As a Brooklyn Nets fan, over the past two years I have had to look elsewhere for basketball fulfillment. The Nets have been one of the worst teams in the league and have been unable to get much better because they traded away the rights to their first-round draft picks. To put it in one word, the Nets have been hopeless. Looking for a captivating narrative, looking for hope, I began to follow the story one of the most interesting teams in the league: the Philadelphia 76ers.
Lead by former general manager Sam Hinkie (and current GSB lecturer), in 2013 the 76ers shifted the direction of the franchise by implementing a highly polarizing long-term rebuilding plan, dubbed “the Process.” Since their NBA Finals appearance in the 2000-2001 season, the team had been oscillating around mediocrity, never good enough to make in past the second round of the playoffs but never one of the worst teams in the league. The main goal of an NBA team is to be one that competes for championships, and the easiest way to become one of these teams is by having one or two star players. In essence, Hinkie saw that the way for a forever mediocre team to optimize its chances of becoming a great one is by trading its existing players for draft picks and being bad to improve the quality of their own draft picks. The more draft picks a team has, especially the higher draft picks, the more likely it is for the team to select a star or two. This is not a guarantee of success but rather the solution to an optimization problem.
So Hinkie traded away all of the 76ers good and decent players, and after going 34-48 in the 2012-2013 season, the 76ers went 19-63, 18-64 and 10-72 the next three seasons. Although the basketball was not pretty and there were many critics of “the Process,” 76ers fans still had more hope than many of the teams around the league. I became acquainted with 76ers fandom through the entertaining, popular and fanatical pro-Hinkie podcast, “The Rights to Ricky Sanchez,” which helped keep the fan base focused on the team’s chances of having a successful future. Finally, last year, the results of “the Process” started to appear. The 76ers seemed to find their first star, Cameroonian center Joel Embiid, and improved their record to 28-54. The team has started this year with a 5-4 record and look to have found another game-changer in Australian “point forward” Ben Simmons. Additionally, they have this year’s number-one overall draft selection, Markelle Fultz, who has gotten off to a rough start but still is likely to have a bright future.
To see the importance of “the Process,” one has to look no further than the teams in the 2017 World Series. The champion Astros had the worst record in the major leagues three years in a row (2012-2014) and used this rebuilding period to draft, develop and sign the key players that allowed them to make the transformation from last to champion in three years. In a less similar way to the 76ers, “the Process” is an important thing for the losing Dodgers as well. I hate to give ESPN clickbait the time of day, but when this Stephen A. Smith video came up on my newsfeed I was pretty angry: “Stephen A. calls the Dodgers season a failure.” Although the Dodgers have the biggest payroll and some of the best players in baseball, that does not mean that they only way for them to have success is to win a championship. There is a lot of randomness associated with sports, especially baseball, and had a few (or even just one) things gone differently they would have been champions. The success comes from the process they had in becoming one of the best teams in the league giving their starting position, not in the final result.
I know it is somewhat cliché to call sports a microcosm of life, but that really seems to apply in this circumstance. It is really easy to focus on the outcome of something and solely decide from that whether or not it was a success. There is a lot of randomness in the world, both statistical and human. Was Hillary Clinton’s campaign a failure? Possibly, but it is not possible to solely conclude that because she lost the election. Whether or not the 76ers win a championship in the next five years, “the Process” will have been the right decision, because it maximized the probability of success given the existing conditions.
Contact Ben Spar at bspar ‘at’ stanford.edu.