As a person, Sixers general manager and president of basketball operations Sam Hinkie is probably the furthest thing removed from polarizing. Careful but informative with his words, usually well dressed but in an understated fashion, private and uncontroversial away from work, Hinkie is rather ordinary.
Yet when the subject changes to the manner in which the man chooses to run his basketball team, Hinkie is a freaking lightning rod.
In effect, last week's NBA Draft pushed both sides of Sixers supporters farther apart. To some, Hinkie is laying the groundwork for a run that will rival Will Ferrell's SNL tenure, one culminating in the basketball equivalent of three "Best Of" DVD specials. To others, he's Ron Burgundy, fresh off telling Philadelphia to, well, you know. Of course, a significant portion of the fanbase is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, but they're not nearly as much fun to write about.
Personally, I find myself leaning heavily toward the former camp, but also don't begrudge anyone who is upset about the prospect of being initially unable to tangibly experience the payoff of a painful rebuilding season. Hinkie and the ownership group are asking for a remarkable amount of patience from the fans, and as Kyle did an excellent job laying out the other day, patience isn't fun.
More than anything, what stinks about the Sixers' draft is that it's going to be harder to monitor the progress of their grand rebuilding project. If Andrew Wiggins and Noah Vonleh were running the two-man game to perfection in 2014-15, we'd feel better about the franchise's long-term prospects. If they both looked completely lost, a decent bit of doubt might creep in. There would be something, though.
As fans, we have a little bit of Bill Lumbergh in our makeup. We want the ability to consistently monitor those pesky progress reports, which Hinkie can't provide while his two lottery picks aren't in a Sixers uniform. Joel Embiid might be the next great two-way big man, or he might break down as soon as he tries to Dream Shake. Dario Saric might be great in Europe, but there will always be uncertainty about when or if he'll come to Philadelphia. Those two situations are unlikely to change in the next year.
So, I guess the pressing question is, "What exactly have we learned so far?"
The Sixers are way more patient than the average NBA franchise. Like, way more. Levin already touched on this, but it can't be said enough: Embiid's injury and Saric's overseas obligation were major reasons that the two prospects fell to picks 3 and 12, but they weren't the primary motivations behind their selections. Instead of "Let's go get the guys who can't play right away," the mindset was more like, "Let's not automatically disqualify these guys because they can't play right away." There's a difference between the two, and Nerlens Noel could very well provide an example of patience being rewarded on the court in 2014-15.
In the big picture, next season doesn't matter nearly as much as getting the picks right. Still, a few observers went as far as to speculate that the Sixers were scared off by the possibility of a player like Doug McDermott initially improving the team and therefore drastically reducing their 2015 lottery odds. Even if Hinkie had some of those fears, which he didn't, anyone on the board at 10 wouldn't have significantly moved the needle for a team like the Sixers in his rookie year.
Hinkie holding such a narrow-minded viewpoint is a tough sell. It's totally reasonable to believe that someone like McDermott will be a better pro than Saric - LB didn't think so before the draft, for what it's worth - but similar to the Embiid pick, the Sixers simply took the player they believed would pay the most dividends in the long term. We'll see if they're right.
The rebuild is still in its early stages. Hinkie took over on May 14, 2013. Much has happened since then, but it was only 14 months ago when nobody in Philadelphia had even the slightest inkling about Daryl Morey's consigliere. Compared to recent Sixers history, the time frame is equivalent to one 40-win season and harmless first-round playoff exit.
In terms of the rebuilding timeline that Sixers head coach Brett Brown has often candidly described (to the chagrin of Hinkie, I'd imagine), we're somewhere between one-third and one-fifth complete. While there are valid concerns about how fielding an uncompetitive roster will affect Noel and Michael Carter-Williams' development, the Sixers were never going to resemble anything close to a finished product at this point.
Also, don't count out Hinkie making slight roster improvements through free agency with the bushels of cap room he's been hoarding. Celtics guard Avery Bradley is precisely the type of player that would make some sense, for example.
As it stands, the organization is very stable. It probably didn't seem so when the Casper Ware's and Dewayne Dedmon's of the world were being shipped in and out of town in ten-day increments, but the infrastructure is already solidly in place.
There's a reason that rebuilding projects of this magnitude never really happen: It's extremely rare for an ownership group, front office, and coaching staff all to be on the exact same page like they are over at PCOM. Look at the current mess in Milwaukee, for instance.
All types of franchises struggle with forms of structural conflict and balancing competing values. In Golden State, the organization can't come to a consensus on whether they should include Klay Thompson in a Kevin Love trade (Yeah, they should). Mikhail Prokhorov is now pushing Billy King to cut spending after having him solely work under the mandate that money is literally no object. Dell Demps is still under pressure to win now in the brutal Western Conference, first-round picks be damned. Cleveland.
Hinkie, Brown, and owner Josh Harris all seem to be striving for the same goal. That alone is an advantage in today's NBA.
Process does not automatically guarantee results. I liked Hinkie's thinking in the last two drafts, but he still took some big risks. Intelligent and calculated risks for my money, but risks nonetheless. It's like the scene in Zero Dark Thirty where the CIA brass is huddled around a big table trying to project the final mission's success rate. There'd be no room for Jessica Chastain's certainty in any discussion about the Sixers.
Still, if you're looking for certainty in team-building, it doesn't really exist at the highest levels. Nothing outside of signing LeBron James or Kevin Durant in free agency guarantees anything in terms of contention. That's equally important to remember.
Like it or not, the franchise is more relevant than it has been in a long time. This is quite a bit of irony: The general manger who distances himself from the media and takes public relations completely out of the equation has made the team more noteworthy than anytime since Allen Iverson was playing in the 2001 NBA Finals.
During Hinkie's short tenure, no publicity has been bad publicity. Thanks to the infamous 26-game losing streak, even casual sports fans know exactly how the Sixers are attempting to build their roster. Turn on any NBA coverage for a little while and you're bound to stumble across a mention of the only team in the NBA that actively escaped the middle.
The lottery and draft captivated the Delaware Valley. There was consistent basketball discussion on the two major sports radio stations, increased coverage in all of the local newspapers, and expanded Sixer-centric content on Comcast SportsNet. This level of interest simply wasn't present during the years when Mo Harkless and Nikola Vucevic were the team's first-round picks.
The Sixers are different, and people generally like to talk about things that are different. Similar to Howard Stern's early radio days, whether someone likes or hates what the Sixers are doing, they're generally interested to see what happens next.