The 76ers' plan to win (yes, really)

Call it a development year, or three, for franchise cornerstones Michael Carter-Williams, Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel. Steve Boyle

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 2 Analytics Issue. Subscribe today!

THE ARCHITECT OF the ballsiest experiment in American sports would greatly appreciate it if this article disintegrated.

It's a snowy January afternoon in New York City, and Sam Hinkie and I are having a two-hour lunch inside an upscale, dimly lit restaurant on Park Avenue. This is no small concession: Hinkie, the hypercompetitive general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, has a hyperactive brain that runs cost-benefit analysis as relentlessly as a normal human breathes oxygen. To label the 37-year-old press-shy would be woefully inadequate. By Hinkie's math, talking on the record, about pretty much anything, unfailingly grades out as a cost.

"Sam views everything said in public as information given away for free," one ex-colleague of his later explains. Or as Rockets GM Daryl Morey, Hinkie's previous boss, tells me, "In terms of personality, we're extremely different -- for better and for worse."

It was Morey who co-founded and presides over the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, an annual social event designed around the sharing of quantitative insight. Morey jousts media criticism, scraps with Charles Barkley on Twitter and urges questions on Reddit. By contrast, his protégé has spoken on the record precisely once since this season began. "They want us to be the same," Morey says, "but Sam is strategic in everything." And ever since Philadelphia's owners entrusted Hinkie with his very first front office, in May 2013, his mind has worked to obscure even the barest hint of competitive advantage for his team.

To anyone who has glimpsed said team, of course, all of this may sound somewhere between aggressively weird and tragicomically delusional.

More than any other franchise in memory, these 76ers have been derided for being not just uncompetitive but singularly anti-competitive. In a sport where the worst teams secure the best odds at the best draft picks, Philadelphia tied the NBA record for consecutive losses (26, an alphabet's worth of L's) last season. This season, the Sixers started 0-17, triggering a formal league vote on whether the draft lottery should be reformed altogether. (The proposal -- which would have cut the worst team's shot at the No. 1 pick from 25 percent to 11 percent -- fell six votes short.) On this depth chart, backup guard Jason Richardson is so old that his teammates recently gifted him a box of adult diapers for his birthday. He turned 34.

"If you're in tanking mode," Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss recently told ESPN, throwing shade in Hinkie's general direction, "I think that's unforgivable." SLAM magazine declared the team "a flesh-eating bacteria of sorts on the NBA's collective self-respect." The league's former deputy commissioner, Russ Granik, testified to The New York Times, "I don't understand this strategy at all." By November, the national backlash had grown so overwhelming that Philadelphia's point guard, 23-year-old Michael Carter-Williams, wrote a defiant essay for the Players' Tribune, Derek Jeter's online publishing concern, titled "Don't Talk to Me About Tanking." "Grown men are going to purposely mail it in for a 1-in-4 shot at drafting somebody who might someday take their job?" Carter-Williams wrote. "Nope." The night it was posted, Dallas blew out the Sixers by 53.

So it was, before an 18-point December loss against the Celtics, that Hinkie and three team executives met with NBA commissioner Adam Silver in Philadelphia to attempt to assuage the league's tanking-related concerns. No, the Sixers weren't throwing games -- no one who has watched them can reasonably begin to believe they were. But for two years in a row, one might point out, Philadelphia's top two lottery picks, Nerlens Noel (No. 6 overall in 2013) and Joel Embiid (No. 3 in 2014), have both been conspicuously injured big men who couldn't take the court their rookie seasons. "The idea of a teardown was the right thing to do," one Eastern Conference scout says. "But for this second year, smart, reasonable people I know are curious as to why they put together such a bad team."

This curiosity, of course, is why Hinkie and I are at lunch in New York. And before he summons the Uber that will usher him to tonight's game in Brooklyn, I want the GM to share, on the record, how exactly it is that he put Silver at ease. I want Hinkie to share, on the record, exactly why he has put together such a woeful team. I want to him to share, on the record, whether he minds that a supposedly brainy front office so often gets called myopic and brain-dead.

But his cost-benefit analysis finds risk in even publicly acknowledging these questions. Or any other ones. No, Hinkie won't discuss how he and his head coach were hired. No, he won't comment on his transaction history and the quieter strategies he's pursued. The very last thing Hinkie wants to do is admit his bets on 1) injured prospects and foreign players, 2) a collective-bargaining-agreement-driven, pre-apocalyptic stockpile of second-round picks, and 3) wingspan and subpar shooters. These Sixers may feel like "an educated science project," as Brett Brown, their coach, puts it. But it is Hinkie who intentionally lets his silence breed intrigue, fermenting disgust for his experiment like mold in a petri dish.

On draft day 2013, when Hinkie agreed to trade Jrue Holiday, a 23-year-old All-Star, for Nerlens Noel and a protected 2014 first-rounder, a rival Eastern Conference GM turned to his war room and declared: "They're crazy." Thaddeus Young, then a Sixers forward, tweeted one word: "OMG."

If the Sixers were trying to contend in the first year of Hinkie's tenure, these would be logical responses. But they weren't. And the fact that Noel had torn his left ACL four months earlier presented Philly with a two-pronged opportunity that no one else had the stomach to pursue. There was the price of the big man's talent, which was now discounted because of injury. (Noel had once been the projected top pick.) Then there was the injury timetable, which was now that much more palatable because, well, the Sixers had designs on the lottery in 2014 too. (Hinkie put Noel on what can only be called a "conservative" rehab program, sitting him all season as the team went 19-63.)

So when the 2014 draft came along and the Sixers had the No. 3 pick, perhaps it shouldn't have been surprising that Hinkie picked Joel Embiid, a would-be Hakeem Olajuwon, just as he had nabbed Noel. A 7-footer who might be the best prospect in the draft? Whose injury (a stress fracture in his right foot) dropped him across so many draft boards but not Hinkie's? Who wouldn't be asked to win as a rookie? Check, check and check.

But injured players aren't the only way to invest in the future and divest from the present. Consider that with the 2014 first-rounder that Hinkie got for Holiday, he picked Elfrid Payton, a point guard coveted by Orlando, at No. 10. Hinkie then flipped Payton to Orlando for pick No. 12, a 2015 second-rounder and a 2017 first-rounder. With that No. 12 pick, Hinkie nabbed 20-year-old Dario Saric, a 6-foot-10 Croatian who has already been named the FIBA Europe Young Player of the Year twice.

Another front office might have been afraid to select a player who might not come to the U.S. for two years. But here, as with injury, the cost of a young, foreign centerpiece not immediately playing for the Sixers is exceptionally discounted. Even better, an NBA team doesn't even pay an overseas pick who has yet to suit up for it, meaning that the rest of the planet can effectively serve as a free minor league system. Hinkie, who has modeled exchange rates for foreign-to-domestic stats, has four other prospects -- all second-rounders -- still ripening in Turkey, Germany, China and Australia. For free.

As Brown says, "We talk often about having a very, very long lens." Philadelphia doesn't need their help -- doesn't want their help -- just yet.

THE FIRST TIME the owners of the 76ers rejected Hinkie, they were trying to figure out which NBA strategies to steal. In their day jobs, this was not a novel idea. In July 2011, when billionaire Josh Harris led a group of investors in purchasing the team for a reported $280 million from Comcast Spectacor, The New York Times declared, "Private Equity Princes Reach Deal for 76ers." Harris (a co-founder of Apollo Global Management) and co-managing owner David Blitzer (a partner at the Blackstone Group) are both ludicrously wealthy Wharton grads and Sixers diehards; another owner, David B. Heller, spent 23 years at Goldman Sachs. More than any other owners, they knew how to turn around distressed properties and how to replicate the best practices of unfamiliar industries. And now they wanted to win.

NBA title contention, for all its elusiveness, is depressingly simple. You need stars. In a five-on-five sport governed by salary caps, max contracts and rookie wage scales, the biggest talents double as both the biggest difference makers and biggest bargains. FiveThirtyEight found that of the past 40 teams to make the Finals, their No. 1 player, on average, ranked in the 96th percentile in statistical plus/minus. The No. 2 player was 90th percentile; the No. 3, 79th. The real question is how to acquire them.

In the summer of 2012, with Philly's then-president, Rod Thorn, acting as general manager, the new ownership identified two organizational models, Sixers executives tell me. The first was the approach of the Spurs and Thunder, franchises renowned for developing players and internal basketball culture. The other was the method used by 
the Celtics and Rockets, franchises renowned for command of the NBA's arcane CBA and analytics. For the latter approach, Hinkie -- whom Morey had made the NBA's youngest VP in 2007 at age 29 -- fit the bill.

The 5-9 Hinkie had graduated at the top of his class at Oklahoma's Marlow High (where he started at point guard and defensive back), at the University of Oklahoma (where he majored in finance) and at Stanford Business School (where he resolved to work in sports, shedding a résumé heavy in management consulting and private equity). In 2005, not long after leaving Palo Alto, Hinkie joined the Rockets, working up from special assistant to Morey's deputy two years later, managing the salary cap and championing data collection -- once calling himself Customer Zero of the motion-tracking SportVU cameras now installed in every NBA arena. Morey, though, came to believe that evaluation was Hinkie's greatest skill. "He watches more basketball than anyone I know," the Rockets' GM says. "And he was on the road constantly." Hinkie insisted on quizzing team managers and van drivers in an effort to gather data on a college kid. He enthusiastically volunteered to visit one-prospect gyms from Eastern Washington to Istanbul.

But in 2012, during those first midsummer interviews with Sixers ownership, it was Hinkie's native tongue that resonated most. As a veteran of finance, he was fluent in the dispassionate language of expected value and probability. And in a world governed by random chance, Hinkie believed, as Harris and Blitzer did, that the process leading to a decision -- say, the selection and execution of a shot attempt or the logic of an investment -- should matter more than the result. That is why Hinkie saw value in measuring essentially everything in Houston, constructing financial models and running Monte Carlo simulations of the NBA season, investigating, among many other things, how certain players impact thousands of possible outcomes. That is why he also warned his prospective employers that by so investing in the present, they were treading down a dangerous path.

Months earlier, in the 2012 playoffs, the Sixers had won their only series since 2003, edging a hapless Bulls squad that had lost Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to injuries in Games 1 and 3, respectively. In August, still high off its own fumes, Philly went all-in with a sequence of roster moves. Most radical of all: a four-way trade centered on Magic center Dwight Howard and Lakers center Andrew Bynum. The latter, who had just a year left on his contract, became a Sixer for an extraordinarily high cost: Philly's best player, Andre Iguodala; the No. 15 pick from June, Moe Harkless; a gifted young center, Nik Vucevic; and a 2017 first-rounder. Harris and Blitzer believed they were clearing the decks for a top-10, 96th-percentile-type player. But Hinkie, surveying payroll, delicately submitted that not only had they overvalued Bynum, but their 35-31 team might actually have been made worse.

Come September, the Private Equity Princes chose not to hire Hinkie (or any of their other Sloan-savvy favorites, Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren among them). They instead opted to promote Tony DiLeo, a Sixers lifer they credited with helping Thorn acquire Bynum, from within.

After only one year in control, ownership had figured, the time wasn't yet right for a shake-up, not with their second playoff run imminent. Incumbent head coach Doug Collins, who still had a say in personnel matters, also viscerally loathed the data-driven approach. "I'd blow my brains out," Collins would tell reporters that October when asked about the possibility of consulting analytics.

And besides: As much as they were charmed by Hinkie's abstract ideas, they couldn't help but think skeptically. It all sounded great. But if they could just go out and get Bynum -- a talent who inspired fans to chant not only his name but also JOSH-UA HAR-RIS, at his first news conference -- why didn't Hinkie's Rockets already have a superstar of their own?

Such a question would be answered with a nightmare leavened only by absurdity. The Sixers finished 34-48 that 2012-13 season, tying for last in the division. Worst of all, Bynum wound up recording more bowling-related season-ending arthroscopic knee surgeries (one) than games played in a 76ers jersey.

Their would-be star was a hazardous fit -- sometimes even literally. One day, memorably, the rehabbing big man parked next to Aaron Barzilai, DiLeo's newly hired director of basketball analytics, in the parking lot of the team facility at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. As Bynum shuffled inside, Barzilai noticed something on their would-be star's custom black Ferrari and called after him. Bynum, it turned out, had driven away from a gas station without removing the pump's nozzle and eight-
foot rubber hose, which he'd dragged, pythonlike, through the street.

That spring, Hinkie met Harris and Blitzer for dinner and another interview in Manhattan. Less than a year after their initial conversations, the contrast between ownership's personal probabilistic sensibility and the current administration's older-school tack stung. And Hinkie, as if to underscore that divergence, walked into dinner carrying a laptop, complete with a massively detailed PowerPoint presentation that Sixers executives now recall as an "investment thesis." Its centerpiece was a diagram that illustrated, arrow by arrow, transaction by transaction, how Houston had amassed the assets -- two first-rounders and a second-rounder, along with guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb -- to acquire superstar guard James Harden from the Thunder in October ... a month after the Sixers had hired DiLeo. Hinkie's abstract vision for artfully delayed NBA production suddenly felt concrete.

The CBA is an all-important, demoralizingly confusing document that the Sixers scrutinize like billionaires searching for a tax loophole. So when the team cleared the balance sheets -- the payroll is now a meager $42.5 million, lowest in the league by $11 million -- it did so knowing certain opportunities in the market would follow.

Today, Philadelphia is so unencumbered by the current salary cap ($63.1 million) and luxury tax ($76.8 million) that it sits below the cap floor ($56.8 million). But many franchises struggle to create financial flexibility on a regular basis. Enter Hinkie, who is more than happy to take on others' contractual waste -- and dump it himself -- all for a small, negligible fee: a future second-round pick.

Throughout league history, the second-rounder has been the penny stock of hoops, the spiritual brother of baseball's player to be named later. But they're not valued that way by these Sixers, who collect the things like bingeing hoarders, amassing them via salary dumps and throw-ins on other deals. In last year's draft, Hinkie acquired or traded five second-round picks, not including his own; this June he'll have the rights to four more from other teams. Hell, he's acquired one for 2016, two for 2018, two for 2019 and one for 2020 already. Nobody else in the NBA has an extra 2020 pick -- very possibly because said pick might presently be 12 years old.

But to Philly, any second-rounder is both an embryonic trade chip and a lottery ticket that jumps in value come draft day, when some team will inevitably take a shining to a specific prospect without having the picks to draft him. When that happens, the Bank of Hinkie will be there -- ready to flip the second-rounder for cash (and profit); or to package it for another asset (and profit); or to keep it himself, hoping to sign the next Chandler Parsons, the eventual $46 million forward whom the Rockets drafted 38th overall in 2011 (and profit).

Consider Jerami Grant, whom Philly took 39th out of Syracuse in June. Grant signed a four-year deal that guaranteed his first two seasons for $885,000 and $845,000, respectively, some $300,000 more annually than the league-minimum salary of many second-rounders. That financial security was catnip to him and no sweat to the Sixers, who certainly have cap space on their delayed production schedule. But the key twist -- just as it was with Parsons -- is that the forward's third and fourth years are neither guaranteed nor big raises. This template led guard K.J. McDaniels, the 32nd pick in June, to reject Hinkie's four-year offer in favor of a one-year, unguaranteed deal. And by those latter two seasons, when the Sixers do plan to spend, Grant will be something very different: either an underpriced keeper -- "He's one of those guys, for me, that makes me want to hug Sam," Brown recently gushed -- or someone you can cut loose at zero cost. In both cases, he will be a team-friendly asset and maybe one day, if Hinkie plays his cards right, a detail in a PowerPoint slide.

HINKIE USHERED IN his tenure as general manager by tearing down the walls. Literally. Not long after his arrival, one of Hinkie's first acts was to graft the open plan of a Silicon Valley startup -- replete with whiteboards and squiggly lines -- onto the front office of a half-century-old organization. (A wholly state-of-the-art, 120,000-square-foot practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, is coming in 2016.) Virtually overnight, the Sixers went from not even having Microsoft Outlook to having mandated biometrics. From day one, Hinkie has had every player wear a fatigue-tracking GPS device, made by an Australian company called Catapult, at practice. The team would soon measure hydration and, thanks to take-home monitors, sleep.

Jason Richardson, the team's only pre-Hinkie holdover, was shocked: "As an old-school guy, it was a big wake-up call." The 14-year veteran watched as a franchise with one analytics-focused staffer under DiLeo came to employ 32-year-old VP of basketball operations Sachin Gupta, an MIT alum and Stanford MBA who was Morey's first hire in Houston, and 25-year-old VP of basketball strategy Ben "Wiz" Falk, a Maryland grad who's never played organized hoops but who impressed as the analytics manager for Portland. Both men stand well under 6 feet tall; alongside their boss, they must make up the shortest front office in the league.

When I asked Brett Brown, who was hired in August 2013, about Hinkie's diligence in hiring, he told me that his own interview experience often felt like "the gauntlet on one of those game shows where you have to run over a bridge and then something flies out and hits you, and the pole is slippery, and then another thing swings out and hits you." Spread wide over that summer, there was a phone call after Collins resigned, a meeting with Hinkie in Houston and another summit in New York, weeks after the draft, with four Sixers owners present. When Hinkie finally called with an offer, shortly after the New York meeting, Brown was in a Chevy Suburban headed to LaGuardia Airport, on his way back to San Antonio. Hinkie asked the Spurs assistant -- the man whom Gregg Popovich had made his first director of player development in 2002 -- to turn the car around.

By then, Brown had only one condition for employment. "I wouldn't have accepted the job if it wasn't for four years," he says. "I always get upset when people talk about trying to 'build a culture.' It takes time."

Brown, who won four rings with Popovich, would know. True to his Spurs lineage, which enticed ownership, the Maine native has seen the world, having spent 17 years coaching in Australia. (Tim Duncan, San Antonio's Hall of Fame big man, refers to Brown's hybrid, vowel-hammering accent as "Bostralian.") The son of two schoolteachers, the 54-year-old is also an extroverted learner who calls himself "one of the all-time great fans" of TED Talks. "I did my homework on the owners and Sam," Brown says. "I knew that this job was high-risk, high-reward: In a city as competitively brutal as Philadelphia, how do you create something that matters?"

Two years into Brown's four-year contract, Hinkie has handed his coach a staff of more than a dozen, with individuals responsible for everything from offense and defense, to analytics, to sports science, to video, to strength and conditioning. One basketball-ops staffer, Lance "Doc" Pearson, has a Ph.D. in cognitive and neural systems from Boston University and degrees in mathematics, computer science and philosophy from the University of Kentucky. Another guy, who teaches team-building part time, is a Navy SEAL.

Hinkie is fond of sending Brown selected articles by one of his idols, Warren Buffett. Brown is fond of bringing his entire team on field trips, like the one to a University of Pennsylvania lecture hall in October. There, the Sixers met MacArthur-winning psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, whose TED Talk on grit -- which she defines as "passion and perseverance for very long-term goals" -- had touched a coach tasked with alchemizing failure into development. "I've never met anybody more positive than Coach Brown," undrafted forward Malcolm Thomas says. "We could lose by 30 and he'd still be like, 'You guys played your heart out! I'm proud of you!'"

But exertion -- as with any goal for these Sixers -- is more than a cliché. After every game, a squad of as many as eight staffers, under the direction of Pearson and assistant coach Vance Walberg, constructs something called an Effort Chart. Every Sixer, on every possession, is graded on five complex, proprietary criteria. On offense, for instance, the team wants to reward pace, so staffers time a player's first three steps when a miss is recovered. On defense, they'll recognize accomplishments such as contested shots, tips and deflections. Report cards, linked to video for review, are announced to the team. "We set it up as a competition," undrafted forward JaKarr Sampson gushes. Brown harps on the team average -- a score of 20 is high -- and denotes improvement in 10-game chunks.

The result: Hinkie's alleged collection of flesh-eating bacteria, anonymous as they are, actually try. "Development, for me, is everything," Brown tells me. "It lets me truly look at somebody and not feel like, 'We're going to cut you in a week or two weeks to get another draft pick.'"

Spend enough time around these Sixers, in fact, and you may notice something astonishing: A city known for whipping batteries at subpar outfielders and lustily booing Santa Claus has not been proportionally vicious. Not as much as the rest of the country, at least. Sure, you might spot a winter cap with a small knitted tank bearing a 76ers logo sewn on top. Or, on Martin Luther King Day, two fans wearing paper bags on their heads with, "I have a dream ... but the 76ers traded it for a 2nd round pick" scrawled in black marker.

But the marketing department has slashed prices, invited kids to stand courtside during shootarounds and dispatched Brown into a conference room, before every hard-fought but inexorable loss, to personally mollify season-ticket holders. The team's official slogan, as euphemistically honest as possible: Together We Build.

The locker room lives by a different phrase, one that Hinkie underscores so often that it might as well be capitalized on a wall inside Wells Fargo Center. "They tell us every game, every day, 'Trust the Process,'" guard Tony Wroten says. "Just continue to build." The mantra is so pervasive that there is only one person on the team who even comes close to explicitly mentioning an NBA title -- a Result, instead of The Process -- when I ask about goals.

"It's always a championship," Brown says. "Why else would I do this?"

The next afternoon, my cellphone rings. It is the coach, and his Bostralian accent is verging on breathless. He was jogging through the streets of Philadelphia, he says, and he'd been stressing about his poor choice of words ever since we talked.

"We're trying to see what we have in Nerlens, what we have in Michael, what we have in Saric, in Joel," Brown clarifies. "We're trying to make sure that when our guys start getting older, or a legit free agent is attracted to our program, the infrastructure is in place to absorb it all. But none of us are beating our chests, saying that it's 100 percent certain we're going to get this right."

Show up to a January shootaround at Wells Fargo Center, 120 minutes before tip-off, and two things quickly become apparent. First: These Sixers are conspicuously long-limbed -- 10 of the 14 athletes boast a wingspan at least six inches longer than their height. Second: With the remarkable exception of forward Robert Covington -- an undrafted, sweet-shooting 24-year-old with a 7-2 wingspan -- approximately none of them can, you know, shoot.

This is no accident. It remains scientifically impossible to develop arm length, an underrated characteristic on defense. ("Sam is very studied in regards to that," Brown says.) But as Spurs wing Kawhi Leonard has verified, it is possible to grow a prospect's shooting ability over time. And Philly, forcing turnovers at a league-high 15.6 percent through the All-Star break but shooting a league-low 41 percent, is incentivized to wait on such a large-scale renovation. If the Sixers happen to have one of the worst offenses in history in the meantime, boosting their odds in the draft lottery? That's no accident either. The 2008-09 Thunder pulled off a version of this with Russell Westbrook, who led the league in turnovers as a rookie point guard as the team went 23-59. The next year, Oklahoma City took Harden at No. 3.

Hinkie, as part of his drive to measure everything, tracks each shot his players take, not just in games but also shootarounds and practices. "You can't hide," Richardson says. Some of the tallying is by hand; some of it is noted off video. Brown uses the data to see which players "are investing time into development," he says, and doles out playing time and in-game privileges accordingly. "It's crazy," Noel says. "They'll tell me what my free throw percentage is in practice. And I'm like, 'What?!'"

It is possible that no team takes the structure of its pregame shootarounds more seriously. The players arrive in scheduled 15-minute waves of two or three and promptly begin to sweat under the supervision of shooting coach Eugene Burroughs. On one recent night in Philadelphia, Hinkie observes from a sideline as a platoon of assistants, video coordinators and basketball-ops guys waits on the sidelines with MacBooks bearing video and spreadsheets. When each wave finishes its tailored drills -- in Brown's system, for instance, bigs focus exclusively on baseline jumpers and rolling to the basket -- the players sit down with a designated coach, who walks them through preselected clips from the last game. It's like jump shot triage. "They really hit us over the head with percentages," Thomas says, "and what type of shots they want us to take."

Like Houston, which shoots the most 3s in the league, Philadelphia fetishizes the importance of being lethal from behind the arc. Just as the title-winning Spurs fetishized it last season, and the playoff-bound Warriors, Hawks and Trail Blazers fetishize it now. But that trait can also be purchased and supplemented, Hinkie knows, when production is no longer delayed: Think of nomadic snipers like Ray Allen and Mike Miller; now think of what their spacing could do for a Nerlens Noel. Until then, the Sixers are second to last in 3-point percentage, at 31 percent, while still attempting more 3s than all but 10 teams.

Not coincidentally, Philly also plays at the sixth-highest pace in the league -- all the better to up its players' counting stats, however flawed, in case any buyers are vaguely paying attention. Carter-Williams might not be traded, but if he is, rest assured that his Rookie of the Year award -- which he won while hoisting 15.1 shots a game -- will factor into his new employer's calculus. Or take the aforementioned Thaddeus Young, of OMG fame. After Hinkie took over, the forward took a career-high 16.2 shots and 3.7 3s a game, producing a career-high 17.9 points despite shooting a career-low 45.4 percent overall. That summer Philly flipped Young to Minnesota for two players and a 2015 first-round pick. "The team I'm coaching now isn't the team I'll be coaching a few years from now," Brown admits. "Some people will make it. Some people won't."

NEAR THE END of our lunch on Park Avenue, once it starts to become evident that this article won't disintegrate, Hinkie makes an editorial concession that catches me by surprise. There is a quote I can have before he heads off to Brooklyn.

It does not address the risk of Hinkie's five lottery picks failing to yield stars, plural, within the next season or two. Or the risk of two years of artfully delayed production resulting only in a third or fourth year of increasingly commonplace mediocrity. Or the risk of America mostly remembering these Sixers, by dint of injury or scouting or a zillion other threats, as an indictment of Hinkie -- or analytics altogether.

Instead, the quote concerns Robert Caro, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of painstaking, mountainous biographies of Robert Moses and President Lyndon B. Johnson, the latter of whom the 79-year-old writer is in the midst of chronicling in five volumes. When Caro first set out to write all 1,296 pages of The Power Broker, the Moses tome, he'd famously promised his wife that he'd be done with a manuscript in nine months. It took him 522 interviews and seven years. At one desperate point in the process, the story goes, Caro ran out of money, and when he returned home from a research trip, his wife told him that she'd been forced to sell the house they were sitting in.

It was Caro's very first book. He kept working.

"Robert Caro," Sam Hinkie tells me, grinning, "is my favorite writer."