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"The NBA can be a league of desperation, those that are in it and those that can avoid it. So many find themselves caught in the zugzwang, the point in the game where all possible moves make you worse off. Your positioning is now the opposite of that."
- Sam Hinkie, in his resignation letter to Sixers ownership
NEW YORK — Philadelphia 76ers, enter the full reverse zugzwang. This is not an ancient wrestling maneuver but, as Sam Hinkie wrote, a chess scenario in which the basic, unavoidable need to make a move can be the one that ends you shortly afterward.
The Sixers’ next move is years away from an aggressive checkmate, to be sure. But whatever happens next, be it the No. 1 pick or a trade that might preclude it, for the first time in three seasons, they will control their fate. Team ownership crammed into the midtown Manhattan ballroom-turned-ESPN studio full of nerves. It left with palpable relief, a choice between Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, and their children taking selfies at the winning podium.
Brett Brown sat in that seat most of the night, the face of three seasons, 47 victories and 199 freaking losses, and he stood shortly afterward to address a scrambling media contingent concerned heavily with process, jinxes, and a potentially clairvoyant Dikembe Mutombo.
Brown beamed with delight, discussing the team’s chance to dictate the first pick for themselves, their first time in the “are-they-tanking” era. “This gives us the injection we need,” he said. Asked if he thought about the departed Hinkie: “I did, and I do. [Hinkie] deserves to be recognized. He deserves to be recognized.
“I felt we were doing the right things all along the way,” Brown said, standing next to his young son, also named Sam, who sat on the edge of the stage, listening intently and dealing admirably with several voice recorder-bearing hands in his face. The elder Brown was antsy. He’d spent much of the night’s biggest moment peering at the teleprompter from his seat, hoping for a quicker payout. To his chagrin, the lottery went exactly according to its predetermined odds for the first time in NBA history.
“We were never skipping steps,” Brown continued, discussing the tribulations that led to losing, more losing, and now, this. “We put in good days. Our process was questioned…but I felt like with what we were building around us, on and off the court, that we were doing the right thing to give ourselves a chance for genuine longevity. We believed in what we were doing, and in many ways I feel we have been rewarded for the patience and perseverance, especially the city’s patience.”
He referred to the Sixers on multiple occasions as a program, which, well, all things considered, is pretty accurate. Belief in Joel Embiid! Faith in Dario Saric! And now, a very big decision.
That big decision sits atop an even larger decision tree, and now begins the fun part—as fun as trying to reinvent a storied franchise yet again can really get, at least. Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram are now more than just players: they present a philosophical decision defined not just by wingspan and standing reach, but with skill sets that are somewhat inverse. At a glance, Ingram’s floor spacing and perimeter skill set compliments a smattering of Sixers big men rather well, down the line.
Simmons may be the more NBA-ready player, but he’s also sort of analogous to Saric, who’s reportedly planning to come over next season, and though he might be able to nominally play point guard, he can’t guard that position. Investing in Simmons demands a full rejiggering of sorts, which begins with placing shooters around him and has a subtext of figuring out what to do with all the post players. President Bryan Colangelo has been talking all week like a man willing to explore all options, via trade or otherwise. He reiterated today that Philly has no interest in being stuck in the middle of the pack. They have the pick, now they better nail it.
Also on hand, of course was commissioner Adam Silver. Amid standard questions about the lottery process and competitive balance, he had to help the quick-fingered Mutombo save face for a tweet that declared the Sixers, his former team, the winners of the draft...five hours or so too early.
“Clearly it was an accident, and the team with the greatest likelihood of winning the lottery was preparing under the likelihood that they did win,” Silver explained. “As I understand it, they said to Dikembe, we want you to tweet this if we win, and he went ahead and tweeted it. He withdrew it, because he knew it was a mistake.”
As Sixers brass posed for photos and flashed rookie-scale contract-dollar smiles on stage, fans, observers and Mutombo truthers and alike could at least agree on one thing. As Dikembe himself might say, with a thumbs-up in lieu of finger-wag, for the process, for Philadelphia, and at least for now: yes, yes, yes.