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The 76ers Would Be The Worst Expansion Team In Modern NBA History

Now that Jerry Colangelo is Skyping in to the Wells Fargo Center for what The New York Times calls a “father figure” role in the 76ers front office — which, suuure — it seems like an opportune time to take inventory of just how big a mess Sam Hinkie and his Process have made.

We know, we know: The Sixers want to be this bad; these are planned grotesqueries; the trades have been fine and the picks are still coming and never you mind the reported dozen-odd team owners banging down Adam Silver’s door demanding a good waterboarding for ol’ Sam. Silver, of course, denies intervening (which you can hear for yourself on a special episode of Hot Takedown), and that’s practically a co-sign from the man in charge, isn’t it now? A full-on prosecution of Hinkie’s process is justified and overdue. For now, however, we’ll confine ourselves to discussing the shape of Philadelphia’s evolution in the broadest possible sense, comparing its progress during Hinkie’s reign with that of other teams also undergoing such radical, um, rebirths.

We looked at this a few ways. First, we used our Elo ratings to find all GMs who took over a below-average team that got worse in the GM’s first year in control — specifically, overseeing an Elo decline of at least 50 points,1 enough of a drop to pick up teams that needed more than one offseason’s worth of work. We then looked for the Elo gains or losses each made between the start of his second season and the 27-game mark of his third — i.e., where Hinkie is with the Sixers right now.

We’re trying to isolate full-on rebuilding jobs: teams that were already bad and were still in demolition mode during Year One but were presumably trying (or at least should have been trying) to lay down some semblance of a foundation after that. We can then judge Philadelphia’s progress against this historical standard. Turns out, Hinkie has ruled over the biggest Elo decline of any GM under those circumstances, ever:

GMs inheriting rebuilding teams
ELO CHANGE
EXECUTIVE 1ST YEAR TEAM INITIAL ELO YEAR 1 YEAR 2 TO YEAR 3
Jerry Colangelo 1969 Phoenix 1300 -133 243
Rod Thorn 2001 New Jersey 1446 -109 234
Glen Grunwald 1998 Toronto 1445 -202 185
Rich Cho 2012 Charlotte 1422 -271 168
Michael Jordan 2001 Washington 1436 -150 146
David Kahn 2010 Minnesota 1371 -129 137
Sam Presti 2008 Seattle 1440 -137 119
Ernie Grunfeld 2004 Washington 1444 -119 114
John Paxson 2004 Chicago 1420 -109 112
Walter Brown 1947 Boston 1300 -82 100
Billy King 2011 New Jersey 1352 -51 97
Chris Wallace 2008 Memphis 1416 -92 96
Carl Bennett 1949 Fort Wayne 1495 -113 88
Rob Hennigan 2013 Orlando 1478 -229 80
Edwin Coil 1966 Detroit 1428 -110 75
Kiki Vandeweghe 2002 Denver 1469 -90 65
Nick Mileti 1971 Cleveland 1300 -103 54
Pat Williams 1990 Orlando 1300 -92 52
Elgin Baylor 1987 L.A. Clippers 1424 -217 49
Stu Jackson 1996 Vancouver 1300 -75 40
Garry St. Jean 1998 Golden State 1406 -110 38
Danny Ainge 2004 Boston 1481 -68 34
Lewis Schaffel 1989 Miami 1300 -72 6
Bernie Bickerstaff 1991 Denver 1479 -233 5
Pepper Wilson 1959 Cincinnati 1481 -174 -16
Jim Paxson 2000 Cleveland 1468 -57 -30
John Nash 1991 Washington 1416 -63 -31
Eddie Donovan 1971 Buffalo 1300 -89 -35
Mike Dunleavy 1993 Milwaukee 1412 -54 -37
Harry Weltman 1988 New Jersey 1412 -80 -49
Jack McCloskey 1993 Minnesota 1325 -60 -59
Sam Hinkie 2014 Philadelphia 1460 -206 -84

Elo change for season three is through the first 27 games

Source: Basketball-REFERENCE.com

The average GM in that situation saw a 62-point Elo improvement from the beginning of Year Two through 27 games of his third season, and 24 of 32 GMs oversaw some kind of improvement. Hinkie, by contrast, saw a loss of 84 Elo points over the same span — by far the steepest drop on a list littered with some of the most glaring managerial failures in league history. Adding insult to embarrassment: yes, that’s Colangelo up at the top, albeit navigating a very different NBA in 1969.

You’ll notice that a few of the GMs on the above list took the reins of an expansion club. Certainly, the 2013-14 76ers featured a roster that could pass for a brand-new NBA franchise. This raises the question: How might the Sixers fare if we arbitrarily (but, let’s be honest, justifiably) assigned them an expansion-level Elo of 1300 before the 2013-14 season and compared their progress to those of the NBA’s other modern expansion teams, going back to the 1976 ABA-NBA merger?

What if the Sixers were an expansion team?
ELO CHANGE FROM 1300 THROUGH SEASON
EXPANSION TEAM 1ST YEAR ONE TWO THREE (1ST 27G)
Mavericks 1981 -31 +78 +134
Bobcats 2005 -5 +80 +65
Hornets 1989 -24 +5 +41
Grizzlies 1996 -75 -62 +35
Magic 1990 -92 +137 +34
Timberwolves 1990 +41 +108 +33
Raptors 1996 -37 +125 +25
Heat 1989 -72 -55 +3
Sixers 2014 -137 -68 -88

Source: basketball-reference.com

Again, the Sixers are way behind schedule. Not only would their Elo change since “expansion” rank last among modern expansion franchises, they’re also the only team to be in worse shape after 27 games of Year Three than they were when the franchise “began.” Being a team with no past at all is better than being these Sixers.

Now, the standard procession of Hinkie Stan counter-arguments. Argument the first: Expansion teams are generally trying to make incremental progress in their first few seasons, which is not necessarily what Hinkie’s Sixers are pursuing. Argument the second: The draft is an imperfect science with bad luck lurking behind every lottery pick, and the lottery itself is based on probabilities as well. When your entire team-building concept relies heavily on risk tolerance, it’s no surprise that busts are likely when the boom doesn’t come. Argument the third: The Only Goal Is Winning A Championship (And Building A Dynasty), and the Sixers remain well-positioned to draft or develop a superstar.

We’ll leave those arguments to be settled another day. What this research suggests is that the Sixers have made significantly less progress than their historical analogs (to the extent those exist), and NBA fans looking to watch a decent game of basketball in Philadelphia these last three years would have been better served if the league had dissolved the 76ers and held tryouts.



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Footnotes

  1. The equivalent of a 2-point drop in point spread each game.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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