“Trust The Process” Means Many Different Things

It’s Nick Saban, Alabama, Sam Hinkie, and Philadelphia. And it shows the biggest problems facing the NBA.

Long before Joel Embiid asked Philadelphia 76ers fans to chant “Trust the Process,” long before Sam Hinkie became an NBA folk hero, and long before a basketball franchise tested the limits of its league’s drafting rules, “Trust the Process” meant something different. Far from the urban city center that is Philadelphia, and vastly removed from the swathes of basketball fans that alternatively condemned and Trusted Sam Hinkie’s Process, another man used those same words to describe his method for success. The ultimate goal was the same — success at the highest level — but Nick Saban has defined trusting any sort of process far differently than anyone in the basketball world.

Nick Saban and Sam Hinkie both described their methods as a process, one that both needed to be trusted and would bring full success, given time. The similarities end there, though. Saban and Hinkie have pursued wildly different methods to reach success, methods that show how one simple phrase can mean so many different things. The differences between Alabama and Philadelphia go beyond just winning and losing, though. These differences also show some of the biggest gaps between collegiate and professional sports. In addition, they also illuminate some of the biggest challenges facing the NBA in the future.

Alabama lost the national championship game to Clemson this year, but won it in 2016. Saban also has several other championships, a list that is too long to be meaningfully addressed here. Anointing anyone the best coach in the history of college football is an inherently controversial statement, but it’s one that can be legitimately argued in his case. And with Saban’s, it all comes down to a relentless pursuit of perfection and success. In other words, The Process.

From the SEC Network:

The Process is simply Saban’s core belief that the willingness to prepare in a methodical, daily basis is the key to success. Saban believes those who focus on the result and not the consistent preparation that is necessary to achieve the result are doomed to be disappointed.
“It’s about committing yourself to being the best you can be on that particular day,” said Saban. “Improvement is a steady march and you have to be committed to it.”

Saban may have never repeated “Trust the Process” with the same vigor and repetition that this phrase received in Philadelphia, but it guides his entire coaching philosophy and success at Alabama. And his commitment to this process is nothing short of legendary. After all, he once complained that the national championship game cost him valuable recruiting time (a key component of The Process). From GQ:

“That damn game cost me a week of recruiting,” Saban grumbled into the phone.

By recruiting the best players in the country (Alabama routinely ranks at the top of recruiting class boards), fielding an elite defense every year, and instilling a never-ending sense of discipline in his team, Saban has become easily the best college football coach in the country. The SEC may not still be the powerhouse conference that it fancies itself as, but Alabama is every bit as good as any team in America. We may very well be looking back at their loss to Clemson as a weird blip on the map of a Crimson Tide dynasty in a few years.

So if you say “Trust the Process” in Tuscaloosa (or really anywhere in Alabama), people will know exactly how to react. They won’t think of basketball, the NBA, or even Philadelphia. They’ll think of the national championship trophies that Alabama has won, the dynasty that Saban has created, and the rosy future that may still be awaiting this team. These people may look at you with disgust, depending on which team they actually cheer for, but they will immediately connect this phrase with Saban and his career.

For Alabama, “Trust the Process” means consistent winning and a relentless pursuit of excellence.

Screenshot from Twitter

For Philadelphia,“Trust the Process” means something completely different. It means a radical experiment, a fired GM, and (perhaps) future validation in a year or two. When Sam Hinkie decided to test the boundaries of the NBA by diving down the standings arguably faster than any team in league history, he made a perfectly logical decision: pursue an abysmal record in favor of draft picks.

The reasoning behind the strategy is beautifully simple. In the NBA—far more than any other sports league—having the best player on the court is absolutely essential to success. It’s possible to cobble together a championship-level football or baseball team with a collection of above-average starters and role players. Not so in the NBA. Teams almost never win without at least one elite (top-10 or so) player on the roster. This is why “could player x be the best player on a championship team” conversations dominate the NBA landscape.

It’s nearly impossible to land a top player through a trade, since teams (rightly) hold on to elite talent at nearly all costs. Free agency is a tempting option, but superstars choose to stay with their current teams most of the time for financial reasons. Those that do choose to leave often look to join other superstars. So if you don’t have an elite talent already, it’s almost impossible to get one through trading or free agency.

Which leaves one option: the NBA draft. And the only way to get a top player is to draft as near the top of the list as possible. If a team can stockpile top-three picks over multiple years, then the odds of finding a top player multiply significantly. Combined with a few trades for more draft picks to increase the chances of success, this strategy promises long-term benefits in exchange for multiple losing seasons.

Of course, the NBA, in an effort to forestall tanking strategies, instituted the draft lottery. The team that finishes with the worst overall record isn’t guaranteed a top pick, and in reality rarely receives it. As some have pointed out though, this attempt may have made tanking even more prevalent. The logic here is simple: if a bottom-three record only gives a chance at a top-three draft pick, then teams who want that asset should guarantee multiple chances of winning the lottery. This means multiple “bites at the apple,” and multiple losing seasons.

The story of how all this played out is long, complicated, and even home to some interesting conspiracy theories. Essentially though, Philadelphia tanked for multiple seasons, drafted high for several years, and Hinkie lost his job. Fans were disgusted by the constant losing, and ownership grew tired of waiting for the promised success. In 2016–17 though, the 76ers are emerging out of The Process as an exciting young team with multiple high-level prospects. Whether or not this core wins a championship will probably determine how this experiment is remembered, but Philly is in a pretty good place right now.

However, it was also excruciatingly-painful to go through.

I’ll admit: I tried Hinkie’s strategy in several basketball simulation games. I got some top draft picks, but I was never able to pull off a championship season. And I benefitted from the ability to simulate an entire basketball season in minutes. I didn’t have to watch the equivalent of a D-League team go out on the floor every night as the hapless victim of whoever happened to be in town. The Process for Hinkie was long and difficult, and even today many question its viability.

Understanding what “The Process” means goes far beyond an interesting story about how two different sports figures use it. As interesting as it is that arguably the best college football coach of all time and an NBA GM with an evolving legacy both used similar terminology for their strategies, there’s more to this story than a small aside.

The differences between how Alabama and Philadelphia use “The Process” shows the differences between collegiate sports, and some of the biggest challenges facing the NBA.

Simply put, Alabama uses this phrase to promote constant excellence, while Philadelphia used it to describe intentional losing in favor of long-term success. Every national championship that Alabama wins, every top-five recruiting class that Saban recruits, and every game that Bryant-Denny Stadium sells out for contributes to future success. Alabama feeds off of each high-quality performance to build another one next year. This, then, is the difference between pro and college sports: there’s no tanking in college football.

This may seem like an obvious statement, and it is. But it’s true. Even when a college football team is well out of the playoff rankings late in the season, it will still try to keep winning. Especially in bowl games, where coaches hope to prove to recruits that they’ll never give up, and that next season will be better. An NBA team views late-season wins in drastically different terms. Every win that the Lakers or Suns get is bad now, since it decreases draft position. After a certain point in the year, bad teams want to lose as much as possible.

And this is a huge problem for the NBA. The tankathon begins in the second half of the season, and teams blatantly hold out their best players to “give younger players experience” (read: lose as many games as possible). Whether or not the NBA draft lottery works is an open question, but I think everyone can agree that we need more reform. This may be especially true if the 76ers emerge as contenders in a few years. Professional sports are always “copycat” leagues, and plenty of GMs are waiting for an excuse to use Hinkie’s methods in a year or two.

Hinkie’s process upset a lot of people, and ultimately cost him his job. It seems counter-intuitive to think that losing is the best way to win in the future, but in the NBA it seems like it may be the best strategy. And if this plan becomes more provably successful, or even just more widely adopted, tanking may require more immediate attention from the league’s front office. There’s no easy fix to this if it becomes a problem, and it’s a problem that may become impossible to ignore.

Nick Saban and Sam Hinkie have undoubtedly heard of each other, but if they’ve ever commented on each other’s use of the “The Process,” I have yet to hear about it. And ultimately, the phrase itself isn’t as important as the two dramatically different strategies behind it. Saban’s process is undeniably the best, but this comes more from his personal abilities and skills rater than some new strategy that no one had every heard of. For Hinkie, success (if it comes) will come from a far less obvious source. Perhaps though, it will be just as significant as the multiple championships that have rolled through Tuscaloosa over the last few years.

There are many differences between professional and collegiate sports, and those who favor one brand over the other will never tire of proclaiming their choice’s attributes. Tanking is never fun to watch though, and the fact that collegiate sports prioritize constant success is noteworthy. It points to the problems that are facing the NBA right now, problems that may dictate the league’s future.

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