Never, if the Sam Hinkie/Ponzi scheme-like/play-it-forward mentality continues indefinitely. The investors (the fans who buy tickets and merchandise) have risked their money and loyalty on a future that may never have a payoff. It is quite possible everybody will look around in a few years, see a team that is no closer to the playoffs than this one and ask: What was that all about and how do I get my money back?
And remember, the promise here is not about playoffs. It is about winning championships, creating a model that will be the envy of every sports franchise in the world.
Right now, we are talking playoffs. Consider that in perhaps the worst sports conference of modern times, the Sixers were exactly 14 games out of the playoffs as yesterday began.
I don't hate the theory of being in position to get a great player or two by accumulating draft picks and salary cap space. I do hate that it is only a theory with no guarantees that the team will ever get the right pick in the right year or that Hinkie will know the right player to pick or that a franchise-changing free agent will ever want to come here.
Agents talk. So do players. Right now, none of them is talking well of Hinkie or the Sixers. Hinkie can say he never uses the word "asset" to describe a player, but he is treating players exactly that way, disposable as old basketballs. If Hinkie actually does start to get really good players, how loyal will they be?
I am a fan of analytics, but everything can't be analyzed. Points per possession mean a lot more than points. Pace determines totals. Some shots are more efficient than others. Some players with big scoring totals may not be all that efficient. All of that should be considered.
Basketball, however, is the ultimate team game. It is not fantasy sports where you just try to assemble players that can put up numbers. Playing together and continuity really matter. There is no analysis needed to understand that.
I have been tweeted, emailed and stopped by so many people during this season asking just this question. My response doesn't always leave the questioners happy because, quite frankly, I just don't know.
Like so many things that happen with this rebuild, knowing when the "now" will come seems to be drifting even further into the future. As with all arguments for or against the Sam Hinkie plan, the key word is "if." So here goes.
If Joel Embiid stays healthy and builds on what I think is a world of potential...
If Nerlens Noel can prove to be a really nice complement to Embiid at both ends of the floor...
If Dario Saric comes over after next year instead of in 2 years with a game and body that is NBA-ready...
If the point guard position is properly filled with either a highly touted rookie who proves the hype was worthy or a good veteran gotten via trade or free agency...
If the head coaching position remains stable, meaning Hinkie keeps Brett Brown on board after his contract runs out at the end of the 2016-17 season...
If the general manager finds a couple of diamonds with some of the later draft picks that he has accumulated...
Then I could see the team making a serious run for a playoff spot in the 2016-17 season.
If Embiid, who has shown to be a bit injury-prone in his short basketball career, doesn't pan out as hoped...
If Noel doesn't fit in with Embiid and gets himself lost on the floor offensively, which leads to a slippage in his defensive game...
If Hinkie keeps shuffling point guards in and out and doesn't find one who can help with the rebuild of this process...
If Hinkie decides that Brown was here only to be a player development guy and goes after someone he believes is more of a tactician...
If the draft picks that are stockpiled for the next couple of years become picks that move even further into the future...
Then I would say this process could be 4 or 5 years down the road for a playoff spot.
Pat Gillick hopes the Phillies will contend again in 2017 or 2018. The other day, Ron Hextall talked about joining the NHL's elite, "2 or 3 years from now." Despite shredding his roster of several name brands last week, Chip Kelly expects to win every season, which included the first two and next season as well.
Only Gillick has used "rebuild." The other two favor words like "revamp" or "restructure," or even "reload."
Now about Sam Hinkie. He does not use "rebuild," either, mostly because there was nothing to rebuild when he got here. The Sixers were like most of the NBA have-nots, hanging onto the guys they had taken high despite the empirical evidence, taking big shots at name-brand free agents who almost always came with a defect or two.
Hinkie uses "process," and he won't give you a timeline because, frankly, he doesn't have one. He's like a savvy gambler who moves to Vegas, confident in his knowledge of the game and its odds, wary of all the unpredictable turns that game can take, always ready to cash in and play another table when his fortunes turn for the worse.
So here's what I say: I think Hinkie and his development coach, Brett Brown, will be successful making Joel Embiid an NBA paint presence, will continue to make strides with Nerlens Noel, and will find at least two players with all of their picks who will be keepers.
I believe the Sixers' return to the playoffs will coincide with the arrival of 2014 first-round pick Dario Saric. Recently named the FIBA Europe Young Player of the Year, the 6-10 power forward, only 20, looks to be every bit the player Hinkie hoped he would be when he drafted him.
I figure Saric arrives in 2016-17, after another season maturing overseas.
And if I'm wrong about any of this, I expect Hinkie will do what that successful gambler does:
Cash in his chips again, and find another table.
The line made famous during the 2014 NBA draft concerning Toronto Raptors first-round pick Bruno Caboclo was "he's 2 years away from being 2 years away."
When trying to predict the next time the 76ers make the playoffs, a similar stance applies.
The reason why no one in the Sixers organization gives any kind of timeline for when the franchise might be ready to return to the postseason is because no ownership group is going to officially tell fans to wait at least 5 years.
Still, if general manager Sam Hinkie sticks to his plan of building almost exclusively through the draft without kick-starting the process by adding some quality and well-paid free agents, Sixer fans are realistically looking at the 2017-18 season before another playoff appearance — and that's assuming everything goes right.
Something already went wrong because Hinkie traded 2013-14 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams for a protected first-round draft pick.
The Sixers roster is still primarily comprised of players who are at best end-of-the-bench players on most NBA teams.
Projecting that players like Robert Covington, Hollis Thompson, Jakarr Sampson, Thomas Robinson, Ish Smith and Henry Sims are legitimate NBA contributors because they are contributing to a Sixers team that is presently 17-53 is a fallacy.
In talking to several NBA scouts, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and Jerami Grant were the only players viewed as solid NBA rotation guys down the road.
The biggest problem is that everything about the Sixers is based on unknown hopes — hope that Embiid, who has missed all season with an injury, is the next great NBA big man; hope that 2014 lottery pick Dario Saric will come over early from Europe when money was the driving force that caused him to sign a 3-year contract in Turkey just before the draft; hope that the 19-year-olds the Sixers will select in the next couple of drafts will develop into legitimate stars.