The Philadelphia 76ers and their swashbuckling General Manager Sam Hinkie are engaging in a rebuild that is more scheme than project at this stage. They’ve yanked the tanking loophole wide open, so much so that they’ve made it a gateway with their multiple year bottoming out and perpetual kicking the can down the road. Hinkie may still prove to be some kind of twisted genius before all is said and done, but at this stage he’s not spawning some type of revolution. There is enough concern at high levels in the NBA that some type of lottery reform in one way or another is imminent, although not immediate. NBA Vice President of Operations Rod Thorn confirmed that to me in an interview this past February. However, there is one irrefutable truth about the Sixers plan: It hasn’t spawned any copycats yet. There are three teams who were in the same boat as the Sixers last season and they’ve all made significant progress year over year. What do the Boston Celtics, the Utah Jazz, and the Milwaukee Bucks have in common? They’re all using a traditional rebuilding formula.
This begs the question, what is a traditional rebuild? I interviewed Houston Rocket GM Daryl Morey last year and asked him this question. He made it clear that most teams would have to bottom out for one year (and he commented that he was lucky not to have bottomed out because of the James Harden trade). In examining the Celtics, Jazz, and Bucks; they have all done the one year bottom and have bounced back significantly. Those who favor the Sixer approach always argue that the goal is not to be an 8 seed every year and lose in the 1st round of the playoffs. The goal is to win a title. However, there is no evidence at this stage that the Sixer approach works. Plus, teams don’t go from worst to first in the NBA (sorry Derek Fisher). To be a title contender, a team has to go through the rite of passage to be a lower seed that gets knocked out early.
Rebuilding plans can carry different forms. Drafting a transcendent player is obviously the fastest route. How does a team do it when Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, or Anthony Davis doesn’t land in your lap? Well obviously, drafting well is essential. The World Champion Golden State Warriors drafted Stephen Curry with a #7 pick, Klay Thompson with a #10 pick, Harrison Barnes with a #7 pick and Draymond Green in the 2nd round. That’s not all luck. That’s good scouting and knowing what type of players and people you value in your program. Of course the Warriors are an extreme example. The three teams, the Celtics, Jazz, and Bucks were all where the Sixers were last year. Two of them made the playoffs (granted in a putrid Eastern conference) early on in their rebuilding plans. All 3 teams have done well in the draft recently. The Celtics have come up with two building blocks in Marcus Smart and Jared Sullinger plus they have potential contributors in Kelly Olynyk and James Young. The Jazz have Rudy Gobert and Dante Exum as building blocks plus Trey Burke as a meaningful contributor. The Bucks have Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo as building blocks and John Henson as a potential contributor. The only player in this group that has been a product of the luck of the ping pong ball is Parker and that karma reversed itself when Parker went down for the season with a knee injury. Its important to note that despite the Parker injury, the Bucks were the #6 seed in the East after winning only 14 games the previous season.
Managing payroll is also a crucial element in a traditional rebuild as well. The Hinkie Way has payroll as a non-issue because in the last two years, the Sixers have only used cap space as a rental tool for other teams to accumulate more future draft picks. In moderation, it can be a very shrewd way to approach rebuilding but when it becomes just another mechanism to kick the can down the road, it can be damaging. For the Celtics, Bucks, and Jazz knowing who to pay and who not to pay is crucial. Rich long-term deals can be cap killers and undermine a good rebuilding project. However, value contracts can be a great supplement to enhancing a rebuild. The Celtics signing of Evan Turner is an example of this type of contract. They got a 26 year old player with talent and athleticism at two years for $6.7 million. Turner had a great year and has played a huge role in the Celts making the playoffs. The Jazz signed Trevor Booker at one year for $5 million with a small partial guarantee ($250,000) for the 2nd year. Booker has been an essential bench big giving them an efficient hard working 20 minutes per night. He’s the type of lunch pail guy the young players can learn from. The Bucks collected a first round pick from the Clippers to take Jared Dudley’s $8.5 million for the next two years. Dudley has been a huge bench weapon for them as a three-point shooter and a versatile piece in Jason Kidd’s small lineups.
Also, having an idea of how to handle your own draft picks coming off their rookie deals can make or break a rebuilding plan. This past offseason, Boston re-signed Avery Bradley to a four year- $32 million deal. I thought that their GM Danny Ainge had lost his mind paying a defense first 6’2” wing with no offensive point guard skills $8 million per year. Bradley ended up being a decent fit next to Boston’s two size point guards in Turner and Smart. The offense left something to be desired, but the defense of these combinations was very good.
Utah made a bad decision a year ago October in not meeting Gordon Hayward’s asking price of four years at $48 million. They corrected that mistake by matching Charlotte’s offer sheet to Hayward at four years and $64 million. They have also re-signed two other important pieces to second contracts in Derrick Favors and Alec Burks. The Favors contract was good value at four years and $49 million. The jury is still out on the Burks extension. He missed the large portion of this past season with a shoulder injury but at four years and $42 million, there’s plenty of upside. More importantly than that, the Jazz determined early enough that Enes Kanter wasn’t part of their future and got a protected first round pick from Oklahoma City for him. The pick will be the first non lottery pick the Thunder have two years after they convey a 1st round pick they owe to Philly with protections on it for 2015, 2016, and 2017. The ship already sailed on the 2015 pick. If the pick is not conveyed to the Jazz by 2020, which is highly unlikely, it becomes two second round picks. The bottom line is that Utah GM Dennis Lindsey kept who he valued at a bargain and got valuable future considerations for who he didn’t.
Milwaukee has been smart about staying out of cap crippling deals. Granted, two off seasons ago, they signed O.J. Mayo and Zaza Pachulia to three year deals, which looked pretty bad after year one. However, they were essential elements of the run the Bucks made to the East’s 6th seed in this past season’s playoffs. The combination of Mayo, Pachulia, Dudley, and Jerryd Bayless comprised a bench mob and a veteran core that aided the success of Milwaukee’s young core. With free agency on the horizon, that success is getting the Bucks an audience with a free agent like Tyson Chandler. The same goes for the Celtics in getting a chance to pitch Kevin Love on coming to Boston.
The 76ers will get no such audience. Supporters of The Hinkie Way will tell you they don’t want to sign free agents because they haven’t reached that stage in their rebuilding process. Next season will represent year 3 of being at rock bottom. No matter how they want to spin their trade of Michael Carter-Williams for the Lakers partially protected draft pick that came through the Suns, it was a non verbal admission of a draft mistake and represented the semblance of a reload on their rebuilding project. That trade kept Hinkie in asset accumulation mode. He has not indicated a readiness to enter into the team building phase. His draft pick last week of Duke big man Jahlil Okafor was a smart draft pick for asset accumulation mode. However, Hinkie’s reckless approach to risk in making draft decisions has also kept them in asset accumulation mode for a longer period of time than a team ever should be.
This is an issue for a variety of reasons. Obviously, the longer the bottoming out process takes, the more the paying customers get antsy, which is starting to be more prevalent in Philadelphia. However, the larger issue is the shelf life that the NBA rookie wage scale offers. One of the great values in today’s NBA of drafting well is having productive players at reasonable salaries. That provides added flexibility in managing the salary cap. These rookie scale deals don’t last forever. The Sixers may have kicked the can down the road with the Carter-Williams trade but the clock is ticking for their other guys. They’ll have to make some sort of financial decision on young center Nerlens Noel a year from his fall. If Joel Embiid needs more surgery on his foot, they may not have him again this year, which would mean they’ll have at most one year to see him play before they have to make a financial decision on him the following fall. And they may not very well see another one of their first round picks, Dario Saric, for another two years because he’s under contract in Europe. Saric would be smart to wait another two seasons because he can then come to the NBA and not be subject to the rookie wage scale. The downside of The Hinkie Way is that it squanders the financial value of the rookie wage scale.
Supporters of Hinkie’s process will tell you that they don’t want to be an 8 seed like the Sixers were under Doug Collins. The Hinkie Way doesn’t guarantee that at all. The credibility that gets built in a traditional rebuild goes a lot farther, a lot faster than extended tanking. The bottom seeds in the playoffs are a rotten place to reside in the NBA, but they’re a wonderful place to pass through.