NEW YORK - Sam Hinkie wasn't in the ballroom of the New York Hilton Midtown on Tuesday night when the envelopes were opened and the fate of the 76ers in the NBA's June draft was revealed, but, then again, he was. And, in a very real way, as the next few years unveil much more about the team's drive to become competitive, the former general manager will always be there.
While it's tempting - four seasons after Hinkie began the "process" that yielded just 75 wins in that 328-game span - to declare the period is coming to an end, the history of the lottery itself shows there are few guarantees.
One thing we know, however, is that Sam was still helping out Tuesday night. As part of a one-sided trade that brought Nik Stauskas from Sacramento to Philadelphia in 2015, Hinkie wrangled some draft concessions from the Kings, including the right to swap first-round picks, at the Sixers' option in 2016 and 2017.
Well, that paid off Tuesday at the NBA lottery when the Ping-Pong balls gave the third pick in the draft to Sacramento and the fifth pick to the Sixers. The ghost of Hinkie reversed that order.
"Thank you, Sam Hinkie. He set us up well," said managing owner Josh Harris. "I'm going to text him tonight and give him a big kiss over text."
How Hinkie received that particular emoji is unknown. He left the organization after Harris brought in Bryan Colangelo to oversee what Harris apparently thought was a timeline that had lost its sense of time. In any case, Harris was right about the bump the Sacramento trade provided on Tuesday, and will continue to provide when the Sixers hold the Kings' unprotected first-round pick in 2019.
Of course, it is true that all the lottery determines is which teams weren't very good the previous season, not which teams will be good in the following ones. The Sixers, who made their ninth appearance at the lottery in the last 14 years on Tuesday are proof of that. While the ensuing drafts since the lottery was instituted landed them Allen Iverson, Andre Iguodala, and Thaddeus Young among others, they also produced Shawn Bradley, Sharone Wright, and Evan Turner.
Even the most recent fruits of the tanking philosophy - they have picked among the top three in each draft since Hinkie pulled the plug - are still flecked with doubt. Ben Simmons, last year's top pick, missed his rookie season with a fracture in his foot, and Joel Embiid, the brightest hope on the roster, is still a long way from establishing his durability. The other pick, Jahlil Okafor, would likely be traded if the Sixers could find a willing partner and is more likely to not be extended beyond his rookie contract.
Moving past the Hinkie plan was actually a lot easier than moving past the former general manager's legacy, for good and bad.
While Hinkie was honest from the start about the difficulty of the project, and never offered assurance it would succeed, many of his moves continue to pay dividends, even though they came at the cost of the horrendous stretch of losing and many millions of dollars of salary-cap space that he rented to other teams in order to shake them loose of future assets.
Hinkie traded away a starting point guard in Michael Carter-Williams largely to receive the Lakers' first-round pick that could have come as a bonus on Tuesday, but will be delivered without protections in the 2018 draft.
Then, there is that Sacramento trade that keeps on giving. All the Sixers had to do was accept Stauskas and a couple of overpaid players to get the Kings out of a self-made salary-cap jail. One of those players, Carl Landry, wasn't in the NBA this past season, but the Sixers paid him $6.75 million to close the books on that contract.
That was Hinkie's mode of operation, and filling his cap space with unwanted, often unusable players, built up a pile of assets, but also assured the Sixers of stinking on the court with those vagabonds and gypsies who actually did play.
Colangelo indicated on Tuesday that if the Sixers had come away with two first-round picks this year, that might have led the team to tap the brakes on going for a quicker turnaround. As it is, with one fewer rookie and tons of cap space, they could attack things differently.
"There's a couple of paths we can go down, that measured, organic growth path, or speed things a bit with free agent acquisitions or trades," Colangelo said. "Having two top draft picks might have put us in the position where we could be more apt to go down that slower, organic path. But we're going to have both opportunities available to us now and we'll look at all options."
The Sixers have options and, for the fourth straight year, they have one of the top three picks in the draft. There's no way to know if they'll be back to try for a fifth with their own pick. It could happen, or the elusive launching pad might have finally been reached.
They'll need luck and they'll need help to get where they want to go. For his part, Sam Hinkie is still helping.