The Houston Astros won the 2017 World Series on Wednesday night, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 at Dodger Stadium to earn the first MLB world championship in their franchise’s history. The towering achievement represented the apex of a remarkable turnaround for the Astros, who won fewer than 60 games in three straight seasons before making a steady climb up the standings over the past four years, fueled largely by the play of a core group of talented young players Houston landed with the high draft picks they received after the years in which they’d bombed out.
George Springer, the 11th overall pick in 2011, was the World Series’ Most Valuable Player. Carlos Correa, the first pick in 2012, drove in five runs in the Astros’ two extra-innings wins in a nip-and-tuck series. Alex Bregman, the second overall selection in 2015, delivered the walk-off base hit that won Game 5, and didn’t wait too long after completing the seven-game victory to tell Astros fans to get ready for more World Series hardware.
“[The Astros] were one of the original tankers, losing so they can win, which is easier said than done, even though this now makes consecutive champions who have embraced the strategy,” our own Jeff Passan wrote early Thursday morning. “[…] Win for the process, because the process won for them.”
If all of that sounds awfully familiar to you — and especially that last part — well, you’re not alone.
I love it when a plan comes together.https://t.co/JVEq8ScDGC
— Sam Hinkie (@samhinkie) November 2, 2017
That right there is Sam Hinkie — former general manager and president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers — tipping his cap to the Astros with a nod to John “Hannibal” Smith … and, perhaps, a little wink thrown in for good measure.
After seven years working his way up to Daryl Morey’s right-hand man with the Houston Rockets, Hinkie took over a middling Philadelphia club in the spring of 2013 and set about answering a difficult question: how do we turn the 76ers into legitimate annual championship contenders? The most direct route: securing bona fide superstar talent to fuel lead a rise up the standings. The highest-likelihood route of getting there: landing very high picks in the annual NBA draft. The best way of doing that, given the NBA’s system for determining draft order: lose as many games as possible to give yourself the largest amount of combinations of ping-pong balls possible to have your number come up first during the league’s draft lottery.
That rebuilding plan became known as “The Process,” a phrase that came to define an overarching approach to roster-building aimed at soaring to the top of the league by first sinking to its dankest depths. The approach produced a record of 47-195 during Hinkie’s tenure, including an NBA-record-tying 26 consecutive losses and an NBA-record-tying 18 consecutive losses to open a season, before Hinkie and the Sixers parted ways under a bit of a cloud in the spring of 2016.
It also produced Joel Embiid, whom Hinkie chose with 2014’s No. 3 pick despite the Cameroonian center coming off back and foot fractures. And Croatian forward Dario Saric, whom Hinkie landed later in the 2014 lottery (along with a 2017 first-rounder) in exchange for the rights to Elfrid Payton. And Robert Covington, whom Hinkie plucked out of the D-League in 2014 with a low-cost/low-risk deal, and who has developed into one of the league’s best 3-and-D types.
And Ben Simmons, whom Hinkie’s successor, Bryan Colangelo, took with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft after taking the reins from Hinkie mid-stream. (That the Sixers only won the lottery after Hinkie left town still feels like the basketball gods having a little fun.) And, indirectly, Markelle Fultz, whom Colangelo chose first overall this past June after trading 2017’s No. 3 pick and a future first-round pick to the Boston Celtics for the draft’s top spot — a move he was able to make thanks to Hinkie’s 2015 deal that netted Philly the right to swap picks with the Sacramento Kings this past year, a trade that resulted in a certain very vocal segment of Sixers fans (shepherded by the delightful maniacs behind the The Rights to Ricky Sanchez Podcast) raising a Hinkie banner into the rafters of a sports bar at their annual lottery watch party.
The path was rocky. The losses left a lot of fans and NBA observers raw. Nerlens Noel, sort of the patient zero of “The Process,” now plies his trade for the Dallas Mavericks. Hinkie’s decision to pick Jahlil Okafor third overall in 2015, it is fair to say, has not panned out. And, of course, for one reason or another, Hinkie didn’t get to finish his rebuilding project.
— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) November 2, 2017
But nearly a half-decade after Hinkie’s arrival, what once looked like an outpost devoid of hope for a championship future now looks like one of the NBA’s most talent-rich destinations. Embiid and Simmons are the truth. Fultz, should his shoulder saga get resolved reasonably after some rest, could be, too. Hinkie-era additions Saric, Covington, T.J. McConnell and Richaun Holmes are players; athletic young wings Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Furkan Korkmaz might be, too.
Given good health, continued development and prudent management, the future looks incredibly bright. And it all — or most of it, anyway — is growing from the seeds Hinkie planted.
“We are going to keep on growing together,” Embiid said on Wednesday after the Sixers beat the Atlanta Hawks — another team that looks to be following Hinkie’s roadmap — to improve to 4-4, Philly’s first stay at .500 in nearly four years. “And hopefully, in the future, we can build a dynasty.”
The Sixers still seem a long way away from thinking seriously about that. Then again, in 2014, so did the Astros, and look how that turned out. If Philadelphia winds up following suit, the bet here is that, wherever Hinkie is when the buzzer sounds, he’ll be seconds away from lighting up one of Hannibal’s cigars in celebration.
More NBA coverage:
– – – – – – –