Commentary

Cleveland didn't trust Sashi Brown, but process figures to work

Updated: December 8, 2017, 11:35 AM ET
By Seth Walder and Brian Burke | ESPN.com

On the June 2016 night when the Philadelphia 76ers drafted Ben Simmons, a fan at the Barclays Center wearing a Sixers T-shirt held a sign that read, "Hinkie died for your sins."

Come next April, when the Cleveland Browns might be deciding to select either Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft, will there be a similar sentiment for Sashi Brown?

There are striking similarities between the 76ers when then-GM Sam Hinkie resigned from his post in April 2016 and the Browns now, after the team fired Brown, its executive vice president of football operations, on Friday. The Browns hired former Chiefs general manager John Dorsey as their new GM later the same day. 

The most obvious parallel is that both teams used analytics to inform their decision-making and sought value in the market by exchanging overvalued assets for undervalued ones. Hinkie did this in a relentless pursuit of superstars by trading veterans for younger players and draft picks and tanking in hopes of landing superior draft position. The Browns took advantage of their league's draft-pick market by repeatedly trading down for more and future picks. In both cases, the teams understood there was no perfect to science to drafting, and therefore they were better off trying to make more early lottery picks (in the NBA) or just more picks (in the NFL).

In just two years of draft-pick-for-draft-pick trades, the Browns significantly increased their draft capital. Even by the outdated Jimmy Johnson chart, they added over 2,000 trade chart points, the equivalent of the No. 3 pick. By another measure: They added over 20 AV, the equivalent of two No. 1 picks. And by Massey-Thaler's surplus value calculations, they added more than $13 million of value in those trades, the equivalent of five or six first-round picks. That is all from just trading back.

The Browns will enter the 2018 offseason in a similar position to the 2016 76ers. When Hinkie stepped down almost four years into his tenure, the 76ers had the worst record in the NBA. Joel Embiid had not flourished into what he is today, and the 2016 lottery had not occurred yet. As it turned out, the 76ers won the lottery -- Hinkie maximized their chances of this happening, but it ultimately required a lot of luck -- and were able to select an elite prospect in Simmons, suddenly bringing the GM's vision into focus for many others. It took another season, but the 76ers now have tremendous promise and, according to our Basketball Power Index, are the 12th-best team in the NBA as of Friday. It's worth noting that though both teams hit rock bottom, the use of analytics is not necessarily synonymous with tanking (see: Houston Rockets).

Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesSashi Brown added trade capital, but also dealt picks that turned into Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson.

Brown ultimately had a shorter leash than Hinkie, as he was let go less than two years after he took over the front office. After aggressively trading down and ignoring the short term in 2016, Brown and the Browns really began building just this past offseason. They invested in their offensive line (though this did not work out as well as they probably hoped) and made three first-round selections in Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers and David Njoku along with a second-round flier at quarterback in DeShone Kizer. They did trade down from the No. 12 pick (more on that in a minute) in a move that was retroactively viewed as a nightmare. The Browns have failed to show much improvement In 2017, and they rank 30th in forward-looking FPI and sport the league's worst record.

Although tanking in the NFL is not as accepted or commonplace as it is in the NBA, the upside of the Browns' record is that they have an 89 percent chance at landing the No. 1 pick, per FPI. Although there might not be a prospect of Simmons' level in the next draft, there are relatively strong quarterbacks expected to come out of college. In the way that NBA teams need superstars to be a championship contender, NFL teams need quarterbacks.

In 2015, the Browns moved down from the No. 2 pick to the No. 8 pick in exchange for a 2017 first-rounder, a 2018 second-rounder, and 2016 third- and fourth-rounders from the Eagles. That No. 2 pick became Carson Wentz. In 2017, they moved down from No. 12 to No. 25 in exchange for a 2018 first-rounder from the Texans. That No. 12 pick became Deshaun Watson.

Ultimately those moves turned out to be disastrous, and the ensuing rise of Wentz and Watson might have cost Brown his job. But those decisions ought to be judged based on the information on hand at the time rather than on hindsight. Neither quarterback was a slam dunk prospect, and in both situations the Browns returned excellent value for their pick. And, critically, the Browns didn't need to jump at the first quarterback they saw because they were building for the long term. Or so they thought.

(Quick aside: Anyone panning the Browns for missing Watson ought to condemn the rest of the league for letting him fall to No. 12, particularly QB-needy teams such as the Bears, 49ers, Jaguars and Jets, who all passed him up).

Hinkie didn't have a perfect draft-day record in hindsight, either, as The Process included misses on Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. Critics might say Cleveland needed to show progress in the standings in Year 2, but the Browns' goal was to win a championship, not a few more games in a losing season. While chasing the former, Brown was fired for the latter.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY SportsJoel Embiid and Ben Simmons have allowed the Sixers' process to take a giant step forward.

Despite the team's 1-27 record under Brown and Hue Jackson, Dorsey will inherit an enviable bevy of assets.

The Browns have two first-round picks and three second-round picks in 2018, including the likely first overall selection.

The team's roster clearly is not built to win right now, but it is also incredibly green. Not only do the Browns have the youngest snap-weighted age (on offense and defense) in the league but they best the second-youngest team, the Jaguars, by more than a full year on average. Last year, the 76ers had the second-youngest roster in the NBA, according to Basketball Reference.

To top it off, the Browns have $58.9 million in cap space at the moment, which means that, with their salary-cap rollover, Dorsey should have more money to spend on free agents (assuming he can lure them to Cleveland) than he might know what to deal with. The fact that Dorsey is set up so well is not an accident; it's a testament to Brown's plan.

It is unknown how much Dorsey will change the course, and, at least for the moment, other members of the front office remain intact, including chief strategy officer and former baseball executive Paul DePodesta. But given Browns owner Jimmy Haslam's willingness to fire Brown, it seems safe to assume he wanted at least some change in approach. Presumably one of the reasons Haslam also wanted Dorsey is that he figured the experienced GM would draft better than Brown. Unfortunately for Haslam, there is little evidence that suggests anyone is excellent at drafting relative to his or her peers. 

Ultimately, Brown was kicked out of the organization long before anyone could find out whether his plan actually was going to come to fruition. Remember that The Process began in 2013 for the Sixers. Although Hinkie's plan is now revered by some, it is only really paying dividends now, in 2017. And it's not as if the 76ers are even title contenders yet.

Meanwhile, the Browns have been a mess for 18 years, but Brown's analytical approach was given barely 18 months.

Hank Gargiulo contributed to this report.

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Seth Walder

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    Brian Burke

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