NEW YORK - This was an hour after the lowest point of the 76ers' season. This was a mostly empty locker room in the Toyota Center in Houston after a 22-point rout by the Rockets, the Sixers' record-tying 26th consecutive loss. This was Thaddeus Young, their longest-tenured player, sitting alone, his knees nearly touching his chin, and he could barely lift his head to look you in the eye, so heavily did all that losing weigh on him.
"Who signs up for this?" he said. "Nobody in the NBA wants this to happen to their team."
No, nobody does - nobody who plays in the NBA, that is. And if general manager Sam Hinkie's strategy to strip the Sixers bare resulted in some tangible benefit Tuesday night in the No. 3 and No. 10 picks in next month's draft, Young's rhetorical question captured perfectly a problem that the franchise still has to solve before it can declare its rebuilding process completed.
At some point, the Sixers have to become an attractive destination for free agents, for the kinds of players who provide the experience, savvy, and credibility that make a team's championship aspirations realistic. For all the justifiable excitement over what Hinkie has done and might yet do, over what this draft might deliver, no valuable veteran players are forming a line outside the Wells Fargo Center and pounding the front doors to be let in, and none will for a long while.
Remember: This is a franchise that has had just two winning seasons over the last 11 years, that has to rely on the kindness of a local medical school because it doesn't have its own practice facility yet, that became a punch line in the eyes of players and pundits over the same lack of competitiveness that Young lamented.
There were always these three parallel tracks to Hinkie's plan, to any rebuilding plan: the draft, trades, free agency. It's just that he's further along on two of them. That's not his fault. It's a function of how the process has to play out and how much time it will take.
Through the Jrue Holiday trade last year and Hinkie's busy deadline day this year, the Sixers have seven picks in this year's draft and have essentially three lottery selections: Nerlens Noel and whomever they take at No. 3 and No. 10. (Of course, that scenario presumes Hinkie won't make a trade to move up or down in the draft and/or to acquire more picks - which, given his track record, is entirely plausible.)
He is hoarding young talent, or at least trying to, and now that they know they have two first-round picks, the Sixers can open themselves up to more prospects. They can interview and work out more players, introduce them to the people whom Hinkie regards as the organization's most important assets at the moment: head coach Brett Brown and his assistants. They can cultivate some encouraging buzz about the franchise among the NBA's next generation of stars.
"I suspect from our discussions thus far that most of the top players in this draft find Philadelphia a really attractive place because they want to be in a place where they'll have opportunity," Hinkie said. "They want to play in a big market, and they recognize what a platform it is to play in Philadelphia. They want to get better, and they realize that Philadelphia is a place with our coaching staff and with our roster, you can come and play and get better."
That thought is fine as far as it goes, because these players have no choice in the matter. They're new to the league and don't know any better yet. They'll play for whoever selects them, and for Sixers fans, it's oh-so tantalizing to think of Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid snapping that red-and-blue cap down on his head and smiling that million-dollar smile on draft night and beginning his maturation into a superstar here.
But the Sixers truly will have arrived only when those players who have been around the NBA for a while recognize that maturation in Noel, Michael Carter-Williams, and the rest of the roster, when they see a solid infrastructure within the organization, when they see proof of progress. Then, they'll want to come along for the ride.
That night in Houston, Young looked and sounded hopeless, helpless, and ready to get off the train. He's been a Sixer for seven seasons, and he has one more year left on his contract with a player option for 2015-16, and it's hard both to imagine him riding out another few years of losing basketball and to blame him for wanting a fresh start with a new team. Every player lives in the moment. Every player wants to win now. No one would sign up for what Young went through during this Sixers season, and Sam Hinkie still has a long way to go to make sure that no one will have to again.