His first winter in Philadelphia was brutal. The team was terrible. The weather was worse.
Sam Hinkie went to high school and college in Oklahoma. He did his postgrad stint at Stanford. He was Daryl Morey’s most trusted lieutenant in Houston. Hinkie had spent much of his life in more hospitable climates, or at least climates that didn’t resemble Hoth without the tauntauns. His first extended East Coast winter was so cruel it was almost comical. By February, the city had already recorded the third-biggest snowfall total in its history.
On one particularly gray evening in the middle of an awfully gray season, Hinkie was sitting courtside while the Sixers warmed up before another meaningless game. I don’t remember their opponent that night in 2014, but I’ll always remember the conversation he and I had. Some of it was about basketball, but most of it was about our families and backgrounds, what he thought of Philly, how he was adjusting. That kind of thing.
We talked about the snow and ice too. There was so much of it. I bitched about all the shoveling. I hate shoveling. I wondered if he hated it too. And there, for the first time but not the last, Hinkie revealed his delightful Hinkie-ness. He said he did not hate shoveling — because he had not done any. At all. He just let his driveway disappear under all that snow and ice. I wondered how that could possibly be. He said he had a plan. He said he would wait it out. Spring would come eventually.
"As you can probably imagine by now," he told me, "I’m a pretty patient guy."
I thought about that story all the time when Hinkie was still the Sixers’ president. I thought about it a lot this week too. Hinkie isn’t around to enjoy it, but spring has finally happened upon the Sixers. The organizational thaw is well underway. At Thursday evening’s NBA draft, commissioner Adam Silver will stride to the podium and announce what we already know: The Sixers will take Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick. To move up, it cost the Sixers the third overall pick in this year’s draft and either the Lakers first-round pick next year or the higher of the Kings’ or Sixers’ first-round picks the year after. Because of protections placed on the deal, whichever pick goes to Boston won’t end up being the first overall selection no matter what happens in the upcoming lotteries. Hinkie tossed his eventual successor an easy alley-oop with his many maneuvers. All president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo and the Sixers had to do was hammer it home. That is the best and most unexpected pick-and-roll combo the NBA has dreamed up in years.
Not everyone thinks quite the same way, though. Dealer Danny Ainge has an excellent reputation among his peers, and some of them worried about Ainge’s willingness and motivation to make the move. One longtime league exec told me he liked the trade for the Sixers, but he was suspicious of the Celtics because "Danny obviously thinks he can get someone he likes just as much at three, and he adds another pick. It’s ridiculous." (That particular opinion was confirmed by Ainge himself.) Indeed, Boston’s list of incoming future draft picks is the only one longer and more impressive than Philly’s. As another NBA front-office member told me via text: "That KG trade is the gift that keeps on giving! SMH."
Which is fine. Bully for the Celtics. But it’s hard not to look at what the Sixers have assembled and see one of the most promising young cores to hit the league on the same timeline in recent memory: Fultz is 19 years old. Ben Simmons is 20. Dario Saric and Joel Embiid are 23. Robert Covington — one of the more underrated 3-and-D wings in the league, who still has one year remaining on a criminally cheap contract (thanks again, Hinkie) — is the veteran of the bunch. He’s 26. What fun they’ll have. What fun they’re already having. Just look at them.
As Hinkie once famously put it, "You don’t get to the moon by climbing a tree." The Sixers are still reaching for the stars — but for the first time, they feel close enough to touch. (Hinkie politely declined to comment on moon missions and other matters for this story.)
So that’s it, then. This must signal the end of the rebuild and, with it, the Process. The NBA can rest easy and leave all those frantic lottery austerity plans to collect more dust in a basement vault somewhere. The Sixers have a nice young team and oodles of cap space. They must be ready to graduate to some other post-Process phase, right?
Except this doesn’t really feel like a pivot point. The Fultz trade didn’t seem to signal that the Hinkie era was finally finished and the Colangelo era had untethered itself from the previous administration. Quite the opposite, actually. Past, present, and future feel inextricably linked. Who’s to say where one begins and the other ends? As Sixers fans learned from their favorite podcast (more on that in a bit), the Process is the NBA’s version of the Ship of Theseus — a grand thought experiment with endless answers. If the past few days taught us anything, the heated conversation about what the Sixers were and what they hope to become will continue unabated. Part of that is owed to Hinkie, and part to Colangelo, and part to the independent uprising that rose around them.
If you were on Twitter shortly after the Sixers and Celtics announced their trade Monday afternoon, you might have noticed that a devoted subset of pro-Processers unleashed their revenge on enemies real and imagined by using the hashtag #RTArmageddon. The basic idea was to find all the old/bad/silly anti-Hinkie/anti-Process takes and retweet them. It was the Twitter version of hoisting skeptical media members and fans with their own petard. There were so many petards and so much hoisting that day that the hashtag momentarily climbed to the top of the trending topics, ahead of Carrie Fisher’s autopsy results and the decision in a Supreme Court trademark case. Everyone from USA Today to Vice to SB Nation to Bleacher Report covered the #RTArmageddon rollout. It was maybe the best collective "we told you so" ever executed — or at least one of the loudest.
It was an excellent troll job, organized and put in motion by the podcast The Rights to Ricky Sanchez. (At this point, I have to be The Ringer’s senior podcast correspondent by default.) The cohosts, Spike Eskin and Mike Levin, are decidedly pro-Process, as are their many listeners. (A quick break for disclosures. Spike is in my hardcore nerd NBA salary cap fantasy league, and Mike and his girlfriend, Alyssa, are pals with my dogs. Chris Ryan has appeared on their podcast. Danny Chau was part of the #RTArmageddon congress. It’s all so incestuous. No one apologizes for anything.)
Even if you don’t know the show by name — but they would really, really prefer that you know the show by name — you are likely aware of their work. After Hinkie left town, RTRS bought a billboard just across the way from Sixers HQ. Sixers executives were not thrilled.
Each year RTRS throws a lottery party. Several thousand people attend. This is what occurred at last year’s party when the Sixers secured the top pick and, with it, the opportunity to take Ben Simmons. Levin is the hyper-excited guy in the white T-shirt who almost leaped over the railing to certain death.
This year’s party was just as wild. Wilder, really. They gave out removable Hinkie tattoos, raised a Hinkie banner to the rafters of Xfinity Live, and paused the party long enough for a couple to get engaged. Because of the pick protections in the Celtics trade, RTRS is locked into a lottery party for the next two years at least. They’re thrilled. Eskin said the goal is to have a lottery party on the same night that the Sixers also have a playoff game.
"Actually," he said, correcting himself, "the real goal is a parade and a lottery party in the same year, but we don’t want to be greedy."
Eskin and Levin helped create a community of the like-minded, a group of people who embraced the Process because it appealed to them on an academic level. (Liberty Ballers was the precursor to RTRS and remains its longtime written-word companion, thereby serving as a force multiplier.) They’re the sort that puffed out their chests in defiance while newspaper columnists and radio hosts and amateur hot takers everywhere dismissed them as fools and suckers. It’s why the pro-Processers grew in number even while the Sixers’ win totals shrank — because, as Eskin put it, "we’re smarter than you and we know it." More than anything, that’s what #RTArmageddon was about: intellectual vengeance.
"When this is done, I really believe Process Sixers will be as much an era of the NBA as the Showtime Lakers," Levin said, wholly serious and without irony.
That might sound a bit much, but the lot of them spent a long time in the NBA wilderness. (The Sixers won fewer than a quarter of their games over the past four years. That’s a lot of bad basketball to endure.) Reacclimating to society takes time — especially after enduring a protracted stretch when the importance of the league timeline was inverted and the regular season mattered far less by comparison than offseason events like the lottery and the draft and summer league. Especially summer league. Any self-respecting (self-loathing?) Sixers fan has exhausted countless July hours watching randos play bad basketball in small gyms in Orlando, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas. My summer league addiction got so out of control during the height of the Hinkie era that I was DVRing games and watching them twice. Not for work. For fun. (I lead a full life.) A few years ago, my wife walked in on me pausing and rewinding a summer league game like I was auditioning for Brett Brown’s staff. She was aghast. It was like she caught me watching porn, only porn would have been less embarrassing.
It has been a long four years. Just consider the tireless anti-Process opposition, especially at the local level in Philly. Angelo Cataldi. John Smallwood. Marcus Hayes. Dick Jerardi. I like them all just fine as humans, but there’s no end to their horrible hoops takes. Spike’s dad is the worst of the bunch. For his day job, Spike runs 94.1 WIP, the sports radio station where his father, Howard, has happily served as Philadelphia’s biggest heel since Spike was in middle school. (Howard will see us all in hell before he turns babyface.) Howard loved, and probably still does, calling the Process "a Ponzi scheme" and referring to its creator as "Scam Hinkie." He took this picture. That was nothing.
In Year 2 of the Process, Hinkie broke with established protocol and decided not to address the media on the evening of the draft, choosing to talk to reporters the following morning instead. He thought it made sense for lots of reasons. Howard did not agree with him. At the time, Howard was also working for Fox 29 as the main sports anchor/reporter. On the night of the draft, because reporters weren’t invited inside the Sixers practice facility, Howard did his television hit from outside the building as only he would. He put on eye black, like athletes wear, and he had a station intern pretend to be his bodyguard. Then he leaped out from behind a bush and asked the viewers at home why Waldo was hiding inside. That’s another name he had for Hinkie. Because, you know, "Where’s Waldo?"
All that happened. So did this: Sixers majority owner Josh Harris walked into the facility that evening and seemed confused. According to staffers, Harris said he was pretty sure "that guy Howard is outside doing TV from inside a shrub." Or words to that effect. Harris, like any normal human, wondered why that was.
So, yeah. That’s how you pit sons against fathers. That’s how you escalate to #RTArmageddon.
"Dude," Spike said with his very first words when we talked Monday night, "Joel Embiid just retweeted my dad saying Saric was never coming over using the #RTArmageddon hashtag. I’d say it’s been a pretty fucking successful day on the internet."
No one is letting this go. Not now or ever.
It will be interesting to see if what happens next inspires defectors. If the Sixers get good, there’s no doubt some of the anti-Hinkie crowd will try to distance themselves from previous criticisms and attach themselves like barnacles to the SS Process and Captain Colangelo should the smooth sailing begin.
The bigger unknown is how pro-Processers will handle the transition from rebuilding to building. Eskin and Levin conceded on a recent podcast that they’d been rooting for bad basketball teams for so long that they weren’t sure they remembered how to support a good one. Stockholm syndrome was mentioned.
Not counting the lockout, the Sixers haven’t had a winning season in 12 years. They haven’t made the playoffs in a full 82-game season since 2010–11. If they win 35 games next year, there will be plenty more giddy told-you-sos on social media. If they somehow win 40 or more and [whispers quietly because he’s afraid to say it out loud] make the playoffs, you should delete Twitter from your phone and then smash your computer just to be safe from the fallout.
That’s if all goes to plan. There are other possibilities. What happens if the Process doesn’t accelerate at the speed they anticipate? What happens if it even stalls? This will shock you, but Philadelphians can be a bit fickle. It’s not hard to imagine people getting pissed off if the Sixers win, say, 30 games next year instead of 38. The weight of expectations is real now. That’s the thing about reaching for the moon. Climbing a tree is easier, and you don’t have as far to fall.