When Bryan Colangelo was hired to bring some timeliness to Sam Hinkie's seemingly endless timeline for contention, he promised that the car Hinkie had been so carefully assembling would finally be backed out of the garage and taken for a spin.
There's no doubt that would have happened this season - after idling for three years while topping off the tank, so to speak - but it turned out that Colangelo's Sixers spent so much time in the shop for repairs that the ride was brief and didn't advance the team much farther down the road.
"We kept taking punches, we kept fighting. That speaks to the resiliency of this team," Colangelo said last week when he offered his wrapup of the season. "We finished plus-18 on wins, that's the second-best [improvement] in franchise history. That's something to be impressed with."
Winning an additional 18 games is awesome for a team that won, say, 40, the previous season. Coming off a 10-win season, it's not quite as difficult, but with the Sixers you have to take progress where you find it.
"I didn't want us to be judged by numbers, but by the development of the program," Colangelo said.
The development was hindered by the loss of Ben Simmons to a foot fracture in training camp, by early limitations and late injury for Joel Embiid, who played in just 31 games, and by the crowd of lottery picks at the center position that still hasn't been fully sorted out.
In other ways, though, the program looked very similar to what took place under Hinkie. The organization was conservative in the extreme when it came to getting players back on the court after injury. That's understandable and, for a young team that wasn't going anywhere this season, it's also smart. But the absences piled up and a team that was 11 games under .500 on Feb. 1 would drift to 26 games under by the end of the schedule.
Under Hinkie, that drop-off would have raised eyebrows - particularly if the former GM had disposed of useful pieces like Nerlens Noel and Ersan Ilyasova at the trade deadline - but whatever Colangelo was accused of, it wasn't tanking. Maybe he should have been. The dismal end of the season meant the Sixers weren't on pace for somewhere around 35 wins, which would have put a crimp in the upcoming draft.
As for the injury part of the equation - and, sure, Embiid's absence after Feb. 1 was more telling than that of Noel or Ilyasova - Colangelo defended his medical staff and its decisions. If Simmons took longer than other players to rehabilitate from his Jones fracture, if Embiid's minutes restrictions early in the season sometimes seemed pointless, if Jahlil Okafor's surgically-repaired right knee didn't hold up, well, those things happened and Colangelo wasn't fond of the organization being second-guessed.
"We did have a string of high-profile and complex scenarios that held us back from attaining more success," he said. "It's unfair for any random orthopedic surgeon to comment on what's going on inside our house."
The end result, however, is that, intentionally or otherwise, the Sixers didn't win very often for a fourth straight season. They also didn't find out if Ben Simmons can be a point guard, or how Simmons and Embiid can best coexist on the court, or if Jerryd Bayless is something more than a career backup playing for his seventh NBA team.
It wasn't necessarily anyone's fault, but the overall learning curve was actually more of a flat line, and that makes Colangelo's job more difficult as he approaches the draft and free agency. On May 16, he finds out if the Sixers have one or two lottery picks and where they will fall. Once he knows that, he can start to formulate a free-agent plan.
The obvious need is perimeter shooting at several positions, but will they have to lean toward getting guards in the event Simmons ends up at a more natural frontcourt position for his height? Will they count on power forward Dario Saric improving his outside shot, on Robert Covington holding up as their only true small-forward threat? Even if they get the additional draft pick from the Lakers, the new players are probably going to be 19 years old. Do they take both, or wheel and deal to get quality veteran help, either by trade or with a free-agent splash? And, back to the first question, when can they actually drive the car and really open it up?
"We have a young timeline. It's an under-25 team. Basically, the future is out there," Colangelo said. "Do we want to jump to the future quicker or do it organically and grow the right way? We do have to decide that path between now and July 1. How will we prioritize free-agent spending? Do we maintain flexibility going forward, which is not a bad thing, either? A lot will depend on whether we have one or two draft picks this year."
That's the guts of it. Put aside the medical staff questions, the player development questions, and the sports science mumbo jumbo. (Colangelo said, by the way, the analytics department has been expanded threefold. Who knew Hinkie was such a slacker in that regard?) The whole enterprise comes down to the general manager drafting the right guys, trading the right guys and signing the right guys. Everything else is eyewash.
Unfortunately, on the list of things we didn't learn this season, Colangelo's ability to perform those functions is near the top. He used the top pick in the draft to select the same guy 29 other general managers would have taken and, after that, events tied his hands from making major moves.
Eventually, we'll find out if he is the right guy to have behind the wheel as the car gains speed. But, as usual with the Sixers, "eventually" isn't here yet.