LARRY RYAN: Trust in the tanking process

Trust the process. It’s part of the default lingo every gaffer in sport has their players recite.

Right before they focus on executing the gameplan and controlling the controllables and working on the work-ons.

But how much more effective if you can train the fans to recite it too? Particularly when you’re losing every week.

This week in Philadelphia, the local hipsters and brogrammers and ballers celebrated wildly the fruits of another losing basketball season.

Their hero is a venture capitalist and stats nerd who was squeezed out as general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers last year.

As they say in the NBA, the franchise wanted to put a more competitive product on the floor. And that wasn’t Sam Hinkie’s gameplan. For the time being, anyhow.

Hinkie is the man who got the Sixers ‘tanking’. Essentially losing on purpose. Though the diplomatic phrase is ‘rebuilding’.

Asset stripping the roster of experienced players, drafting cheaper, often injured, talent, and stockpiling picks for trading later, the benefits were twofold. It freed up space under the Sixers’ salary cap and saw them plummet in the standings, profiting from American sport’s curious quasi-socialist ideals to improve their draft picks.

There were other strands to Hinkie’s process — such as identifying undervalued players by drilling deeper into their stats and developing a faster, future-proof style of play that didn’t necessarily suit all the mediocre basketball players he had suited up, but was similar to NBA champions Golden State Warriors.

But mainly there was losing. In his three seasons, the Sixers went to the bad, winning fewer than one quarter of their games.

But Hinkie kept telling people to trust the process. And a healthy core of the fanbase did. With not a lot to shout about, they even began chanting ‘An-al-y-tics’ at games, which is probably when most right-thinking people lost all sympathy for them.

Though attendances dropped, the faithful persevered. They wore Hinkie’s face on their t-shirts and roared his catchphrase.

And on Thursday night, more than a year after he left, the faithful piled onto the internet to thank him. After the Sixers scooped the number one draft pick for the second year in succession.

Markelle Fultz, touted as a ‘transformative’ talent from the University of Washington, broke the news on Instagram in emotional, inspiring fashion.

“Excited to head to (City) and join the (team name). @Tissot.us is helping get me started with my (team name) watch #ThisIsMyTime #NBADraft”

Though Markelle soon got back on message on Twitter: “Philly! The process led me here.”

Fultz, last year’s number one pick Ben Simmons — injured through his first season — and an earlier coup, the spectacular if perennially injured 7ft Cameroonian Joel Embiid (who has nicknamed himself The Process), are now expected to form the core of a Sixers team that will knuckle down to the process of winning, and maybe even challenge for titles.

And the t-shirt slogan worn by a heavy dancing man at Thursday’s draft at the Barclays Center in New York summed up the mood in Philly. ‘Hinkie died for our sins.’

The episode raises some fundamental questions about sport and the ways fans support their team.

Obviously, there are many who decry Hinkie’s process as a deeply cynical exercise that undermines the core competitive spirit at the heart of sport.

Critics called it a Ponzi scheme, a con, a shameless attempt to sell a future that would never arrive. They called him ‘Scam Hinkie’.

And NBA concerns about the optics eventually led to the Sixers appointing Jerry Colangelo over Hinkie’s head, prompting a swift resignation.

Hinkie’s long game might have outlasted him but maybe it also showed there are things fans can believe in other than winning.

That more important even than wins on the board is a sense of direction, even if that direction is backwards.

Selling the future might be a convenient way for owners to avoid bankrolling the present. But it now appears to be a key component of the PR job that is modern management.

Selling a journey players and fans can travel together.

Hinkie’s critics argue he didn’t sell his ideas to the entire fanbase, many of whom lost patience. Though he played well to a certain gallery. A walking Ted Talk, he quoted Warren Buffett and Abraham Lincoln. He told reporters he never cleared the snow off his driveway in winter, just trusted spring would do its job.

It was his version of Arsene Wenger telling us he is a “facilitator of what is beautiful in man”.

Or Davy Fitz assuring us there is no cause more righteous than his latest one. Or Jose Mourinho convincing Manchester United fans they are the most disadvantaged, conspired against underdogs in football.

But what impact does narrative have on the field?

The Cork footballers clearly believe it has an effect, with several complaining that the constant negativity around their efforts makes it more difficult to perform.

If media and fans believe you’re on a road to nowhere, is that where you wind up?

The Cork hurling management began to shape their own narrative by axing a swathe of senior players last summer, as if to mark the start of a journey.

This year, by abandoning the sweeper experiment that was anathema to Corkness, Kieran Kingston made it easier for everyone to tag along behind them. And Cork’s youngsters now have space and goodwill to thrive on.

Derek McGrath, on the other hand, talks a lot about the process. About the development cycle. He works as hard as anyone to sell Waterford’s journey, but he has had to work hard. He seems to have to justify every stop made and turn taken. It must be uncomfortable for the passengers.

After four embarrassing campaigns, the Sixers roll onto next season with the buzz of purpose.

That was the advantage Sam Hinkie had, he got to play all his big games in the future. If the Sixers flop next season, it will be down to somebody else not executing the gameplan or controlling the controllable.

Last Sunday at Semple, Derek McGrath could have done with a chorus of ‘trust the process’ from the Killinan End. But for impatient Déise fans, the future is now.


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