After four arduous years of missing the playoffs, it was easy to lose sight of the 76ers’ strategy, which, in the words of former general manager and team president of basketball operations Sam Hinkie, was designed to replenish the talent pipeline and establish a “culture focused on innovation.” Some found trusting the process difficult. Philly sports radio personality Angelo Cataldi called Hinkie “a charlatan, a snake-oil salesman” and the nickname “Scam Hinkie” was thrown around. Eventually the clock ran out on Hinkie when Jerry and later Bryan Colangelo came into power. As the 2016–17 season began, it looked like Hinkie’s vision for the team would just be a footnote in the franchise’s history.
Fast-forward a few months and the 76ers have won 10 of their past 14 games and are aiming for the playoffs. (Playoffs!?) It’s a sin Joel Embiid wasn’t named an All-Star. Nerlens Noel, Robert Covington, and Dario Saric are making winning contributions. T.J. McConnell is a folk hero, and the Wells Fargo Center is reaching its loudest decibels since the days of Allen Iverson. Visiting clubs are impressed with atmosphere in the building and the energy surrounding the team. Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo said last year on The Vertical Podcast that the “losing culture” became “a fabric of the team.” It’s like he’s talking about a different franchise altogether. The plan only needed time.
The Sixers aren’t contenders — yet. But it’s easy to see the path they will take to get there. And that path intersects with a Los Angeles Lakers franchise that sits in a precarious position. As of Sunday, the Lakers have the third-worst record in basketball, but seven teams are within 4.5 games of them. Making the playoffs would be a wonderful story, just like it would be for the Sixers, but the postseason shouldn’t be a priority for the purple and gold. It’s paramount that the Lakers end up with a top-three pick: If they don’t it’ll be conveyed to the Sixers and Los Angeles would also have to send its unprotected 2019 first-rounder to the Magic. The 2012 acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash still haunt the team like a Free-Agency Freddy Krueger. If the Lakers do retain their 2017 first-rounder, they’d instead send their unprotected 2018 first to the Sixers, and their 2017 and 2018 second-rounders to the Magic.
The losses in the latter situation carry less weight for the Lakers. They need to land in that bottom two of the league to have a 55.8 percent chance of keeping their pick. One problem: Lakers head coach Luke Walton recently said he doesn’t believe in tanking. “I believe in trying to play the right way and have a culture that you’re gonna try to win no matter what. You start losing on purpose, I think the basketball gods come back to get you in the long run,” Walton said. “We try to do things the right way around here, which means we’re going to play to win.”
The Spurs were competitive for nearly two decades because of a tanking season that landed them Tim Duncan. The Sixers might have a Duncan of their own in Embiid. There’s not just one way to build a contender. Teams have traded or signed players to assemble title teams. Maybe Walton privately knows tanking is the right path this season, but understands that’s not a good line to sell the notoriously competitive Lakers fan base. The Lakers aren’t in a situation nearly as dire as the Sixers were when Hinkie was hired as GM in 2013, but the reasons for the Lakers to tank are just as strong as they were for Philly.
During his tenure, Hinkie heard pleas from fans and pundits to sign veterans to stabilize his young team — even if it meant overpaying. But those young players who were left to fend for themselves are becoming building blocks. And the experience that the likes of Covington and Noel racked up when they weren’t “ready” is starting to pay off. The Lakers have taken a more muddled approach, signing Lou Williams in 2015 and overpaying for Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng in 2016. This approach isn’t the right way, but it’s not wrong either. However, the way in which the Lakers have populated their team has meant less playing time for the young players, whether or not they’re “ready.”
For a moment, forget the philosophical reasons behind tanking. This is a pragmatic issue. If the Lakers don’t retain their pick, it could seriously impact their future. They’d not only lose their pick this year, but with their 2019 selection being sent to Orlando, the Ted Stepien Rule would disallow them from trading a first-rounder until 2021. L.A. will always be a destination for superstars, but in recent years, the Lakers haven’t been able to count on closing deals with the top free agents (remember the infamous “second meeting” with LaMarcus Aldridge?). Which only puts a higher premium on having a plan and possessing assets to execute moves. Danny Ainge planned for three or four years in advance to make a run at Kevin Garnett, just as Daryl Morey did for James Harden, and R.C. Buford did for Aldridge. That isn’t luck. It comes from years of legwork, all for the chance to pounce if the opportunity presents itself. Right now, there are teams waiting for that chance with Paul George and Jimmy Butler. Maybe that was part of Hinkie’s plan, too. We’ll never know.
The Lakers need to have the longest view in the room. Tanking might go against their franchise values, but taking one step back allows them to make a leap forward. In Hinkie’s resignation letter, he cited Abraham Lincoln, who said “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” George and Russell Westbrook hold player options for the 2018–19 season, and can opt to become unrestricted free agents. Come 2019 or 2020, the next generation of stars on the market could include Anthony Davis. The Lakers need to sharpen their ax.
This is an important draft for Los Angeles. The team is loaded with talent — from elite prospects like Brandon Ingram and D’Angelo Russell to high-end role players like Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. — but it may not have found its cornerstone. Maybe Ingram will eventually develop into Kevin Durant Lite, but we can’t see it yet. With Embiid, the greatness is right there in front of us, obvious to anyone who watches. Multiple front-office executives have expressed to me that this draft could see more than one superstar enter the league — with Washington’s Markelle Fultz and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball the leading candidates. Drafting a guard might crowd Russell or Clarkson, but this is where the Lakers may have to ask themselves WWHD (What Would Hinkie Do?). By adding an even better prospect, suddenly Russell or Clarkson becomes a valuable trade piece, not a keeper. There are multiple wings like Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson, and Jonathan Isaac that could also be appealing, as could big man Lauri Markkanen. But the only way the Lakers will even have a choice is if they have a high draft pick.
The Lakers don’t need to change who they are to embrace short-term losing in the name of long-term winning. Walton can install his system and the Lakers can keep chanting “I love basketball.” They’re young. Tanking is as simple as shutting down the veterans (some of whom they never should’ve signed in the first place), and playing the kids. By giving the youngsters larger roles, their development can be accelerated. The Sixers are playing the same progressive brand of basketball under head coach Brett Brown today that they did in previous years. Their talent is just better. Brown laid the foundation years ago as the young players got minutes, and now Embiid has flipped on the switch.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Paul George and Russell Westbrook will be free agents (with George a restricted free agent) in 2018; each has a player option for 2018–19 and can become an unrestricted free agent.