There’s a fine line between patience and sadism. Sam Hinkie is toeing it.
Consider the 2014 NBA draft: Two years after Andrew Bynum landed in and ultimately left Philadelphia, 12 months after the franchise drafted another injured center who has yet to make his regular-season debut, 71 days after the conclusion of a season that was tanked so brazenly it jump-started a national conversation about incentivized losing, and minutes after a substantial contingent of Sixers fans at the Barclay Center started an impassioned “Wiggins” chant, the Philadelphia general manager, surely aware of all this dismal history and its residue, did something that’s sensible only in hindsight. He ignored it.
With the Nos. 3 and 10 selections in a loaded draft, Hinkie acquired a player who almost certainly won’t get on the floor in 2014-15, a second who is under contract to play professional basketball in Turkey for at least two more seasons and an additional first-round pick that won’t come until 2017. Help was not on the way. Not immediately, at least.
Back in Philadelphia the day after the draft, Hinkie was interrogated by Sixers beat writers about his decision to push back contention another season by selecting Joel Embiid -- the guy with Hakeem’s potential and Yao’s navicular bone -- and Dario Saric. The tone was incredulous: How could you make Sixers fans go through a season like the one they just endured and give them nothing in return? Don’t you owe them more? His answer was revealing and is worth reading in full.
“I would say I’ve been borderline shocked in the last few months at a bunch of things. One is just how smart our fans are and how much they understand … the price you have to pay to go to where you want to go. I’ve been shocked at how interested our fans have been, generally, in an organization that would focus on a goal that is lofty and hard to reach, and a path that could easily be difficult, in an effort to get back to somewhere that they all want us to get to. That we want to get to. To get back to being a finalist again. To get back to winning a title again. It has been remarkable to me to watch the level of intrigue and the level of patience and understanding.”
Philadelphia basketball fans are smiling as they stare down the barrel of another season that, by conventional metrics -- like, say, wins -- will almost certainly be excruciating. The reason Sixers boosters have developed this rosy attitude is odd and oddly encouraging. The franchise has done something difficult and important: They have successfully convinced a group of modern Americans to wait for pleasure.
A few years ago, a team of researchers in the Netherlands set out to get a clearer sense of how taking a vacation affects happiness. The team rounded up 1,530 adults and, over the course of 32 weeks, recorded their levels of contentment before, during and after a getaway. Like those of most academic works that can be easily repurposed as structuring metaphors for sports columns, the results were unexpected. Going on a trip makes people happy, they found, but not nearly as happy as planning one. Thinking about fun things, in other words, is more satisfying than actually living them. Anticipation trumps experience.
It’s in this way that the 76ers organization built a 19-63 basketball team a stellar approval rating. The organization deftly sold fans the idea that, just over the horizon, was a vacation. It sold them on potential.
What’s made a pitch like this not just successful but even possible is the increasing sophistication of modern sports fans, a phenomenon where Philadelphia is the unlikely epicenter. We’re in an age of evidence-based athletics -- biometrics replacing the eye test, analytics supplanting conventional wisdom, individualized nutrition plans nudging aside fast-food indulgences -- and the trend has been publicized by an army of print and online journalists who write about competition not lyrically, but from the vantage of a clear-eyed business analyst. We’ve been subjected to a thorough unpacking of the new science of sports. And just across the parking lot from the Sixers, the Philadelphia Eagles represent the gridiron actualization of this trend. An organization that was a shambles was rebuilt into an instant contender through a meticulous application of these very ideas.
This way of thinking dissolves the apparent radicalness of the Sixers project into sober practicality. If you accept the premise that the point of professional sports is winning championships -- which most of us, for better or worse, do -- then there’s nothing even remotely controversial about the way the franchise has conducted itself since Hinkie took over as general manager in May 2013. They have made a series of wise, disciplined and explicable steps toward winning, and winning often.
The roster is terrible at present but is loaded with possibility. Nerlens Noel, the fierce defender who slid to the Sixers in the 2013 draft, posted eight rebounds, five steals and five blocks in the preseason finale. Michael Carter-Williams, a 6-foot-6 point guard with gazelle speed, is the defending rookie of the year. Embiid was the consensus best prospect in the 2014 draft until a foot injury -- which the Sixers believe he will fully recover from -- eroded his standing. Saric was regarded as a high-lottery pick before he signed a multiyear contract overseas.
That’s a stable of young talent that rivals any in the league. And with the Sixers poised to struggle again in 2014-15, there’s more to come -- especially now that a coalition of small-market owners voted down a proposal to alter the lottery structure to diminish the favor it gives to the worst teams.
Coupled with the Sixers' embrace of sports science, and the rigorous way it analyzes players, it’s become clear to suddenly savvy Philadelphians that this team is headed in the right direction, and will get there eventually if not quickly. What’s most impressive about this franchise isn't just that fact, but how thoroughly they've convinced us of it.