In the summer of 2013, the appetite for professional basketball in the city of Philadelphia was at a point that few could have imagined during the days when Wilt or Dr. J or Allen Iverson plied their trade on the local hardwood.
More than a decade had passed since the 76ers' last championship game appearance, and they'd spent most of the intervening years trapped in a vicious cycle: good enough to compete for the playoffs, not good enough to win once they got there. With attendance figures mired in the bottom third of the league and a season-ticket base eroded to a concerning degree, the organization seemed to have lost the considerable sway it once held over the local fan base.
"You sell two things in sports — you sell hope, and you sell winning," said Chris Heck, who joined the team in July 2013 as chief revenue officer, "and we had neither."
Four years later, hope has arrived, wrapped in the swaddling clothes of babes. In June, the Sixers brought a dramatic close to their controversial rebuilding process by trading up for the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft, adding 19-year-old guard Markelle Fultz to a lineup that already included Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, two young players the team feels can be superstars.
In July, the team, which in 2013 sold just 3,000 season tickets, announced that it was capping sales at 14,300 to save some for other customers. The waiting list is now 4,000-names long. The team anticipates announcing each of its 41 regular season home games as sell outs.
All of this for a club that won 28 games last season and a combined 47 the previous three.
To understand the turnaround, one must circle back to 2013, when a new Sixers management group arrived on the scene and committed itself to a rebuilding process that prioritized the resurrection of that first abstraction Heck mentioned: hope. For much of the previous decade, the organization relied on inertia and an inclusive NBA playoff field in which 16 of the league's 30 teams gained entry. The formula was standard operating procedure in professional sports' formative era: market the hell out of your young players, build an attachment with the fan base, acquire a big-name veteran, and sell everybody on the idea that qualifying for the playoffs was what mattered. From there, the rationale went, anything could happen.
Problem was, the old era in professional sports was over, deposed by an information revolution that was radically changing fans' understanding of the game. Dramatic advancements in technology combined with the open-source nature of the internet to give armchair evaluators an unprecedented level of access and insight into their teams' personnel moves. No longer could a team rely on name recognition and a few back-of-the-basketball-card stats to sell its fan base on a transaction. Now, fans and media could look up a player's shooting percentage from 16-plus feet, or his team's defensive performance when he was on the court, or his offensive efficiency compared to the rest of the league.
The more everyone learned, the more they understood a fundamental truth of the NBA — that winning a title requires a collection of elite talent, and that the means of acquiring that talent are extremely limited.
"We were essentially a .500 team, and we just didn't have a plan," Heck said. "And that's tough. It's tough to be middle of the road."
The NBA's unique economics made it difficult for the 76ers to compete for the small number of elite talents available in free agency. Because the league's salary cap enables every team to bid the same amount for the sport's centerpiece stars, those players end up choosing their destinations based on factors other than money. And, in the modern NBA, Philadelphia was not a destination city.
While general manager Sam Hinkie, CEO Scott O'Neil, and owner Josh Harris felt they could eventually build the Sixers into an organization that free agents would look favorably upon, they would first need to establish Philadelphia as a place where a player had a legitimate chance at contending for an NBA title. That required the Sixers to acquire players who would give them a legitimate shot at contending. Chicken, meet egg.
The Sixers' best — some would argue only — chance at acquiring a championship-caliber star was the league's amateur draft, where the selection order is determined by a lottery in which teams with the worst records from the previous season are heavily favored. To maximize their odds at finding a superstar, a team's dominant strategy is to accumulate as many draft picks as high in the selection order as possible.
In June 2013, one month after the Sixers installed Hinkie as their new general manager, the former Rockets' executive announced his vision for acquiring that talent in dramatic fashion, trading star point guard Jrue Holiday for rookie first-round draft pick Nerlens Noel and a future first-round pick. The deal epitomized Hinkie's philosophy: while Holiday was just 22 years old and coming off an all-star season, he wasn't the kind of elite player that NBA titles are built upon. From that point forward, Hinkie made it clear that his top priority was acquiring that championship-caliber, centerpiece player and that he would not stop dealing until he succeeded.
"We are future-focused, and some of that played out tonight," Hinkie said that night. "This is a summation of what we have to do moving forward."
With each trade of a member of the Sixers' young core, purists around the league derided Hinkie for flouting gentlemanly conventions of the spirit of fair play to take advantage of the letter of the law. Tanking, they called it.
Hinkie, who had an MBA from Stanford and business experience that included a stint with Bain Capital, turned the rationale on its head. A company that willfully operates in the red to make capital investments might be guilty of tanking the present. But if the company projects the long-term return on those investments to exceed whatever marginal year-to-year profits it would otherwise gain, wouldn't the charting of another course be tanking the future?
"Do you say that we are in this place, and so I'll just try to make any improvement that I can in the next 10 days, because that will be fun?" Hinkie told the Daily News a month after he traded Holiday. "Or do you say, if I don't think about the next 700 days or the next 1,000 days or the next 1,200 days, who will?"
The message resonated with a vocal segment of the Sixers' fan base that came of age during Iverson's energetic tenure in Philadelphia and in many ways represented a new breed of NBA fan: young, college-educated, fluent in social media and Microsoft Excel. They saw the wisdom in Hinkie's decision to use the No. 3 draft pick in June 2014 to select Embiid, the Kansas center, despite back and foot issues that scared off the two teams picking in front of the Sixers. Members of the media and basketball establishment who ridiculed the decision felt vindicated by the two years Embiid spent on the sidelines to start his career. But Embiid was the only player available whom the Sixers graded as having the talent to be a future superstar.
Indeed, no player drafted after Embiid has come close to the 20.2 points per game he averaged in 31 games last season. In fact, Embiid became the first rookie since Wilt Chamberlain to average 28.7 points per 36 minutes played. According to the Sixers' plan, the choice was obvious: they'd already traded one Jrue Holiday; they didn't need another.
Embiid's breakout performance over the first three months of last season culminated in a January in which the 76ers went 10-5 and competed with some of the best teams in the league. The result was an explosion in excitement that began building the previous May, when the team landed the No. 1 overall pick and the right to draft a player in Simmons, whose freakish combination of size, skill, and athleticism earned him a reputation as the sport's next big star.
Though Simmons suffered a foot injury in training camp that sidelined him for his entire rookie season, Embiid's breakthrough and the Sixers' collective success reverberated throughout the team's new headquarters in Camden. By the start of the 2016-17 season, the Sixers sold 11,000 full season-ticket packages, up from 3,000 in 2013-14 and 6,000 in 2014-15, Heck said. After the team's January run, orders continued to flow in. A month after the Sixers traded up to select Fultz with the No. 1 pick, the team capped its season ticket sales at 14,300 and started a waiting list.
"I didn't think it was going to happen this quickly," Heck said. "I thought maybe we were another year away. I think last January was really the 'A-ha moment.' "
Among the higher-ups on the basketball side of the operation, one can detect a subtle sense of trepidation regarding the excitement about the team. After an offseason in which the Sixers signed a talented veteran shooter in J.J. Redick to help complement the young core, oddsmakers posted the Sixers' over/under win total at 42.5. Fultz labeled them a playoff team. But longtime basketball men such as club president Bryan Colangelo and head coach Brett Brown know that it takes time for a basketball team to gel.
"I think it's almost unfair to push two No. 1 picks out on the floor at the same time and say, 'Go win,' " said Colangelo, whom the Sixers hired after Hinkie lost a power struggle and resigned in 2016.
But the Sixers and their fans are of the mind-set that the rebuilding process that began 4 1/2 years ago is over.