It would seem an impossible feat, but the 76ers - because of Jahlil Okafor's troubles and Sam Hinkie's silence - have managed in recent days to reduce what was once their primary cause of controversy to a secondary concern.
Okafor, the team's best player, has emerged as a gun-ducking, fist-throwing, drag-racing problem. Hinkie, the team's president and general manager and the man who decided to draft Okafor, has applied his customary reticence to a situation that he should have addressed directly and publicly. That fire is so hot at the moment that there's an oh-by-the-way feeling about the issue that used to stoke more debate about the Sixers than any other.
Even if Okafor were staying in every night, playing backgammon with his dad, and even if Hinkie were talking on the record daily to every reporter, blogger, talk-show host, and Twitter user in the Philadelphia region, the Sixers would still be 1-19. They'd still be in the third rebuilding year of their "process." There would still be a sense - right or wrong, fair or unfair - that they are further from respectability than they were when Hinkie and owner Josh Harris decided they had to burn this village in order to save it.
In that context, the Okafor fiasco and the franchise's reaction to it intensify the skepticism and anger that people have toward the Sixers' plan, and they change the dynamic of the question that has always cut to the core of this entire experiment:
How good do the Sixers eventually have to be, and how long do they have to be that good, to justify how bad they have been and will yet be?
The aim of this plan, as Hinkie has articulated it, always has been to transform the Sixers into an elite NBA franchise, on par with the Boston Celtics of the 1960s, the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, or the San Antonio Spurs of the last 18 years. No more middling seasons. No more stuck in the same muck that the Sixers had been trapped in since 2003, when they had Allen Iverson and Keith Van Horn and won 48 games and had something they haven't had since: a bona fide shot at reaching the NBA Finals. Hinkie dared for something different: Start fresh. Collect draft picks and use them to acquire young players who might become superstars: Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Okafor, et al. If it worked, the franchise would rule the league for a long time.
This goal was lofty, needless to say, and it always had a sliding-scale quality to it. The Sixers went 19-63 in 2013-14, the first season of the plan, and 18-64 last season. This season, they might very well post the worst record in NBA history, worse than their 1972-73 team, which set the league standard for awfulness by going 9-73. And it's safe to assume that - even if they do get those four first-round picks in next year's draft that Hinkie has put them in position to acquire, and even if they select a terrific player with each pick - they won't make the playoffs in 2016-17, either.
So then, what amount of on-court success balances out these years of struggle and the heightened negativity that arises whenever something like the Okafor incident takes place? How many games and championships do the Sixers have to win to make all this embarrassment worthwhile?
It's easy for, say, the Spurs to justify their decision to bottom out in 1996-97, the season they lost David Robinson to injury and won just 20 games. They lucked into the top pick in 1997, drafted Tim Duncan, and have since been the NBA's model franchise. But the Sixers' calculus is more complex because they're not tanking for one season; they're tanking for an era. You don't put this sort of product on the court for three years just for the sake of one berth in the NBA Finals.
Consider the aftermath of that '72-73 team. Four years later, the Sixers reached the NBA Finals - the first of a 10-season stretch in which they won at least 50 games nine times, appeared in four Finals, and won the 1983 championship. Would a decade similar to that one be enough to offset what's happening now? I'd argue the Sixers have to surpass what they accomplished then to vindicate themselves.
"They're gambling that somewhere all of this is going to mesh together and they're going to have a 10-year run of dominance," Pat Williams, who was the Sixers' GM from 1974 to 1986, said Thursday in a telephone interview. "However, this strategy has enormous risk to it. Will they ever have something to show for it? Will Okafor and Noel ever be able to play together? Do the pieces fit when you get them? Are they healthy pieces? Can they handle losing?
"They've got to stay the course: draft high, do lots of teaching, wait for these youngsters to mature. It takes some years to see the vision and stick with it, and it stretches the patience of any good sports fan. You can't survive without hope. That's what Sixers fans are searching for here."
By that standard, it's a wonder they've made it this long.