I’ve written a lot about this Sixers in the past two years. I’ve talked about them in my personal life even more and paid money for game tickets and memorabilia. My Twitter feed has been a never-ending barrage of Sixers trash.
I just spent the past weekend trying to understand what has happened to the Sixers and why it happened.
Sam Hinkie, the team’s president and GM, resigned from his duties and did so in a 13 page letter. Bryan Colangelo was hired to replace Hinkie, seemingly within minutes of his departure. This was a curious development considering Jerry Colangelo, Bryan’s father, was the Sixers’ Chairman of Basketball Operations. Colangelo the Elder then also quit, a whopping four months into his three year contract.
Sixers ownership, in a matter of days, has shifted course, from being the most radically thinking, outside-the-box living organization in all of sports, to a run-of-the-mill, rudderless mess.
The changes to the team, their organizational structure, and overall ideology are immense, though for every single Sixers fan, those changes will manifest themselves in different ways.
For a pro-Process, draft loving, lottery watching Hinkie head like me, this is terrible news. Within certain sects of the media, that can seem like the prevailing theory. But if we’re going to truly understand what’s happened, we need to glimpse this news from every possible lens. Not every Sixers fan spent their weekend scouring the blogosphere and listening to multiple podcasts in which the hosts bounced between crying and cursing.
Growing up, my sister was the biggest Sixers fan I knew, but since the losing began, she’s essentially given up. And she’s far from alone. For her and those of a similar mindset, this is probably a welcomed development.
For the decade prior to the Hinkie’s tenure, the Sixers were Ed Snider’s stepchild, always second class citizens in Philadelphia. Drafting Allen Iverson almost changed that. He made the team relevant, winning an MVP and dragging a team to the Finals. I rolled my eyes at those who thought they could ever beat the vaunted Lakers, while my sister held out hope. She cheered for Eric Snow, her favorite player by a mile, while I tried to figure out how he was starting for a playoff team.
In the years following the Finals appearance, the Sixers refused to rebuild and insisted on finding someone to play nicely with Iverson. Keith Van Horn, Glenn Robinson, and Chris Webber all came and went. When Iverson was traded and soon after, the team focused not on finding young stars, but trying to cut to the front of the line by finding veterans like Andre Miller and Elton Brand, both nearing the sunset of their careers. I never bought in. I wasn’t like every other kid in school who fawned over Iverson and fell in love with the Sixers. As a young and naive fan, I gave up. I’d watch locally broadcasted Sixers games to see the other teams and laughed as fellow Philadelphians talked themselves into Andre Iguodala and Evan Turner. My sister was there through all of it. Not screaming for a rebuild like many others, but genuinely rooting for Jrue Holiday to make a leap or for Turner to become a player worthy of his high draft selection.
Then Josh Harris and his partners bought the team. They appeared to be owners that weren’t going to look at each transaction in the short term, but an ownership group who was dead set on the long term future of the franchise. When they had an opportunity to bring a star to Philadelphia, they pounced. Andrew Bynum was the next big thing, though his giant knees would never allow it. To me, it was a swing and a miss, but absolutely worth the swing. You can’t hit a home run with the bat on your shoulder. To my sister, it was troubling. Iguodala was gone, replaced by some big goofball that would never step on the court.
Then ownership hired one of the brightest young minds in basketball to steer the ship, through murky waters. Jrue Holiday, the last real player of value on the team, was swapped for another injured big man and the promise of draft picks. The tank wheeled out of the garage. I was ecstatic. Finally, the Sixers, a team who for a decade never won more than 41 games or fewer than 27, was shaking things up. I watched more Sixers basketball that season, and the two following, than I had in many, many years. Meanwhile, for someone like my sister, too busy working, coaching, and everything else in her life to care about a process or a dream or change, it was a nightmare. There are millions of Sixers fans. The percentage of those who gleefully watched as a team of youngsters lost game after game is much smaller than we care to admit.
So many fans turn to their team night in and night out for some joy, some hope, and some excitement. Finding that excitement in a Dario Saric YouTube clip, the impressiveness of a college player who may never wear a Sixers uniform, or the fact that Jerami Grant’s 3-point percentage had hit a certain threshold is easier said than done. Mediocrity in the NBA is a hamster wheel that is difficult to exit. You can fight for the final playoff spot, left with an early round sweep or a few ping bong balls, for years with no easy way out. For some basketball junkies, the path out of that mess is worth the pain it requires. For others, they’d just like to be able to turn on Comcast SportsNet and not assume their team is going to lose. They want to hear Tom McGinnis and Marc Zumoff yell and scream with actual enthusiasm.
At the end of the day, it only matters which of these two camps Sixers ownership falls into. For three plus years, it had seemed that Josh Harris and his partners were big picture thinkers. They understood the investment necessary to return as a contending team. They let Sam Hinkie dip below the salary floor and finish in the bottom three of the standings season after season. This year, for the first time in the Hinkie era, the Sixers were the worst team in the NBA. They enter the lottery with not just the best chance at the number one pick this year, but with the highest chance any team has ever had at the top pick under the current system. Their losing streaks and margins of defeat stretched higher and higher. Some of the lineups Brett Brown was forced to play were somewhere between silly and sad (Elton Brand playing center in 2016 would highlight the list).
Amidst all of this, Harris and his cohorts changed their tune. They brought in Jerry Colangelo to fill an undefined role in their organization. He’d serve as part adviser-part spokesperson-part babysitter for the front office. He’d be named as an “anonymous NBA source” in countless columns. And over the last several months, he’d convince ownership that Sam Hinkie was not the right man for the next steps of the Process. If reports are to be believed, Harris did actually want to keep Hinkie on staff, either via an insulting demotion or as an equal voice to the new hire. Given those two options, Hinkie logically resigned.
Harris and his partners had enough. They couldn’t stomach the laughs of casual fans and the mainstream media. Like many fans of their own team, they finally just want to win some games again. At a certain point, their desire to win some games overpowered their desire to win championships.
The Sixers fanbase over the last three seasons has been as divided as any group of people with a common goal can be (insert joke about US Congress here). Remember the days when Sixers fans hated loudmouths from New York and Boston more than they hated each other?
This change isn’t the end of the divide. If the Colangelo ‘s reign never leads to success, the Process people will bemoan ownership quitting on the plan, while the other side (the anti-Processians) will complain about the deep hole the franchise dug for itself during the Hinkie era.
If the Sixers’ cows do begin to come home, with three or four first round picks this season and the inclusion of Dario Saric and Joel Embiid set to arrive, there will still be bickering. Many will still try to credit Sam Hinkie for positioning the team for the future. Others will praise Bryan Colangelo for being able to harvest those assets correctly. But at least in this scenario, the fanbase will bicker while winning games (and hopefully, playoff series and championships).
Many of Sam Hinkie’s biggest fans aren’t sure what to do. They feel betrayed by Harris and company. They want the Colangelos gone and forgotten. But when push comes to shove, they are Sixers fans. Just like the fans who begrudgingly dealt with the Process for three years still hoped it would all work out, the Hinkie disciples will still put the team’s best interests first.
Then for the first time in a long time, fans from across the aisles of the Wells Fargo Center, like my sister and I, will actually be able to root for a likable, viable Sixers team together.
Sam Hinkie set the table, and now the Colangelo family will enjoy the meal. If everything goes well, the City of Brotherly Love will fulfill it’s name, unifying to showcase its love and passion for the Sixers. The Wells Fargo Center will be deafeningly loud when the Sixers fans can yell for their team’s biggest victories instead of at each other.
And if everything goes wrong, just hope there are no knives on the table.
Header Image via Chris Szagola/AP
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.