If Sam Hinkie were still running the Sixers, would they have won 11 of their last 16 games, or would they be tanking right now? The answer undoubtedly lies somewhere in between.
The notion that the franchise might not be trending up this season with Hinkie at the helm seems a little farfetched. A player of Joel Embiid's caliber doesn't appear to be capable of losing 60-70 games in a season, and we can only imagine what the product on the floor woukd look like if Ben Simmons were healthy. They should be winning more games based on the upgraded level of talent alone.
Yet it's also difficult to look at the Sixers' recent run and arrive at the conclusion they would be doing quite this well, and there are several different moves - or non moves - we can identify as a reason why. Simply ask, would Hinkie have swapped Jerami Grant for Ersan Ilyasova? Would he have signed a free agent in the mold of a Gerald Henderson?
Perhaps most importantly, would Hinkie still be tinkering with the roster on a constant basis, continuously shuffling different players in an out, eliminating any sense of the cohesion the Sixers have been able to build?
In Hinkie's defense, we can't and don't know the answers. All we can have to go on is his philosophy during the rebuild, which may have begun to expand as the Sixers improved.
For example, we know the only time Hinkie traded prospects like Grant in the past was for more prospects or draft picks (the trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder did include a conditional first-round pick, FWIW). And the only time he acquired 29-year-old NBA veterans like Ilyasova was so the Sixers could take on their salaries and quickly discard them, always in exchange for even more picks.
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We know Hinkie avoided spending money on free agents in general. Not to say there wasn't interest, but only in young players with upside, the type who had no interest in joining a losing program. Somebody like Henderson, who again is 29 and isn't a significant part of the franchise's future, yet cost the Sixers $9 million for this season alone, would've been a non-starter under the previous regime.
And we know Hinkie was never able to sit on his hands and let the team simply grow together. The Sixers haven't made a trade since the Ilyasova move, the only other player they've parted ways with since the season began was Hollis Thompson, and the only other mid-season addition that didn't come from the developmental squad is Chasson Randle, signed on Monday. There's legitimate continuity here.
That would appear to be the biggest difference between Hinkie and the current Sixers front office led by Bryan Colangelo.
"It's a heck of a lot easier coaching," Sixers coach Brett Brown said last week. "There's no mystery."
"The symmetry and consistency and stability is what everybody craves. Players crave it. Coaches crave it. It gives you a chance, some semblance of order, and we've had that possibility more than we've ever had this year."
Perhaps sensing the squad was becoming more competitive, Hinkie might have considered Grant for Ilyasova, might have signed a Henderson-caliber free agent, might have become more patient with the players he already had. Except building a basketball team always came second to acquiring assets during his tenure.
By trading a prospect for a piece that actually fit with the Sixers roster, by filling out a sensible lineup and bench regardless of value, upside or any other ulterior motive, and by keeping the same group together, Colaneglo has demonstrated winning now is and can be as much a priority as winning years from now.
Make no mistake, the moves that Colangelo has made were not minor, either, nor have they all somehow been about collecting assets or in some way future oriented.
Ilyasova is second on the Sixers in minutes (27.7), field-goal attempts (12.4), rebounds (6.1), and points per game (15.3), all of which besides rebounds would be career highs, by the way. That's a lot more than what the club would be getting from Grant, who's 22 years old and certainly may have far greater potential than Ilyasova, but wasn't of much use to the team now.
In fact, Grant's was largely a skill set replicated all over the Sixers roster, whereas Ilyasova turned out to be the stretch four they desperately needed. Perhaps he's only a poor man's version of what they hope Dario Saric will eventually become, but they can develop the 22-year-old while simultaneously putting a competitive product on the floor.
Ilyasova helps the Sixers win now.
Henderson is sixth on the Sixers in minutes (24.1) and seventh in scoring (9.7), although he's the leader on the team in shooting percentage among guards (.463), tops in the clubhouse from the free-throw line (.828) and second from three-point range (.411). He's an excellent option coming off the bench and provides Brown some options as far as what to do with the lineup.
Henderson helps the Sixers win now.
Although again, more than anything, putting an end to the constant parade of bodies on an off the Sixers roster might be as responsible as anything for the organization's remarkable turnaround. It's allowed Brown to rotate players in and out of games based on merit, instead of out of pure necessity, being asked to guess what's going to work or because it's the next man's turn to audition.
"The decisions are, do you play Ersan a little bit more than Dario or Dario a little bit more more than Ersan," Brown said. "You have some stuff on the wings you figure out: Is (Nik Stauskas) playing better or is Gerald playing better?
"The stability is what everybody craves. That is the Holy Grail of growing a winning program."
There are still some people concerned that this is hurting the Sixers' draft positioning, that the vaunted Process is not yet complete. The reality is what's happening to the franchise at this stage can't possibly be a bad thing. The tide has turned, and between Embiid, Simmons, Saric, Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, there should be enough assets there for the Sixers to emerge from the rubble.
Maybe Hinkie would still be collecting talent, realizing the roster is at least a year or two away from seriously competing. Or, maybe he would have gotten the hint and started putting a real NBA roster in place. Based on what we saw, though, maybe trading out Hinkie for Colangelo was the right decision, as it was finally time to move on from rebuilding and begin to actually build something tangible.