The most toxic commodity in Philadelphia sports is unfulfilled hope. The 76ers of this era have delivered little more than that. It’s no stretch to say that the collective reaction around here to the Sixers’ 99-90 loss Thursday night and their six-game, second-round flameout to the Heat goes beyond mere disappointment. There’s anger in the air: anger at James Harden, anger at Doc Rivers, anger at Daryl Morey, anger that the promise of The Process remains unmet.
Some of that anger is fresh, a byproduct of Rivers’ arrogance and revisionist history, Harden’s latest moment of postseason shrinkage, and Jimmy Butler’s I-told-you-so taunts at the team that traded him away. Some of it has been building like a river dammed for years, ever since Sam Hinkie told everyone that the Sixers would sacrifice several seasons for the sake of getting higher draft picks, clearing their salary-cap decks, and starting with a clean slate. The view is simple and satisfying: The Sixers are losing now because they aren’t tough enough and lack a winning culture, and those losses are forever linked to, and are karmic justice for, the franchise’s decision to tank in 2013, 2014, and 2015.
But some of the anger is also born of a dynamic that predates Rivers, Harden, and even Hinkie: For the better part of three decades, from the end of Game 4 of the 1983 NBA Finals to the moment Hinkie was hired in 2013, the Sixers were generally hopeless. I don’t mean that they were an incompetent franchise over that entire period, though at times they were. I mean that they rarely inspired any realistic optimism that they could or would win a championship. They won the Atlantic Division twice. They advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1985 and to the NBA Finals in 2001. That’s it. That isn’t much. They spent those 30 years in one of three states: Very Good, Mediocre, or God Awful.
More to the point, no one expected the Sixers to be anything but Very Good, Mediocre, or God Awful during that period. It’s not just that there was no hope. It was that there was no reason for hope. Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, and Allen Iverson were marvelous players, Hall of Famers, entertaining every night they were on the court. But how frequently were any of their teams favored to win a championship or presumed to be capable of competing for one?
Even the Sixers’ run to the ‘01 Finals had an underdog, us-against-the-world vibe, and it ended with a one-sided loss to a superior team. There’s a reason everyone around here still clings to the Game 1 victory over the Lakers, to the sight of Iverson draining that baseline J and stepping over Tyronn Lue. It remains the franchise’s greatest moment since the ‘83 title. Nothing else comes close, and the fact that it came during a series in which the Sixers were wiped out in five games by a dynastic opponent tells you all you need to know about the dearth of such moments.
What the Sixers were, for most of that time, was passable. They didn’t often take big chances. They tried hard. They played to win, and if they happened to luck into a potential superstar at the NBA lottery, terrific. Otherwise, they ended up where they ended up in the draft, picked the player they were supposed to pick, and remained, in the big picture of the NBA, irrelevant.
Andre Iguodala hit a buzzer-beater in a playoff game against the Magic one year. The Sixers happened to play the Derrick Rose-less Bulls in the first round another. And on it went. They finished with a winning record just twice in a 10-year stretch. It’s easy, even natural, not to invest too much in a passable sports franchise. There’s so little to lose when your expectations are so meager, when the best a team can do is pleasantly surprise you or — once in a great while, like the Eagles with Nick Foles — pleasure-shock you to your core.
Then Hinkie came along, and with him came Joel Embiid and a stockpile of assets that offered a possible end to the mediocre and a beginning of the exceptional, and in a few years the Sixers went from a team that everyone pretty much knew couldn’t and wouldn’t win a title to one that might or even should win a title.
That might changed everything. It made the subsequent mistakes and the downright dumb decisions that the franchise’s power people made all the harder to tolerate, because there was more at stake. They were letting a nepotism product run the show. They were missing on lottery picks and blockbuster trades and clogging their salary cap with ridiculous contracts. They were rolling with Ben Simmons instead of Butler. They were wasting Embiid’s prime. And still, they might.
Yes, there were those — especially those whose memories of the team centered on the salad days of Wilt Chamberlain and Erving — who found Hinkie’s rebuilding plan dishonorable and distasteful. But I suspect a lot of people recoiled at The Process as a defense mechanism against its inherent risk. If I don’t buy into this plan, it won’t bother me as much if it doesn’t work.
The natural position for a Philly sports fan isn’t a jubilant cheer. It isn’t when you stand up and scream and raise your arms and give yourself over to the dreams of what might be, because when you do, you expose your soft targets. You leave yourself open and vulnerable to pain. No, the natural position for a Philly sports fan is a protective crouch. That way, the hope can’t hurt you.
These Sixers of recent years gave everyone here hope, false though it so far has been, and that false hope has given way to the anger you see in the wake of Thursday night. It’s a rough time, to be sure, but that anger is preferable to the indifference that came before it, and the worst outcome of the Sixers’ failures would be a reluctance on their part to take such risks again. Unless, of course, you yearn for the days when they went 41-41 and you didn’t have to feel a thing.