That’s how long it took the Houston Rockets to get out of the dreaded NBA middle – no Top 5 lottery pick, not a legitimate Title contender – and vault into the NBA Finals discussion. Two of the architects of that teardown job, which was worthy of being featured on HGTV, met Wednesday night in Philadelphia. Daryl Morey, current GM of the Houston Rockets, faced his protege, Sam Hinkie, who is the new GM of the 76ers.
Two analytic-driven minds, one rebuilding project complete, another nearly down to the studs, almost gutted. On this night, the team pegged in the preseason as having the potential to threaten the worst record in NBA history forged a stirring 4th quarter rally and prevailed in overtime against one of the best in the West, 123-117.
Down 10 in the 4th quarter, who did the young 76ers turn to? D-League alum James Anderson, who scored a career-high 36 points (ironic twist: He played in Houston last season), and Tony Wroten (18 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds), who was acquired for a 2nd round pick in August.
Through two weeks of the season, this much is clear: the 76ers are not tanking, even though opponents are viewing Philadelphia as a night off. Morey never tanked in Houston and Hinkie already has assembled a formidable enough roster to remove the T word from the mouths of NBA pundits. The goal, it seems, is the same as it was in Houston: Use advanced metrics to find undervalued assets, stock up on draft picks, and wheel and deal until you can land yourself a superstar or two.
Want to know what the middle sounds like?
Kevin McHale knows all about the middle. For seven of his seasons in Minnesota, the Timberwolves lost in the first round of the playoffs with Kevin Garnett; in 2004 Minnesota “maxed out” and reached to conference finals, losing to the Lakers. His first year in Houston? The middle. Now, with two of the NBA’s Top 15 players, McHale’s got a title contender. I asked him about loitering in the worst place in the NBA Wednesday night.
“That’s not something I want to talk about,” he said with a laugh and closed his eyes, refusing to be transported to no man’s land. “Those days are behind me.”
Want to know what the middle looks like?
After the Rockets were bounced in the second round of the 2009 playoffs in seven games by the eventual champion Lakers, Morey’s team had “maxed out.” Yao Ming’s health was an issue. Ditto Tracy McGrady. Perhaps more importantly, the Celtics won a title thanks to savvy trades for veterans (Kevin Garnett & Ray Allen). The Lakers went on to win in 2009 in large part due to the slick trade for Pau Gasol.
And that’s when the Rockets became a revolving door of talent while identifying superstar targets: First Dwight Howard (they swung and missed initially, and he ended up with the Lakers), then James Harden, a deal that currently looks like a heist. The process was a lengthy one, and over the course of those three years, fans began to have their reservations: What is taking so damn long they wondered. Houston’s patience paid off in back-to-back summers with Harden and Howard. Will Philadelphia fans have the patience for Hinkie to do the same?
Tanking is on the tongues of everyone in basketball, and not just in the NBA. Here’s Coach K this week after his Blue Devils – led by star freshman Jabari Parker – fell to Kansas and its fabulous freshman, Andrew Wiggins:
“As an American I wouldn’t like to think that an American team would [ever] want to lose or create situations where you would want to lose,” he said. “I can’t even fathom. I can’t go there. I can’t believe that that would happen. Maybe I’m naive and I’m going to go ready a fairytale after this.”
The last tank job that truly worked? The Golden State Warriors two years ago, when they had to lose just enough games to retain a lottery pick. Everyone seemed to get injured that season. They kept the pick. It became Harrison Barnes, who as a rookie proved to be a crucial component on a very good team.
When Brett Brown, the Philadelphia coach, talks about “having to live through some pain with young players” and how “Houston hit a payday with James,” as he said Wednesday night, you can read between the lines.
Does Hinkie view young pieces such as Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel (who is essentially being redshirted this season) as players to build around, or chips to deal with eyes on a larger prize, such as Kevin Love in 2015? Is inconsistent former No. 2 pick Evan Turner someone he’s dangling, or someone worth extending? Are players like Anderson and Wroten being showcased now in hopes that someone overpays for them? If Morey and Hinkie’s incredible transformation in Houston – look at the 2011 roster, then look at the 2013 roster … nobody’s left! – is any indication, the next couple years in Philadelphia will involve transactions galore.
Perhaps the most delicious aspect to Philly’s situation: When Hinkie traded Jrue Holiday to get Nerlens Noel, he also received a protected 2014 draft pick from the Pelicans. A perfect storm for Philadelphia: The 76ers aren’t a bottom feeder, but competitive enough to stimulate the fanbase like they have so far with wins over the Heat, Bulls and Rockets. In a loaded draft, they manage to have two Top 10 picks (say, 6 from the Pelicans and theirs, 9th).
That adds up to four lottery picks (MCW and Noel) in two seasons. For teams with a superstar who seems ambivalent about sticking around – I’m thinking Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge – do the 76ers suddenly enter the discussion?