The Los Angeles Clippers team that outlasted the 76ers, 136-130, on Sunday afternoon as the Sixers began a four-game western road trip, are, like their opponents, also a franchise pursuing a championship that now seems tantalizingly within its reach.
Sunday’s game was an unfair measure of the wildly divergent processes the teams have taken toward that goal. The Sixers are without the two prizes from their rebuilding, with Ben Simmons sidelined by a back condition and Joel Embiid out with a shoulder injury.
Regardless of those significant absences, a loss on the road to a good team is nothing out of the ordinary for the Sixers, who began the trip 1-14 on the road against teams with winning records. Suffice it to say that record doesn’t inspire confidence that the team, even with all its firepower returned, is destined for anything remarkable in the postseason.
The Clippers, by contrast, are a tougher out on the road, even against decent opposition, and their home record of 25-6 is almost as showy as the 28-2 mark of the 76ers. They might not do much in the playoffs, either, and could drift as low as the third seed in the Western Conference, but health aside, the Clippers seem more mature and more ready for the challenge.
The difference between the teams might simply be the result of how the two teams have approached constructing a contender. The Sixers set their course under Sam Hinkie, employing the drift-then-draft strategy of tanking to acquire lottery picks.
Hinkie warned that the method is an imperfect science and that for every Embiid there would be a Jahlil Okafor along the way. He was right, and as the three seasons under his control yielded a 47-199 record, they also provided the two superstars still on the roster.
How he would have spun forward is unknown. Owner Josh Harris lost his limited nerve and folded to the wishes of the NBA establishment by bringing in as many Colangelos as he could find to quicken the general manager’s deliberate pace. Hinkie quit, and while the team improved because of the assets he gathered, it would be wrong to say the Sixers have had a cohesive, consistent vision since.
The Clippers, by comparison, never tanked. They were bad enough to get Blake Griffin in the 2009 draft as the No. 1 overall pick, but as they built from that, they built with teams that had at least an outside chance. This will be the ninth straight winning season for the Clips, and they have been in the postseason seven of the last eight years.
In a real way, however, they were still stuck on the same gerbil wheel that the Sixers spun before Hinkie came along. In a much more competitive Western Conference, the Clippers didn’t advance past the conference semifinals in that span, and were bounced in the opening rounds in their three most recent tries.
If Hinkie, or someone of a similar bent, had the reins and looked at those results, the Clippers might have been stripped down and angled toward future lottery picks, with a long view of the mission.
That is the opposite of the tack taken by Lawrence Frank, the president of basketball operations, and Michael Winger, the general manager; in conjunction with head coach Doc Rivers, and senior consultant Jerry West. The Clips opted to sell the future for the present and take their chances.
In the offseason, the Clippers pulled off an expensive trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder for Paul George that cost five first-round draft picks (four unprotected) and two first-round pick swaps. That acquisition convinced free agent Kawhi Leonard to sign with the Clippers, and, here they are, with the third-best chance to win the title, according to current Las Vegas odds. (The Sixers are tied for the eighth-best odds.)
Looking ahead, in the next seven drafts, four of the Clippers’ first-round picks are promised elsewhere and the other three are subject to swaps. Of course, if the team can remain a contender for that period of time, the swaps probably won’t happen, and the picks themselves probably won’t be that high. It is a tightrope, but they are walking it well at the moment. Aside from Terance Mann, a rookie who plays only rarely, there are no players on the roster drafted by the Clippers.
Building through the lottery brought Embiid and Simmons to the Sixers as homegrown talent, but also created a base that often seems immature, and unaware of the dedication necessary to win a championship. The Clippers preferred to identify the best grown-ups and then get them. Maybe it won’t be the case when the team ages and all those draft picks are missing — six players with at least seven seasons of NBA experience are in the regular rotation — but the strategy looks pretty good right now.
It is two ways of cutting the apple, and the Sixers did their own version of the latter last season when they swung big to land Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. They were still building around the “Process” base, however, and what might have been came apart because Embiid wasn’t healthy and Simmons wasn’t compatible with Butler. Maybe that’s the difference between being lucky and unlucky. Maybe it is the difference between good management and bad.
At the moment, the Clippers are in front, and they have the lead despite not subjecting their customers to several seasons of purposeful losing. Sharing a city and an arena with the Lakers might have made that unpalatable, but it didn’t taste much better in Philly.