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How The Process and the Nets-Celtics Trade Changed the NBA

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Sam Hinkie was brought in to GM the Philadelphia 76ers in May 2013. Billy King traded for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett one month later. The NBA has never been the same.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The start to the summer of 2013 was one of the most important stretches in NBA history… but not for the reasons one might think. LeBron and the Big 3 Heat won their second championship in a classic series against the vaunted San Antonio Spurs, featuring a legendary shot by the great Ray Allen. Yet that might have been the third most influential event in that May-June whirlwind. May saw the Philadelphia 76ers quietly promote Sam Hinkie to general manager and president, removing franchise staples Tony DiLeo and Rod Thorn respectively. Not quite two months later, on June 28, the day of the draft, Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge shipped off franchise cornerstones Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets for a massive haul of future draft picks. Those two decisions, more than any others in recent memory, have shaped the way fans and the media (and probably organizations) view team decision-making and strategy. The first decision engendered the ascension of one of the most fiercely debated leaders in sports history, while the second was perhaps the most one-sided trade of all time. Both have had monumental consequences.

Before that fateful summer, there was a tendency in the NBA to focus on short-term results. Did your team make it to the playoffs this season? How far did they advance if they did reach the postseason? This mentality is one that Sam Hinkie was determined to change during his reign in Philadelphia as the GM of the 76ers, through “The Process” that he installed in the organization. While The Process was a specific strategy designed for the 76ers to bottom out and stock up on lottery picks, it was also a rebellion against the short-sighted methods of looking at success in the NBA. The 76ers had made the playoffs for years, but had done so as a lower seed, and were never considered even a semi-contender in the weak Eastern Conference. Lacking true stars, they were stuck in a rut, and before Hinkie, seemed perfectly content with their lot in the NBA. Hinkie was determined to get them out of that “cycle of mediocrity”, and The Process was his strategy for accomplishing that.

Billy King, the GM of the Nets, worked in the exact opposite direction. The Nets had made the playoffs in the 2012-2013 season for the first time in six seasons (after which Jason Kidd was traded), and King knew he needed to build on that success to maintain the Nets’ new relevance in Brooklyn. Deron Williams, the Nets’ best player, was in his theoretical prime, and primary sidekick Joe Johnson was not yet far removed from his. When King got wind that Ainge was willing to start the rebuild in Boston (the Celtics had been unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs in the first round the year prior), he leaped. And on draft day, two future first-ballot Hall of Famers moved to Brooklyn (along with Jason Terry), in exchange for a bundle of future draft picks and some scraps. The immediate reaction, frankly, was that the Nets would be favorites to challenge the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference, with some people even positing them as the team to beat. Hindsight is 20/20, after all.

As always, context is incredibly important when analyzing decision-making. Moves can be bad or puzzling in a vacuum, but make sense when considered in context. The reverse can be true as well. And in context, both Sam Hinkie’s Process and Billy King’s trade are logical moves, even retrospectively. Hinkie needed to breathe some life into a franchise that had grown stale, and King desired to launch the Nets into real contention for a ring so that they could take hold in a new city. Tearing down the team and rebuilding it around talented youth gave hope to a Philly fanbase that longed for change and direction. Adding Pierce and Garnett to Johnson and Williams created a starting five as famous as any in the NBA, and promised the Nets a return to former glory.

Brooklyn Nets v Miami Heat - Game Five Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The aftermath of these decisions, however, has played out much differently. One of these stories, that of Sam Hinkie’s Process, is still largely open-ended. While Hinkie was effectively forced out of Philly well over a year ago, the very nature of his strategy meant that it would take many years to determine whether it was truly successful or not. Many of the core pieces on the 76ers are Hinkie products: Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, and Robert Covington. All are young and have much room to grow—what they and their fellow prospects become will go a long way towards determining the success of the Process or not. But in a funny way, that valuation of results instead of the path to get there goes against the very name of The Process. After all, the real reason Hinkie was forced out was because the 76ers hadn’t improved in any meaningful way after several years in the proverbial desert. He could point to all the high draft picks, and the talented players that had been selected with them, but none of that had turned to wins.

When Embiid played this past season, he showed that he could be a superstar level player, the exact franchise cornerstone that Hinkie knew was needed to restart a team. While Process “truthers” felt justified after watching Embiid (and Saric to a lesser extent) soar, the book is still out on this Philly team. Filled to the brim with talent and possessing the third pick in the 2017 draft, the 76ers could well be a force to be reckoned with very shortly. They also might never become anything meaningful-- doomed by injuries, chemistry issues, or prospects just not panning out. The Process, in essence, is incomplete.

The story of the Nets-Celtics trade, at least from the Nets end, is complete. That first season after the trade, the Nets made a “run” to the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, but were then demolished by the Heat. Paul Pierce departed for the rising Washington Wizards that summer, and Terry went to Houston, both playing key roles for teams that went further in the playoffs than the Nets did in the 2014-2015 season. Garnett was traded to Minnesota midway through the year, and the Nets struggled to reach the playoffs, barely scraping through as one of the weakest playoff teams ever (38-44 record). In the two years since, they’ve been the worst team in basketball, putting together a combined record of 41-123. This, of course, means that the picks Brooklyn traded away have been good ones, including the number one overall pick in this stacked 2017 class (with yet another probable high pick to come in 2018). Ainge, the architect of the trade, looks like an absolute genius, while the name of Billy King is akin to a curse in Brooklyn.

Of the players in that fateful trade, the only one the Nets received a return for was Garnett, who was exchanged for Thad Young. Young was in turn shipped to Indiana for the rights to Caris LeVert, a solid prospect who is perhaps the most promising of the Nets’ young players. No matter: the trade was an unmitigated disaster. The Nets’ TV ratings and attendance have plummeted since that 2014 season, while the Knicks’ hold on the New York market remains strong. Thus, the only real returns that the Nets received were one decent playoff run and LeVert. Considering all that Boston has been able to acquire so far, the trade is considered by most pundits to be one of the most lopsided deals in sports history, severely setting back the Nets while thrusting the Celtics into a bright future.

Billy King made a gamble, and lost. The players he traded for weren’t good enough to accomplish what he wanted, and the price he paid was too great. The consequences are that the Nets’ asset cupboard is bare, and will be for another two years. Other NBA managers have taken note of this cautionary tale: not one has mortgaged their team’s future for a short-term chance at a ring. This includes Ainge’s Celtics, who might have been able to acquire a superstar such as Paul George or Jimmy Butler at the 2017 trade deadline, but backed away due to fears of paying too high a cost for not enough reward. Fans, also, have grown wiser. Whereas in years past many might have wanted their teams to make a big move at the deadline and cash in their chips, most now preach patience. If anything, fans currently skew more towards the Hinkie method.

Nowadays, if a team isn’t contending for a championship or already in the gutter, there will be a segment of the fanbase (a vocal one, at that) advocating to “tear it down”. Nobody wants to be on the “treadmill of mediocrity” that sees a team stuck in neutral. Hinkie’s Process has emboldened these fans. It also influenced front offices around the league into leading more active “tanks” for high lottery picks—both the Lakers and Suns benched their veteran players after the All Star Break in order to lessen their win count. Although The Process has theoretically accomplished what it set out to do, the 76ers team that it built has a long way to go to become the title contender that fans desperately dreamed of in the early 2010’s. Its success, while important, is not nearly as significant as the legacy of long-term thinking that it imbued amongst NBA fans and organizations alike.