Almost exactly a year ago, Brett Brown sat with me in the visiting coaches office at Barclays Center and wondered how much quieter the coverage of his 0-14 team would be had they eked out just one win -- had those Sixers been a run-of-the-mill awful team, instead of one that was chasing history.
On Wednesday night inside the equivalent office at Madison Square Garden, Brown hoped that Philly notching its first win the previous day against the Lakers might send the national media spotlight away -- away from another miserable season, away from Jahlil Okafor's embarrassing fisticuffs.
The fact that we're still having the same conversation about the Sixers has in effect created a new one: Has the vaunted Process already failed? Will Philly ever get better?
"I do feel the enormity of it from time to time," Brown told ESPN.com. "I wouldn't be telling you the truth if I said that I had thought in Year 3, this was the group I'd be coaching. I didn't realize the roster would play out like it has -- that last year would be almost a redshirt year, with Joel Embiid and Dario [Saric]."
Philly's continued historical awfulness has spawned a predictable tidal wave of schadenfreude from critics of The Process. The easiest thing to do in the NBA right now is find someone, usually an agent or an executive from another team, ready with anonymous rip job of Philly. Wave your hand inside any NBA arena, and you'll smack someone eager to slam Philly for violating the competitive ethos of sport -- for leveraging the NBA's lose-to-win incentive system, and its financial health, to embark on the longest tank job in league history.
But you know what? Those same angry teams had a chance to torpedo Philly's strategy last fall, when Adam Silver submitted a proposal that would have flattened the lottery odds. Philly would obviously vote against the strategy, and critics cackled that they'd be on an island -- that they'd lose 29-1, or maybe 28-2, and have to execute their plan under a system in which the worst team had only an 11 percent chance of snagging the top overall pick.
Nope. Twelve teams voted with the Sixers, enough to derail the proposal. The Thunder led a a behind-the-scenes lobbying effort from small-market teams who feared the revamped lottery would erase their best path toward acquiring a star: tanking for a high draft pick. They argued it was unfair to experiment with the lottery just as the league jumped into a new world of infinite cap room and higher salaries -- a world that might give glamour-market behemoths a bigger edge in free agency.
There has been almost no buzz about lottery reform since, and league officials have said there likely won't be until the next session of collective bargaining in 2016 or 2017.
Philly's continued failure is in some ways evidence that the current lottery works as intended. They have tried to lose as much as possible for three consecutive years, and they still stink. They haven't picked higher than No. 3, or received a good-luck bump up the lottery. Their best prospect wears a walking boot, and their longest-tenured tank acquisition, Nerlens Noel, is shooting 41 percent. He has regressed a bit on defense, though that may be injury-related, and we don't really know how good he is. In other words, Noel is an unknown -- just like most No. 6 picks.
It would be unhealthy for the league if tanking guaranteed success. Philly has proven, again, that it doesn't.
Even so, the league should consider lottery reform again at some point. There are a ton of interesting and workable proposals out there -- I detailed most of them here -- and some of them might strike the fine balance of decreasing the incentive to be bad without making it too hard to rebuild. Some of them may also do more harm than good. Flattening the odds, or including more teams in the lottery, would increase the chances that a .500-ish team wins it. That might reward smart management, but I'd be curious to see the reaction if a really good team nabbed the No. 1 pick. People didn't seem to like it much when Cleveland leaped all the way up from the No. 9 slot in 2014 to win its third lottery in four seasons. Some reform proposals may serve only to move the tanking inflection point.
Philly's failure to this point also doesn't mean they are misreading the league's incentive system or that tanking is dumb. The best way to win a championship is to land a top-10 overall player, and study after study has shown that the best way to find such a player is to draft him. The fact that most tanking teams never win a title doesn't invalidate the strategy. Most teams of all stripes never win the title. Every team-building strategy is a low-percentage play if the criteria is getting a ring.
Front-office types outside of Philly who have studied this issue in depth have told me that a team would have to tank up to six or seven years in a row for the strategy to become anything like a can't-miss play. Do the Sixers have the stomach for that?
Maybe not. But they do have a hungrier tanking stomach than any team that came before, and that should give the cacklers some pause. Embiid's injury and Okafor's juvenile crap aren't evidence that Philly has botched The Process. They are blips baked into The Process. A longer tanking timeline allows for both risks and setbacks. If the Bobcats miss on Anthony Davis, they're done tanking. If the Sixers miss on Embiid and Okafor, they're going to take their best damn shot at Ben Simmons. If you really have this kind of patience, you can afford some misses. That's the entire point of the strategy. One hit, and the long-term outlook changes.
Okafor's suspension should focus the debate on a related issue: the salary floor, and Philly's decision to sit out free agency every season. You know why the Sixers don't have any veteran mentors for fightin' Jahlil? Because they don't spend enough money to sign them. Philly is about $4 million under the $63 million minimum team salary floor, and they're only that close because they're paying JaVale McGee $12 million for exactly 61 glorious minutes as a Sixer. In real terms, Philly is almost $20 million below the floor.
The Sixers had Jason Richardson and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute last season, but they're gone, and Carl Landry is the only player left older than 24. "We felt the benefit of having J-Rich and Luc last year," Brown says. "I do think that in Carl, we have someone similar. But it's a little harder to have an impact when you're injured. Your voice doesn't carry the same sting, maybe, as it would if you were competing alongside them."
Brown and his staff have tried to assume some of the mentorship burden, but he knows the player-coach relationship can only run so deep -- especially when it comes to off-court behavior. "You only know what you know," Brown says. "I speak freely with my guys. I think they speak freely with me. But I'm sure like any coach or parent of 19-year-olds, stuff goes on that they don't share with me. I'd be naive to think otherwise."
Teams have until the last day of the regular-season to reach the salary floor, and the penalties for failure are meek: you split the difference among your players. The Sixers have unused salary slots that would fit mid-level veterans, and they don't care. That is their right, and Philly has used their cap space over the past two seasons to make several smart predatory trades -- including the swindling of Sacramento that landed Landry, Sauce Castillo, and draft picks.In fact, you could argue Philly has "won" every trade of the Hinkie era.
The Sixers want to maximize the chances every roster spot becomes a trade asset, and they're correct that Robert Covington, a quality rotation player on a bargain-basement four-year deal, is a more attractive trade asset than a wily 34-year-old earning $3 million.
The Sixers mostly churn the bottom of the roster to find more Covingtons. In cold, analytical terms, that is probably the "correct" way to incrementally improve your chances of winning a title. But the NBA doesn't always obey the cold math, and Philly has started to discover that with the Okafor situation. They seem a bit humbled.
You can bet both the league and the union will look into tweaking the floor rules when bargaining starts again; they did so already in 2011, when they agreed to raise the floor from 75 percent of the cap to 90 percent -- a means of forcing low-payroll teams to spend, since the harsh new luxury tax and related measures would curb team spending on the high end.
Increasing the penalty for non-spending will be tough. A big fine won't dissuade a team hell-bent on sucking, and coming in below the floor isn't a serious enough offense to warrant the forfeit of a second-round pick. The easiest quick fix would be moving up the in-season date by which teams must hit the salary floor. An opening-day deadline makes some sense, but that might deflate trade activity, since cap space is such a key deal-making lubricant. Picking a date before the trade deadline seems arbitrary.
It's also fair to ask why Philly didn't overpay a few younger free agents, just to see how good they were. Is it really so awful to throw a three-year, $9 million deal at, say, John Jenkins, Justin Holiday, or (ahem) K.J. McDaniels? In the worst-case scenario, that player falls out of the league, and becomes a minuscule sunk cost as the cap leaps toward $110 million -- a piece of NBA pocket change you can waive, via the stretch provision, at little cost. In the happier scenario, you've found a cheap rotation player young enough to grow with the tank brigade and still be on the team when the kiddos are ready to win.
Hell, need a point guard to, like, pass Okafor the basketball and maybe drive for a shot now and then? Why not overpay for Cory Joseph, who is only 24 and actually good at basketball? The Sixers instead signed Kendall Marshall, a nice backup type who comes with the added bonus of being physically unable to play and help the team win more. Stick a competent point guard alongside the two bigs, Covington and Jerami Grant, and the Sixers would be a regular bad team. They've been in almost every one the past ten games as is.
The Sixers would have to overpay for those free agents. That is the penalty for being horrible and for annoying agents over the past two seasons. Some agent agita was an inevitable byproduct of The Process. The Sixers don't pay money for real NBA players, which means agents who represent real NBA players have to work a little harder to find commissions. Being the last stop before the Chinese league means agents are constantly beseeching you to take a shot on their guy -- and getting pissed when you go elsewhere. Philly signs and waives people seemingly every day, and they haven't always given agents a heads-up about their plans before putting a guy on the waiver wire, per league sources. They dealt for Jorge Gutierrez in the Andrei Kirilenko deal, assured Gutierrez's people he would have a role there, and then waived him while he was on the team bus, sources say.
Philly hasn't always been polite about this stuff, and they also haven't always had time to observe the niceties. Agents today are talking a big game today about how this will cost Philly down the line when the Sixers finally want to sign players. Some agents claim they have already steered willing guys away.
The Sixers certainly aren't getting stars until they're at least mediocre. They reached out to the camps of both Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard during free agency last summer, got the expected cold shoulder, and went elsewhere. Studs who can earn the same maximum salary anywhere aren't choosing a losing team.
But we'll see if the big talk among agents actually results in action when the Sixers are ready to open the vault. If offers for a B-level guy -- some role player the Sixers think will fit its young core -- are equal, then, sure, maybe some leftover hard feelings hurt. But if the Sixers offer a premium, are the agents really going to boycott?
I'm dubious, and the Sixers' strategy in many ways is designed to reduce their dependence on free agency.
Look, there are real consequences to doing what Philly has been doing for the past three years. They are living one of those consequences out with Okafor now. That doesn't mean The Process will fail.
Brown also touched on the problematic early synergy between Noel and Okafor; opponents are outscoring Philly by 26 points per 100 possessions when those two share the floor, the worst mark for any heavy-minutes pairing -- and on pace to be the worst such figure ever since league began tracking detailed lineup data in the early 2000s.
Brown has already started pairing the two for fewer minutes, even bringing Noel off the bench here and there. Should he really care so much, given how few games they've played, and the lack of surrounding talent?
"I do care," Brown says. "That number is real. But I care more about giving it a chance to work. To bail on it after a quarter of the season is not wise."
He's also sorting out the conflict between playing turbo-fast, as Philly did in his first two seasons, and building the offense around Okafor post-ups -- which can take time to develop. "We were tormented by that all the time with [Tim Duncan] in San Antonio," Brown says. "You realized Timmy needed the ball, but you had a roadrunner in Tony Parker, and a great pick-and-roll player in Manu Ginobili."
"The thing we came to grips with was that pace has to trump the post," he says. "You can't just walk it up, dump it in, and expect to put points on the board. You get stuck in mud." Brown says he needs to find Okafor more quick-hitting post-ups, including on plays where Okafor sets a pick, rolls down the lane, and seals his man.
Brown acknowledged that a lot of Okafor post-ups take eons to set up, and that he often gets the ball with just five or six seconds left on the shot clock."We're in butter," Brown says.
"We call it butter. The clock is melting. I've never been in butter more in my life."