Taking the Longview: Trusting The Philosophy

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It’s a phrase overused and misunderstood. The phrase began as a mantra for the hardcore fanbase to hold on through the darkest times of a deconstruction, tanking and rebuild that started in June 2013. But what does “Trust the Process” really mean?

I am not going to re-litigate the decisions of the process era 76ers organization. That, in and of itself, entirely misses the point. The results are clear, in 5yrs a team was transformed from a mediocre fringe playoff/lottery team into a team with multiple young superstars with rising fortunes in the NBA Eastern Conference. That is, objectively, the developing outcome.

But “The Process” was never really about outcomes. It is founded on a belief that sound decisions, repeated over time, will increase the probability of greatness. It is rooted in the absence of accepting respectably good, in any endeavor where great is the only acceptable goal. It represents the notion that it is better to be terrible with a chance to be great than it is to settle for simply ok or even good.

Think about that for a moment.

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This famous quote by Voltaire is one of those classic expressions that can be used to articulate two very different points. Sometimes good is good enough, and the effort and risk to attain perfection may not be a worthwhile use of time. Perfect is the enemy of the good.

But viewed through another lens, good is the enemy of the great. Settling for simply respectable and being “good enough” is a mindset that could keep someone from ever truly achieving greatness. This is the treadmill that so many organizations find themselves on.

Why this matters

When Sam Hinkie interviewed for the Philadelphia 76ers job, his job interview was almost certainly unlike any other sports executive the managing partners were going to experience. Hinkie proposed a simple question to Josh Harris and the team.

“Are you ok with being simply good? Or are you really serious about winning championships?”

Everything that happened after was a direct result of the answer to that question. The vast majority of downstream decisions were viewed through the lens of what gives us a higher probable outcome of greatness. Risk modeling changed completely with the answer to that question.

Safety was eschewed for high upside moonshots.

“You don’t get to the moon by climbing a tree.” – Sam Hinkie

This kind of thinking is far easier to say than to actually live by in our daily lives. And that is why it was so attractive to a segment of the fanbase both in Philadelphia and around the country.

For a very small set of sports fans, this idea, that with enough pain tolerance, you have a chance to topple the giants, makes sense. Not by virtue of luck, or by having the financial resources to buy the apple, but to get there through a dedication to the longest view in the room and to grow an entire orchard that will continue to bear fruit over a long period of time. With enough fruit, your odds of finding multiple golden apples increases to a degree that makes all of the work well worth the effort.

The Balanced Longview

“To take the long view has an unintuitive advantage built in — fewer competitors.” — Sam Hinkie

Real life makes it very difficult to think like this when the pressing demands of food, shelter and family obligations all create pressure to prioritize today’s needs over the needs of the future.

I like to think of myself as sort of three people. Call it states of mental matter:

  1. Today’s version of self who is hungry, hot, tired, bored, whatever. I want what I want in the moment, and I feel the stresses of today’s life. I am burdened and/or buoyed by the decisions and fortunes of my past.
  2. 12yo self. This is who I really am deep down, the kid who loved what he loved before girls, work, bills came into the equation.
  3. Future self. This is the person who is most impacted by current me. Decisions made by current me will help current me, but future me will have to inherit those decisions. Did my previous self lay a foundation on which I can progress to greater heights? Or did it take shortcuts that force me to continue to burn time and resources on subsistence?

Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs

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It may be cliché but I am a huge fan of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I think it applies to many aspects of life and society. At the bottom of the hierarchy are today’s basic demands. We essentially get 8766 hours in a year to balance these needs. Time spent on the bottom levels keep us from attaining the highest levels of potential actualization, but without the foundation, you won’t survive long enough to ever achieve your potential. It truly is a balance of investments.

For an NBA franchise, they have the same challenges. You need revenue to continue to operate and you need to retain your fan base, so it is easy to get caught on the treadmill of mediocrity. GM’s make short term decisions all the time. And that can be a competitive advantage.

In life we all make decisions utilizing some combination of these three versions of ourselves. Buying a house could be a gift to the retirement age version of us. Buying a car is a gift to our current iteration.

Sam Hinkie was telling ownership that if they prioritized the future 76ers back in 2013 and were willing to sacrifice the next few years’ iterations, then the probability of a championship level outcome would be significantly enhanced.

Other GM’s would sell you a car, Sam Hinkie was proposing to sell ownership a stake in real estate.

When the team drafted Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, they were putting their investment in a long term potential outcome versus the short term gratification. In hindsight it all seems too obvious, but at the time it required fortitude, tolerance of extreme risk, and a belief that the potential upside outweighed the benefits of getting a player who could contribute immediately.

The Sins of the Past

Ok so we’ve established that we want greatness, that we recognize there are no shortcuts, and that it will take time. So now what?

The first stage of the process was shedding the burden of the short term decisions of the past. The team had, over many years since acquiring Allen Iverson, been in a mode of trying to build a team on a season by season basis. As a result, the team’s pipeline of talent consisted mostly of draftees picked in the late lottery or late teens.

When you look at raw numbers, 71.8% of all NBA All-Stars have been top 10 picks in the NBA draft. From 1999-2013, the Philadelphia 76ers selected in the top 10 exactly twice.

Evan Turner at #2

Andrew Iguodala #9

Now the typical fan mindset was that the team drafted the wrong guy in 2010, and everything would have been better if we had drafted someone else. But that’s taking a very short term view. The reality is that there were other all-stars drafted after Evan Turner, such as Demarcus Cousins or Paul George.

But what have they won? How much different would the 76ers’ fortunes really have been had they simply drafted better? The reality is, not much different.

One star is simply not enough in the NBA unless you happen to select first overall in a year that happens to have Lebron James eligible for selection.

And that’s kind of the point – life rarely comes down to one good or bad decision but is almost certainly more about the accumulation of decisions over a long period of time.

This is the root of the process.

Changing the Mindset

The 2012/2013 Philadelphia 76ers had very few net positive assets from an NBA asset valuation standpoint. Most rebuilding efforts in the league start by a sell off of the assets to get younger prospects with more upside. The 76ers were so bereft of desirable players and so laden with contracts that the first order of business was to clear the cap sheet.

This meant trading away useful players for pennies on the dollar, mostly second round picks, and stripping the team down to virtually nothing.

This did a number of things beyond the accumulation of picks. Mainly it created a completely wide open roster to use as a rapid evaluation and development cycle.

Rapid Prototyping

This is a very common practice in the tech industry. The idea that you have to wait years for a feedback loop when investing in technology introduces risk and also means potentially huge wastes in sunk costs for bad investments. Introducing a rapid prototyping cycle involves trying out ideas really quickly and discarding ideas as soon as you realize they are not viable.

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This only works when the ideas have a minimal investment cost. Second round picks and un-drafted free agents have an extraordinarily low chance of success in the NBA, but the cost of acquisition is extraordinarily low and the only real investment is a roster spot. NBA teams have 15 roster spots with which to work. Most competing teams have 10-11 solid NBA players in their rotation and leave the final few spots for developmental prospects and injured players. These developmental prospects typically see only “garbage time” minutes, if they ever play at all. This makes it hard to evaluate marginal prospects in live situations.

What you have is a vicious cycle of reinforcement of the notion that only lottery picks can be successful in the NBA. Because so few second round and undrafted players ever get meaningful minutes early in their careers, they never have a chance to show if they can actually play.

The 2014 Philadelphia 76ers essentially were comprised of 15 developmental prospects who were given actual playing time in actual NBA games to aid in the evaluation process. This gave them a huge advantage when recruiting the undrafted players to sign with them. But it required a commitment to roster churn.

A typical NBA team can evaluate 3 or so prospects for an NBA season. The 2014 Philadelphia 76ers had 25 players on their roster at some point in that season. The rapid trial, evaluation, and moving on resulted in only 1 player on today’s team. That player was Robert Covington.

But in 2015, TJ McConnell signed on to play for the 76ers in Vegas Summer League partly because he saw more opportunity for a real roster spot than he did with other teams. He is another key example of finding a useful rotation player AT NO COST simply because the team committed to making roster space available for rapid prototyping.

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This T shirt, from the Rights to Ricky Sanchez lottery party in 2016, tells the story of of that rapid prototyping development philosophy. You will only find a few players on here that are still in the NBA, but all were a member of the Philadelphia 76ers at some point during the process era.

What do the Data Say

This is the grammatically correct and super awkward way of asking ourselves how math could inform our decision process. There is significant debate on whether or not Data is singular or plural and how we should use it in vernacular english. Of course one number is not data. Data is a set of numbers, so it is most obviously plural. For Nerds

There is not one big, singular move that a GM or organization can make. Decisions should be made with the widest set of data available, including basic counting stats to measure raw productivity, deeper analytics to control for some environmental and situational factors, and also observational scouting, otherwise known as “the eye test.”

Most team have now embraced advanced analytics and incorporate it into their decision process. But in the early 2010’s, it was relatively rare to allow an analytics person to have a strong and final say when it came to how decisions were ultimately made.

But even the topic of analytics misses the larger point. There is no silver bullet turning a franchise into a champion. You must have multiple stars and multiple cost efficient role players to truly have reasonable expectations of repeated ventures deep into the NBA playoffs.

Many small decisions, compounding over time, each with a small modicum of return on risk, will add up to huge gains. This is basic hedge fund level thinking. The kind of thinking someone from Bain Capital might exhibit.

Mistakes will of course be made. Scouting isn’t magic – sometimes you are going to draft Ben Simmons and sometimes you will select Evan Turner. The key is to give yourself as many chances as possible to hit huge on an investment because 1 huge win makes up for 100 small mistakes.

Think Like Sam

So let’s go back and think again how could we incorporate this philosophy into our lives. As hard as it might be, if we had spent the last 5yrs always asking “How will I wish I had done it in 5yrs,” how different might our lives be?

If we always prioritized the long term over our short term desires, we would still make plenty of mistakes and life would almost certainly be harder in the short term. Would we have the courage to make a huge risky investment, understanding that we wouldn’t even know if it was money wasted for two years? Are we willing to do the deep dive analysis on every decision to weigh the needs of the moment with the benefits and risks of the future.

Would we have 1 part courage and 2 parts patience? Do we want to be perfect? Or is simply good, good enough? There is no wrong answer, but your approach to decision-making should be driven by that answer.