Before Sam Hinkie became the 76ers' general manager early last year, the people he knew around the NBA counseled him to consider the depth of the job's downside. Here was a franchise that, for all its efforts, had spent a decade fluctuating between mediocrity and irrelevance, and Hinkie used a gentle euphemism to describe his friends' and colleagues' unfiltered thoughts.
"A lot of people looked at the Sixers," he said, "and said there were a lot of challenges ahead."
Seventeen months into Hinkie's tenure, he's not facing fewer challenges in rebuilding the Sixers as much as he's facing new ones, including one that neither he nor anyone else affiliated with the organization could have anticipated: a campaign across the NBA to punish Hinkie and the Sixers for their brazen strategy of disregarding any short-term success last season and this season.
Wednesday night in Indianapolis against the Pacers, the Sixers begin another 82-game audition for anyone who wants to be part of their future. They'll find out a little more about what they have in Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams, they'll keep Luc Mbah a Moute around for his defense and his character, and they'll settle for another top-five pick in next year's draft.
For the patience required to carry out this plan, for their daring to drop the pretense that they were trying to win in the here and now, the Sixers have been an easy target for anyone too shortsighted to see that Hinkie was maximizing his chances to collect superstars - because superstars win NBA championships.
Those firing at him have included player agents frustrated by the franchise's willingness to sit on substantial salary-cap space and its unwillingness to sign those agents' clients. And they've included other executives who either can't or don't want to follow Hinkie's model of applying small-market principles to a big-market franchise.
The lottery reform proposal that had been designed to short-circuit the Sixers' strategy - and that was voted down by the league's board of governors last week - would have flattened the odds of getting the No. 1 overall pick among the lottery's 14 teams. Those teams with greater spending power and more attractive settings - New York, Los Angeles, Miami - already have an advantage in signing free agents, and the proposal would have made it even easier for them to acquire top-tier talent through the draft.
Make no mistake, though, there was another factor driving that movement to stop Hinkie and the Sixers even after they'd begun implementing their plan: fear. Around here, it's convenient to kick Hinkie around for being reticent with the media, for declining to put a product on the floor that will entertain fans of good basketball, for failing to follow that time-honored (and largely futile) Philadelphia sports commandment of trying to win a championship right now because we didn't win one last week.
Just understand: There's been enough public and national appreciation of Hinkie's approach that owners around the league started to worry. They started wondering if they were behind the curve in finding innovative ways to restructure their rosters, recognizing that they could find themselves in the Sixers' position soon enough and they might need to give their GMs the same measure of freedom that Josh Harris and David Blitzer have afforded Hinkie.
That carte blanche to construct a team as he saw fit, with an eye for elevating the Sixers to a place among the NBA's elite for a generation, ultimately persuaded Hinkie to take Harris and Blitzer up on their job offer. They'd gone all in on the myth of Andrew Bynum's greatness and been burned, and Hinkie's vision held substantial and familiar appeal to an ownership group whose fortune was made over time in the private-equity market. It was the difference between the lifetime benefits of a healthy diet and the immediate pleasure of a sugar rush.
"The more I would talk to people about things I saw, those people would say, 'A lot of the building blocks are in place,' " Hinkie said. "You have a city steeped in basketball tradition, a big market, an ownership group committed to winning at the highest level, an ownership group that's smart and patient and willing to make investments over the long term and all the things that have been proven to drive success. . . . Owners aren't everything, but they're the first thing, and in some ways they're the most important thing."
They're giving Sam Hinkie one more season to tinker, to develop Noel and Carter-Williams and promising second-round pick K.J. McDaniels, to search for that diamond buried deep in the D-League somewhere. The Sixers will lose and lose and lose, and this season will feel like forever, for them and their fans and coach Brett Brown and maybe even for Sam Hinkie. The challenge, the latest in a long list, is to endure it.