Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Six

On Saturday night, the Philadelphia 76ers will retire Allen Iverson’s No. 3 jersey, raising it to the rafters in front of most likely one of the largest crowds the Sixers have seen or will see all season long. For many fans, it will be the highlight of the year … or at least the biggest highlight since leading Rookie of the Year candidate Michael Carter-Williams burst onto the scene in Game 1 by toppling the reigning NBA champions in historic fashion.

That’s because the Sixers are in the midst of a spectacularly terrible season on the court, sitting with the second worst record in the NBA — 15-43 — and currently on a 12-game losing streak following last night’s loss to the now 18-42 Orlando Magic.

Tuesday, after the 76ers got blown out by the NBA’s bottom-dwellers, the Milwaukee Bucks, the great Tom Ziller asked a simple question: “Has Sam Hinkie made the Sixers too awful?

Ziller goes into many reasons why he asks this question, and one of the arguments he brings up is that “the losing further alienates an already standoffish Philadelphia fanbase.” He says perhaps all this blatant tanking will only make Philadelphia more apathetic to professional basketball, given all the local high school and college talent that can satiate the vast Philadelphia basketball thirst.

These are all good points, and yet I can’t help but disagree with the motives behind those that pose this question. Here’s why: The Philadelphia 76ers are searching for the next Allen Iverson, not searching for short-term good will … and they need the next Allen Iverson. In today’s NBA, the only way to do that is either through free agency/trade or by bottoming out and striking gold in the lottery.

Ziller is right. Philadelphia does have a standoffish attitude toward the Sixers. No matter what anyone says, the City of Brotherly Love is an Eagles town that also happens to be a tremendous hockey market. The Eagles and Flyers always sell out and always are at the forefront of the sports chatter in town. In recent years, the Phillies have helped transform Philadelphia into a baseball town, but only after a new stadium and an unprecedented run that included five straight NL East titles, two World Series trips and one World Series title — easily the most successful stretch in franchise history. Prior to that, Veterans Stadium was a veritable wasteland in the summer months, and Citizen Bank Park has been getting sparser and sparser the past two frustratingly poor seasons.

And much like the Phillies, the Sixers fit in the Philadelphia landscape the same way. They were the toast of the town in the late ’70s and early ’80s, competing for and finally winning a championship in 1983 — led by the star power of Julius Erving and Moses Malone.

The Sixers remained relevant through the ’80s when Charles Barkley arrived — another Hall of Famer with tremendous star power. Then, when the Sixers kept losing and Charles was shipped to Phoenix, the team had no discernible stars and no wins to draw fans.

Thus they didn’t. People weren’t schlepping down to the arena to watch Dana Barros, Clarence Weatherspoon, Jeff Malone and Shawn Bradley get their brains beat in. The basketball fans in this city simply put their fandom elsewhere — namely the collegiate and high school ranks, as Ziller points out.

That is, until Allen Iverson arrived. From day one, he captured Philadelphia’s attention, and quickly — with the arrival of Larry Brown as coach — the Sixers became a force with Iverson — a star and another future Hall of Famer — at the forefront. Before long, the Sixers were the toast of the town, with Iverson ruling the roost and the Sixers climbing their way up to elite status in the Eastern Conference.

By the 2000-01 season, you couldn’t go anywhere in the Philadelphia region without seeing Sixers flags on cars and Sixers paraphernalia everywhere. That wasn’t because George Lynch, Aaron McKie, Tyrone Hill, Theo Ratliff/Dikembe Mutombo and Eric Snow played great defense, and it wasn’t because Larry Brown was a brilliant, Hall of Fame coach. It was because Allen Iverson had the city in the palm of his hands. The Sixers had a true superstar, and if nothing else, Philadelphia lionizes — and eventually tears down — its superstars as much as any other place in the country.

But ever since the wins began to fade and Iverson left for more mountainous pastures, the Sixers have descended back to irrelevance. Sure, they had some good players, namely Andre Iguodala, and some teams that fought hard — but they weren’t good and they had no stars.

That’s led to where the Sixers are now, and it’s why Sam Hinkie is doing what he’s been doing. The new Philadelphia GM is opening up cap space, acquiring assets and looking to make his move. In Houston, with Hinkie on board under Daryl Morey, it eventually panned out, landing the Rockets James Harden and Dwight Howard — exactly the type of star power the Sixers need to once again capture the basketball fans of Philadelphia and fill those seats.

He’s following the same blueprint that potted two superstars in Houston and the same theory that has given the Sixers their hold on Philadelphia over the years. And while there’s no guarantee it will work out, it’s a sound plan based on sound principles. Hinkie is searching for the next Allen Iverson (or two … or three) to make the Sixers players once again. Maybe that will be through the lottery picks the team is slated for. Maybe it’ll come through trades and/or free agency down the road. Maybe it will come through a combination of both. And maybe the search won’t pan out the way both fans and the organization hope.

But it’s the only way the Sixers can reasonably get back to relevance. From Wilt Chamberlain to Dr. J to Moses to Charles and finally to Iverson, it’s the stars that put the butts in the seats and the apathy at bay. Sam Hinkie knows that. Sixers fans know that. Even the apathetic professional basketball fans of Philadelphia know that.

So no, Sam Hinkie hasn’t made the Sixers too awful. Quite the opposite, in fact. Sam Hinkie has actually made searching for the next Allen Iverson feel like an attainable goal, not a hopeless pipe dream.