Thursday, the Philadelphia 76ers disappointed twice. They opted to hold on to Jahlil Okafor, the center who is so unpopular among Philadelphians that I assume it can’t be based on bad play alone. He must have committed some sort of Philly Phaux Pas, like saying sandwiches from gas stations are actually bad.
They also traded Nerlens Noel to the Dallas Mavericks for a paltry return: a protected first-round draft pick that will almost certainly become two future second-round draft picks, Justin Anderson, who seems like a fairly expendable defensive-minded wing, and Andrew Bogut, who was immediately waived for salary purposes. They waited through Noel’s early-career injuries and watched him turn into a productive NBA player. Now they’ve traded him for some low-value picks and salary relief.
Then, on Friday, the team announced 2016 first-overall pick Ben Simmons will not play at all in his first NBA season, as the Jones fracture in his foot apparently hasn’t come close to healing yet. Nobody would ask the Sixers to rush Simmons back into action: Foot injuries can be career-ruiners, and the career of a 20-year-old no. 1 pick is not worth ruining over a few March games for a team with no playoff hopes. But it seems like the 76ers misled the public about how Simmons’s recovery was going. In December, we heard he’d made a “significant” step toward recovery; a month ago they said that his “recovery [was] progressing as expected.”
It’s a story we’ve heard before across various front-office regimes. Earlier this month, the Sixers announced that Joel Embiid had a knee bruise and would be out day-to-day, when in fact he had a torn meniscus that has kept him out since January and might keep him out the rest of the year. In September, the Sixers said Jerryd Bayless had “wrist soreness,” which turned into a month off, which turned into a season-ending surgery. In 2015, the Sixers said Embiid needed surgery because his foot injury wasn’t progressing as expected; in reality he’d suffered a new fracture. And from 2012 to 2013, we received repeated updates about Andrew Bynum’s injury: First his return date was late October, then there was no timetable, then Bynum said the plan had always been to keep him out three months, then he hurt himself bowling, then he was supposed to return around the All-Star break. He never played a game in a Sixers uniform.
Obviously, the Sixers have bad injury luck — this is the fifth straight year a key player is missing the entire season. Maybe they have overenthusiastic doctors. But it seems more likely they believe there’s some sort of value in publicly lying about the speed at which a player can return, selling the team’s short-term strength while actually planning for failure.
At this point in the season, there’s little to play for. I don’t think anybody expected the Sixers to make the playoffs, and while their competitive play was encouraging, they’re six games out with 26 to go.
There’s also not a ton to be gained from committing to intentionally losing at this point. If they don’t end up with a high pick, they’ll be able to swap picks with Sacramento, which just traded DeMarcus Cousins to give themselves one of the NBA’s most depleted rosters. The Sixers are miles behind the Brooklyn Nets in the race to have the league’s worst record, so they don’t really have a shot at the no. 1 pick. I suppose there is a decent amount of value in entering a Tank War with the Lakers: L.A. has the third-worst record in the NBA and won’t have to send its pick to the Sixers this year if it lands in the top three. The Sixers could possibly get another pick in a supposedly rich draft class if they can keep the Lakers out of the top three. So it’s a battle between the 19–39 Lakers, who just traded quality sixth man Lou Williams, vs. the 21–35 Sixers, whose best player and most promising prospect are both injured. Should be a thrilling race.
However that ends up, it’s disappointing to be talking about Philly tanking again. Hinkie’s tenure showed some of the most shameless tanking in professional sports history: While many teams have intentionally lost for a year, maybe two, Hinkie threw a slew of seasons in the trash. And that was fine! Hinkie asked what the purpose of a team’s season was: to win as many games as possible? Or was it to make the franchise better? Many Sixers fans believed it was the latter, and the strategy appeared to have paid off: They’d finally assembled a talented young core they’d been building toward for years. It seemed like they’d finally turned a corner and could focus on on-court success rather than failing for assets.
Some things have been out of Philly’s control, like the team’s increasingly unlikely and unfortunate string of injuries, although it hasn’t helped that the team’s handled them poorly. Some things they’ve done to themselves, like the Noel trade that swapped an actual human basketball player for questionable assets. Either way, it feels like the Sixers are back in a place we thought they’d left behind. Their best players aren’t playing, once more delaying the beginnings of an on-court future Sixers fans have long dreamed of. They’re still dealing their healthy players for future assets. These are Process problems, and I thought the Process was over.