The Freakish, Dead-Hearted Vampire Team I was Denied

Stanley Kubrick, the greatest director who has ever lived*, died in 1999 of sudden heart failure while sleeping. He died just a few days after a screening of the final version of his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, but that wasn’t the end of his career. Instead, as a sort of tribute to his vision, Stephen Spielberg took various notes, drafts, and the most recent treatment written by Ian Watson under Kubrick’s supervision and went on to create a new screenplay and film in Kubrick’s vision. That film was A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, which Spielberg had been asked by Kubrick himself to direct in the mid 90’s. It is a very good movie. It is not, however, a Kubrick film.

I think about A.I. as often as is reasonable for someone to think about a movie from the beginning of the century that ranks somewhere around the middle of an esteemed director’s filmography. The intrigue for the movie for me is less the final product but, like many, how it does and specifically doesn’t feel like a Kubrick project. Spielberg has a flourish for the dramatic and tends to stick to the formula of the Hollywood blockbuster (which, he kind of created), which doesn’t always mesh well with the sterile, emotionally distant cinema of Kubrick. 

I’ve thought about it more lately, both because it was Kubrick’s birthday earlier this week and Twitter was aflame with remembrances of his genius, and because I am a Philadelphia 76ers fan. I grew up near Philadelphia and was 10 years old when they drafted Allen Iverson, so I didn’t  have much of a choice. I was held hostage by the most relentless, fearless player to ever step foot on an NBA court, and I’ve been unable to escape the grasp of this inept franchise since watching him step over Tyronn Lue in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals. I watched a team built around Andre Iguodala struggle to earn 7 or 8 seeds in the cakewalk Eastern Conference. And, of course, I watched as their own eccentric genius, Sam Hinkie, started the much-maligned Process era.

The Process of Roasting Coffee

The Process was always about changing a franchise’s approach to risk. A championship was impossible to predict or expect in the NBA, even if you had a superstar like LeBron James or Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade or anyone else. But, you definitely weren’t winning one without a superstar, so Hinkie went about acquiring them in the only way a franchise in a non-destination city (i.e. not New York, LA, or Miami): he tanked. Talented players were shipped out in exchange for draft picks and cash considerations, all to increase the odds that they’d hit at the annual NBA Draft roulette wheel. 

It was a polarizing approach, most charitably described as an honest and transparent approach to tanking, the blatence of the scheme  turning the rebuild into something  resembling a private equity strip for parts scheme. Sixers ownership made their billions in PE, and after he was jettisoned, Hinkie started his career in private equity, and recently started his own venture capital fund. Their  careers had been built on leveraging undervalued assets and by doing what many people might regard as unacceptably cynical practice. The Process wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t meant to be. 

Phase One, acquiring a star, paid off eventually, when the Sixers snagged one of the most dominant centers in recent memory in Joel Embiid and #1 overall pick Ben Simmons in the following draft. Both have been perennial All-Stars. Both are flawed, like any young superstar not named LeBron, but show signs of being the types of players that can lead a team to a championship.

76ers at Wizards 2/25/18. Otto is so happy!!!

As with  A.I., I’m starting to feel like I’m watching a bastardized stich-together  of the film I was promised. Hinkie was ousted in a coup and replaced with the vile Colangelos, Jerry the father and Bryan the son, who immediately went about making the extremely un-Process move of trading multiple draft picks to gamble on the number one pick, Washington guard Markelle Fultz. As gambles go, the #1 pick is usually a pretty sure bet and the most valuable asset a team can have in a given year. It wasn’t Fultz specifically that portended the doom of The Process, but the act of shoving so much capital into one player. Sam Hinkie would sooner draft a 28 year old mid-range specialist than trade a draft pick, let alone the third pick in the draft (which turned into Jayson Tatum) and another first rounder. 

The Sixers couldn’t have predicted what happened to Fultz anymore than Danny Ainge would like to pretend that he did, but the weird circumstances of his early issues are kind of the point. The Process dictated that every pick, even the top pick, was a gamble. Spreading that risk over multiple assets mitigated the risk of a Fultz, an Oden, a Sam Bowie, etc. Fultz was the death of The Process before his issues even started. Of course the Sixers failed Markelle Fultz by failing to properly diagnose his weird shoulder injury. They continually mismanaged Embiid and Simmons on their early injuries, and 2018 first round pick Zhaire Smith nearly died of a sesame allergy his rookie year. It is truly humiliating, and at this rate I expect Matisse Thybulle to have a piano fall on his head during his stay in Orlando.

The Colangelos went out on their own dramatic, hilarious terms, with lil’ Bryan being caught using burner accounts on social media to scold his critics and lambast his own players. He also wore shirts with comically large collars and was generally what you would expect the product of NBA nepotism to be:arrogant, bad at his job, unaware or at least unwilling to accept that everyone hated him. Like any other business, the NBA is less a meritocracy than a network and boys’ club. Colangelo will get another job despite his failures, just like Tom Thibodeau did recently with the New York Knicks. Like the Hollywood bad boys of yesteryear, half the appeal is thinking that you’re the one who can fix them.

His exit provided an opportunity, but not much has improved since Colangelo was replaced by Elton Brand, and it’s probably fair to argue that it’s gotten worse. The Sixers took a dream scenario, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, all stars on rookie deals,and decided to burn all their assets on acquiring one player Jimmy Butler, an excellent player who happens to be an all-world lunatic, and Tobias Harris, a swell player who was due for a big contract. 

Brand  shipped out depth and draft picks, and used the team’s offseason cap space to sign an aged vintage of Al Horford (Ol’ Horford). Their cap space is locked for the foreseeable future, and their two most recent contracts are albatri. Horford doesn’t fit. Tobias can’t play defense. There’s a logjam at forward. Too bad. They’re stuck with them.

The team is still very good, and is capable of winning against any team on any given night. That much talent is bound to explode every now and again and their home-away splits from this season are maddening. In Philadelphia, the team is nearly unstoppable. Lord knows what happens on the plane to Cleveland  that turns them into the 1995-96 Rex Walters Sixers.

But much like Spielberg’s version of a Kubrick film, the team feels like a combination of philosophies that look viable on paper, but clash in practice. A team that was being built for depth and spacing has turned into another front-loaded franchise with no assets to insure itself for the future. They’ve pushed everything in to try and short the market instead of playing the long game in the way Hinkie had envisioned for the franchise. The result is a mess: two young superstars that were promised growth, development, and more help that would come up at the same pace have now been teamed up with one old man and an All-Star dumped in their laps. The rest of the roster is severely lacking. No ball handlers other than Simmons. No wing defenders other than he and rookie Mathisse Thybulle. No spacing after JJ Redick left to sign with New Orleans in free agency.

It’s maddening. What’s especially striking is just how bad the chemistry is on the court, despite the fact that the team seems particularly close off of it. Thybulle’s vlogs on social media show a team that has a sense of humor about it, that shares in joy together on team buses and planes. But, that camaraderie disappears once they step on the court, likely owed to the fact that they are still a group of competitive professional athletes who are individually great but with incompatible skills as a unit. 

Still, they’re a lot of fun. When things are clicking, they’re among the most fun teams in the league. Embiid does at least five or six things per game that make you wonder just how a 7’3” human being is capable of such graceful mayhem. Ben Simmons has flourished into one of the greatest perimeter defenders in the NBA and is unstoppable in transition. When it works, it’s beautiful. But, it’s not the bloodless, murderous Process team anymore. It’s a whole different scene, and learning to appreciate it on a completely different rubric sucks.

I don’t know if the team would be better with Hinkie still at the helm. I do know that I’d still have hope, because he would’ve chewed his arm off before putting them in such a precarious position with no eject button in reach. More than harm mitigation, The Process was about diversifying risk. You never pushed everything in on any given set of players, because circumstances change every year (via injury, via talent moving from one conference to another, via playstyles changing, skills evolving, etc.). The post-Process Sixers don’t have options anymore. They’re stuck. It’s still better to watch than most of the garbage that gets put out, but it could’ve been a singular vision, an icy, dispassionate killer from a brutally unsentimental mind, instead of just another blockbuster.

*ED: Casey’s thoughts on this matter do not reflect the broader feelings of editorial at Bergman, Scorsese, Kurosawa and others are obviously superior, they didn’t employ the aggravating pretense of adding emotional distance to everything they made, and they managed to make movies more than once every ten years.

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