players. The logic behind this adulation is not hard to understand. Sam Hinkie was either the man who destroyed the Sixers, robbing Philadelphia fans of respectable basketball for half a decade in a misguided attempt to improve the team, or he was and is the savior of basketball in Philadelphia who did what was necessary, worked with a broken system, and will deliver multiple championships to the city.
While a third option exists – that Hinkie’s plan was good, in theory, but failed to capture the coveted star players – the dichotomy of “Hinkie is a genius” versus “Hinkie is deranged” was the simplest, and therefore dominated the airwaves and social media. Given those two options, many loyal Sixers fans bought into “The Process” wholeheartedly. If the alternative was believing that all this suffering was for naught, how could fans allow themselves to believe anything else?
But this insistence that Sam Hinkie’s methods are sure to succeed has led to another unfortunate effect that is increasingly endemic to Sixers fans – looking at mediocre to good players and believing them to be great or elite players. The fact that there are no great players on a team that just went 10 – 72 only further blurs the line between average and good players. Even Evan Turner looked like an all-star, however briefly, on a terrible team. Someone has to score the points every night, and absent any great players, the task is left to lesser ones. And the best of those lesser ones, look far better than they actually are.
Consider players like Tony Wroten, Jakarr Sampson, K. J. McDaniels, Jerami Grant, and Nik Stauskas. None of these players have place on championship-level team, but the love for mediocre players like these, many of whom will likely bounce between a dozen teams in the next five years or finish their careers in Europe, was loud and strong from many Sixers fans. Robert Covington is above these players – he could be a bench player for a great team or a starter for an average team, but isn’t a star, by any means. The “RoCo” love in Philadelphia is occasionally a bit too high, but since he’s the only Sixer with a reliable jump shot, it’s almost understandable.
There are a few good players on the Sixers current roster – Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, and possibly Joel Embiid. Okafor has the potential to be a star – his buttery-smooth post moves and soft touch around the rim exemplify a skillset that few bigs in the NBA possess. His defense is poor and his athleticism is lacking, meaning he’ll never be an above-the-rim player at either end. Noel has been a good defensive player and a poor offensive one. At 228 lbs., he would be a natural forward, but lacks the jump shot (and offense, in general) needed at that position. As an undersized center, Noel is an excellent rim protector, but lacks the strength to defend against the great offensive centers in the NBA. This has not prevented some Sixers fans proclaiming him an “elite” defender. The upside is there if he continues to develop, but let’s not put the cart before the horse. It’s quite possible that what Noel is today is all he will ever be. Embiid is a tantalizing mystery – he could be the vindication of Hinkie’s plan if he has a healthy career, but that seems to be a big “if.”
Especially younger fans can be given a pass. They don’t remember good basketball in Philadelphia. Eighteen year olds were just three when A.I. stepped over Tyronn Lue in the Sixers last NBA Finals appearance. Fans in their early twenties or teens have been rooting for bums for so long, that Tony Wroten looks like a potential piece on a good team, to them. Andre Iguodala, the fifth or sixth man on a championship Golden State Warriors team, was the only “star” young fans ever saw wearing a Sixers uniform. Years of ineptitude have clouded the minds of some in an otherwise very astute fanbase.
Back on that cool May evening in 2012, Sixers fans reveled in victory, not knowing that it would remain the high point of professional basketball in Philadelphia for at least the next five years. Had we known then what we know now, would we celebrate or mourn, that night? Whether Hinkie’s tank-tacular business plan becomes fully realized with players like Embiid and presumptive first-overall pick Ben Simmons in the next few years cannot be known in 2016. Maybe future championship celebrations will more than compensate for all the lost joy and drama of making and competing in the playoffs over the last four years. Maybe we’ll laugh at how foolish we were for even thinking that Hinkie was wrong (those of us who dare to think such things). But, in the meantime, we are left with a weary fanbase overvaluing good or average players and going to Draft Lottery watch parties rather than playoff games.
Let’s hope it pays off in the end.
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