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A VICTORY FOR SPORTS INTEGRITY: ‘THE PROCESS’ ENDS TRAGICALLY
Almost 10 years after the 76ers launched a tanking conspiracy, their lose-for-a-purpose scheme officially is an all-time NBA farce — as symbolized by a serial quitter named James Harden
Let this be a lesson to any tankers in our midst. Those who try to lose, while still charging money for the privilege, should be jailed for consumer fraud if they ultimately fail to win. Never has a franchise been so nakedly forthright about sport’s deadliest sin — intentional quitting, season after sickly season, for the expressed purpose of stockpiling top draft picks — while having the gall to call it “The Process.”
Almost 10 years in, what do the Philadelphia 76ers have to show for the original brainfart of a sabermetrics nerd named Sam Hinkie, whose teams were very stinky? Call the Sixers what they are today: The most tragicomic franchise in NBA history, so wrong they couldn’t even lose right. Looking back, it’s hard to believe so many hardcore fans in a demanding town were duped by the self-sabotage scheme, actually wearing t-shirts with cornball slogans such as “Trust The Process” and “Sam Hinkie Died For Our Sins.” Today, Philly is spelled PhILLy, stuck with a chronic joy-killer that can’t advance beyond the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“Well, we’re sick,’’ said Daryl Morey, the so-called savant who inherited a perpetual mess and somehow made it worse. “We're here because we have big aspirations. I know our fans do as well. ... That's why we do this. So it's tough to be here right now. Still emotional.”
Karma, you might deduce. Consider dramas ranging from an overall No. 1 pick with mental health issues, another overall No. 1 pick who literally forgot how to shoot a basketball, a general manager who resigned after he used burner accounts to criticize league adversaries and his own players, and a hulking centerpiece who can’t stay healthy beyond an overactive mouth and aggressive blame finger. There were bad front-office decisions, none worse than sacrificing Jimmy Butler and signing Tobias Harris, mostly because Ben Simmons, whose depression contributed to his refusal to try an easy dunk in a playoff game, sulked when the ball was in Butler’s hands. All of which led billionaire owner Josh Harris, the private equity investor who approved the protracted insanity of The Process, to hire Hinkie’s mentor, Morey, as president of basketball operations in late 2020.
“If you want to hit home runs,” Harris liked to say, “you gotta swing big.”
As seen in his infamous tweet supporting Hong Kong, which cost the league more than $200 million in China-related business, Morey swung and missed and somehow exacerbated the misery. Simmons staged a months-long strike, prompting Morey to execute what he believed was a heist — shipping away the malcontent to Brooklyn for his bushy-faced pet from their Houston days, James Harden. “I was lucky enough to get reunited with my basketball Jesus,’’ Morey said in March.
Comparing Harden to any god or sacred being is laughable now. Has any athlete of his scope, in any sport, ever wasted a career more ingloriously? In times when he has been right, grounded, in shape and not partying with rappers in strip joints, he has been an unstoppable scorer, among the most explosive and innovative of his generation. But the best version of James Harden is buried in the last decade, not to be seen again as he approaches his 33rd birthday with a fraught hamstring condition and dispassionate body language that might be helped if he SHAVED THE DAMNED BEARD ALREADY. In a Game 6 elimination game against the Miami Heat, who are constructed with an authoritarian resolve fit for a voracious badass like Butler, Harden took two shots in the second half and nine the entire game. The prototypical volume shooter had shrunk into … would you believe, Ben Simmons?
Please explain. “When we ran our offense,” Harden said, “the ball just didn’t get back to me.” Committing eight turnovers didn’t help. And to think Harden was looking at a $223-million contract extension over four years if he’d just showed up for the moment.
In the final fatal twist, he represented the perfect serial quitter to crush The Process. First he quit on Houston, where he flamed out repeatedly in the postseason, including a wicked Game 7 loss to Golden State in the 2018 Western Conference finals. Then he forced his way to Brooklyn, where he thought life with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant would lead to a title or two. He grew disenchanted quickly, not realizing Irving’s quirks made any unhinged scenario possible, such as an anti-vaccine strike that ruined the Nets’ season. Next came a midseason deal in which Harden air-lifted himself to Philadelphia … where no-nonsense Doc Rivers was the coach … and where he and massive force Joel Embiid would pair up for inside-outside, pick-and-roll dominance … yep, that would change the Harden narrative.
The honeymoon lasted a week or two, before he returned to his familiar playoff hole and became the latest target of Embiid’s long blame finger. Given new life for a second time, he still couldn’t rekindle his burst and famed stepback three-pointer. “Since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden. But that’s not who he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker,” Embiid said after the season-ending loss, tired of begging him to shoot more. “I thought, at times, he could have been, as all of us could have been, more aggressive.”
With the TV sports market ripe for fresh storytelling meat, The Process is an HBO dramatization waiting for Adam McKay’s embellishments. Talk about cartoon characters — Morey, Hinkie, Harris, Bryan (burner phones) Colangelo, Harden, Embiid, Simmons, Butler. “Tobias Harris over me?!” Butler shouted in Wells Fargo Center as he entered the Heat locker room, where his joyride could lead him to the NBA Finals. This came as Embiid was causing more waves, directing a backhanded blow at management for letting Butler go in 2019. “I won’t sit here and say I didn’t wish he was my teammate. I still don’t know how we let him go,’’ he said. “I wish I could’ve gone to battle with him still, but it is what it is.”
Absurd as it seems, an epilogue is coming in PhILLy. A debacle ready for a jackhammer is returning for another season of woe, with Morey refusing to give up on his “basketball Jesus” or Rivers. Perhaps realizing his max deal isn’t happening elsewhere, Harden is committing for now to at least another season in Philadelphia, where he could play out his contract at $47 million or sign a four-year deal in the $120 million range — oh, the tens of millions this man clanked and yawned away. “I’ll be here," Harden said. “Whatever allows us to continue to grow and get better and do the things necessary to win and compete at the highest level.”
Either way, if he’s making far less than the $223 million he frittered away, there’s a good chance Harden will pout again next season. Morey could cut bait and find the best bailout deal. No, he’s still waiting for his basketball Jesus to show up. Really. "Look. He's an incredibly talented player," Morey said. “Just like Joel, just like Tobias. And I'm excited for Doc and his staff to have a whole offseason to work with the players and come up with the best plan for the roster we'll have. Having it all come together in February makes it very difficult to try and figure out how to ‘unlock' all the different skills of the players and how they can work together. We all know he's a very skilled player, and we'll figure out how to use him.”
Which prompts a loaded question: Is Rivers the coach to unlock Harden? Does he have a clue, much less a key? Every indication so far screams he doesn’t. The fans want Harris to woo the uber-popular Jay Wright, who left Villanova for a respite and left open a future door to the NBA. But why would he want to immerse himself in this sludge? "I just think he's a great coach," Morey said of Rivers. "I love working with him. I feel like I'm learning from him. I think (general manager) Elton (Brand) and I and him make a great team, and we're gonna see where this journey takes us. But we feel very good about where it's gonna take us, and it's gonna be where we have a very good chance to win the title.”
Said the 60-year-old Rivers, who looks exhausted, constipated or both on the Sixers’ sideline: “Winning is hard. You just don't show up and you just say, 'OK, guys. We're moving on (to the Finals).’ It's hard. We're not the only organization. It's hard to move on. We had an opportunity last year, didn't get it done. This year was tough. I mean, obviously, with all the injuries and stuff, so the answers are easy. It's hard. We're right there. We put ourselves in the argument. And that's all you can do. And then you come back and keep working at it until you get over the mountain. Milwaukee, you look at them, it took two or three years to get over the mountain. That's just the way it works. It's not guaranteed to anybody.”
Delusional? Or is it just deception as usual in the aftermath of The Process, the biggest hoops lie ever propagated, as we approach the 10-year anniversary of Sam Hinkie’s arrival? Last we heard from him was a year and a half ago, when he appeared on an ESPN podcast to talk about his new company — “a venture capital firm that allows me to be an investor in early stage companies.” Hinkie said there was “zero” chance he’d ever return to the NBA.
“I’ve turned that chapter for sure. That part of my life,” he said. “I very much like what I'm doing now. I like surrounding myself with people who think in sort of the timeframes I do, which is often longer. That are quite comfortable with long feedback loops. That want to do the kinds of things I do, which is bet on young people and watch them flourish.”
Oh, he bet on young people in the NBA. The project just never flourished, though it did flush.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.