All along, there was a path to peace.
All along, there was an end game.
All along, though The Process, there was a distant view of a place where its supporters and critics could meet, shake hands and maybe even smile about the whole thing. That point for the Hinkie Summit was to be this summer. And Brett Brown knew that point was to be this summer. He knew it after the Sixers won 52 games and a playoff round, and then, with a sparkle in his eye, all but promised that the war was about to end.
“We don’t have to turn this into calculus,” he said. “It’s quite clear.”
It was. The Sixers had done their processing, so much of it that Brown will never dig his way back to even a .500 career record. They had lost games and made lottery trips and found at least a couple of star-level talents in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. As they did, they saved money and cap space. By last season, the team whose tickets once famously were being offloaded at a buck for an entire row suddenly was selling out every game. The foundation for that treaty was set.
Sometime before training camp, Brown implied, the Sixers would take their money and other assets and add a superstar talent to that processed foundation. And then everyone would be happy. Those who favored clearing the way for such a project and those who insisted the only way to fulfillment is to acquire good players all could celebrate.
“We,” Brown said at the draft, doing everything but pulling out a bugle to signal the start of the charge, “are going star hunting.”
So the Sixers hunted. They just didn’t gather. LeBron James, their primary target, signed with the Lakers as a free agent, not even bothering to show up with his representatives at a meeting with Josh Harris. Paul George re-enlisted with the Thunder. And this week, the Sixers were low-bridged when Brown’s buddy, Gregg Popovich traded top-five talent Kawhi Leonard not to the Sixers but to Toronto.
That summer of love? The one-two James-Leonard punch has turned it into a season of increased heat.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Sixers haven’t (slightly) improved. All of the usual NBA salary implications understood, they effectively have exchanged Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova with Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala. With that, and without sacrificing much outside shooting capability, they’ve added two big men who can switch at the defensive end. More than any other shortcoming, that best explained their Eastern Conference semi-final playoff ouster by the Celtics. Still, considering how thoroughly Ilyasova and Belinelli contributed to a special locker-room atmosphere, there could even be a bit of a decline. More, many of the teams in the Eastern Conference did something to improve, in particular the Raptors, who won 59 games last season and were able to upgrade from the inconsistent DeMar DeRozan to Leonard.
In losing James, the Cavs won’t be the same. The Sixers finished ahead of them last year anyway. Yet with Leonard a Raptor and with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returning to the Celtics, the Sixers face a wider gap between themselves and the top of the division.
How did that happen so quickly?
n Because they drafted poorly through The Process, the Sixers were only able to develop two stars. The Spurs wanted proven NBA ability in exchange for Leonard, not just prospects or draft assets. Had Jahlil Okafor been a productive No. 3 overall pick or had Markelle Fultz been a useful No. 1, the Sixers would have had the stock to move.
n The image of Simmons and Embiid as a championship launching pad is not as widely accepted industry-wide as it is in Camden. Desperately trying to add to his championship collection, James barely gave that notion a consideration as he bolted to L.A. Take a hint.
The summer is not over. And in February, there will be a trade deadline, enabling the Sixers to add something for another late run, as they did with Belinelli and Ilyasova.
As for the star-hunting, even Carmelo Anthony, 33, is off the market, having been traded to Atlanta in the Thursday swirl that netted the Sixers the versatile, 6-11 Muscala. Jimmy Butler is preparing his exit from Minnesota, rejecting a nine-figure offer to stay. But the whispers are he will join free-agent-to-be Leonard next season in New York, thus further suppressing the Sixers in the East.
If Embiid continues to improve during his first healthy offseason as a pro, that will help. Simmons was Rookie of the Year and, in theory, is just beginning to grow into a star. Brown believes he added a gem in Zhaire Smith, but every team adds skill in the draft. Fultz was the top overall pick in 2017 for a reason. Maybe he’ll develop as a player Brown wouldn’t be terrified to use in a playoff game.
None of that is impossible.
But as for that promise of peace? Maybe some other time. Not this summer. There is reason to turn that into calculus.
Contact Jack McCaffery @firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery