As the Sixers enter the second half of the season, the team is exactly where Sam Hinkie wants them: sitting near the bottom of the standings with single digit wins. At eight wins, the Sixers have the same amount of victories as the imploding Knicks and one more than the rebuilding Minnesota Timberwolves. It is nice that everything is going to Hinkie’s plan this season, but the question remains: where do the Sixers go from here?
The Sixers may be ahead of the Knicks and T-Wolves in the standings, but they are statistically the worst team in the NBA. With a point differential over 12 and a shooting percentage below 41%, it almost seems that this team is overachieving with eight wins. Looking at the current roster, it is clear there are only four or five actual NBA players, and none of them would start on a contender’s roster. With Tony Wroten facing a possible season-ending injury, the team is down to Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, K.J. McDaniels, Jerami Grant, and maybe Robert Covington as the only players that are actually talented enough to sit on an NBA bench. With so few players who can conceivably contribute in the future, what is the end game? When is this team supposed to turn the corner?
No one, not even Sam Hinkie, knows when everything will come together. Hinkie’s plan is contingent on a number of things going right, including Joel Embiid coming back from injury and playing like Hakeem Olajuwon, and Dario Saric coming over to the NBA as the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki. But several of the personnel decisions he has made thus far could potentially extend the rebuilding plan several years. Whether it is gambling on players who are years away from playing in the NBA, or realizing that your second round pick is smarter than you thought and is happy to expose the contractual exploitation that had been occurring previously, the aura surrounding this front office seems to be quickly fading.
To his credit, K.J. McDaniels recognized his own potential and was willing to take the risk of signing a one-year contract rather than giving the Sixers control over him for the next four seasons, including two non-guaranteed years. Instead of meeting McDaniels in the middle and signing him to a reasonable deal, the Sixers signed him to the minimum giving the third best rookie this year the freedom to seek any contract he wants in the offseason. A player that should be have been the steal of the draft at about $1-2 million a year over the next four years could cost quadruple that that, if he is even willing to stay here.
The Andrei Kirilenko situation is another clear example of the front office, especially Hinkie’s, lack of foresight in terms of player relations. After acquiring the Russian forward and a draft pick from the Brooklyn Nets in a salary move, Hinkie apparently made a handshake agreement with Kirilenko promising to release him as soon as possible. Kirilenko is dealing with some personal issues and most likely wants to most likely take care of those before possibly signing with a contender to finish out the season. Hinkie, or someone else in the front office, decided that Kirilenko may have some trade value if he played and showed that he can still contribute. That thought is not unreasonable, but when you make an agreement with a player like that it is almost always better to just keep it than trying to milk a second round pick from a player well past his prime, because players remember how you treat your personnel.
Another example of the front office’s lack of understanding about the chemistry and continuity of a basketball team is the absencelack of communication between Brett Brown and other executives. When Brown signed on to be coach, he understood that this was going to be a long process, but he could not imagine they would still be so far away 125 games into his tenure as coach. He definitely did not think the team would draft two players in the first round that would not play this year. If the front office wants to repair its relationship with the players, better communication with the coaches would be a good first step.
Players talk and have long memories. Treating human beings as only assets cannot work; this is not a video game. Not only are players aware of how the organization is treating players, since veterans have absolutely no interest in playing here, but other front offices are refusing to work with Hinkie because he is viewed as a liar. They do not want to be taken advantage of and they do not want to trade their players to a place where they will be subjected to this treatment. Hinkie may be the smartest person in the room, but his inability to deal with people and understand that people talk and reputations spread may prevent him from being a successful general manager. These are adults who do have some level of freedom, and many will be happy to use every ounce of that freedom to avoid playing for a team that does not respect them, and sees them as an object rather than a person.
Even if everything goes right for this organization from now on, the team is still a good two or three years away from fighting for a playoff spot and possibly five years away from competing. In that time, their entire young core will have to sign new contracts, but will they want to stay here long term after the embarrassment they have experienced over the last few years? Will they want to work for someone who has treated other players like objects? Even with the increased maturity of Carter-Williams, Noel’s solid debut season, Jeremi Grant’s hard work, Wroten’s irrational confidence, and McDaniels’ well rounded athleticism, there is a solid chance that some, if not all of them, will not be wearing a Sixers uniform in the near future. Whether it is Hinkie’s choice or the players’, it is hard to improve a franchise, and maintain a fan base, when management does not respect players and players do not trust the front office. Building a contender in the NBA is hard, and takes a little luck, but the one thing you can control is the reputation you have throughout the league among players and other executives.Unfortunately, that is another game Hinkie and the Sixers are clearly losing.