"We're playing the long game here," Sam Hinkie told reporters the day after this year's NBA draft, and it's only through the trades and other personnel moves he makes - among them his pantsing of the Sacramento Kings late Wednesday night - that people seem to remember the warnings he offered when the 76ers hired him as general manager.
Hinkie could not have been clearer over that first year: This rebuilding plan was going to take a long time, and the early years of it were going to be rough, and there were no guarantees or assurances that the plan would work - because short of acquiring the top pick in the NBA lottery in a year when, say, Tim Duncan or LeBron James is entering the draft, there are no guarantees or assurances that any rebuilding plan will work.
People appreciated those conditions and nodded along with Hinkie when he laid them out, but it's tough to keep that impatience from bubbling up, especially when Hinkie is so reluctant to explain his decisions publicly. This is a world of instant gratification - in media, in entertainment, in daily life - and this is a sports culture whose inhabitants, while accustomed to waiting and waiting and waiting for greatness to manifest itself, hate waiting. Hinkie not only doesn't mind waiting, he'd rather wait. He likes to wait. He wants to wait.
He was willing to wait on Nerlens Noel's knee for a year and on Joel Embiid's foot for a year (and perhaps longer) and on Dario Saric's contract for up to three years. And when it came to pulling off the trade with the Kings, he was certainly willing to wait a week while everyone wondered whether he'd wasted all those second-round picks on European players who had little hope of playing in the NBA anytime soon.
As it turns out, the course that the NBA has charted for itself and its 30 franchises plays into Hinkie's patience. The price of the Sixers' bottoming out is that they've become unattractive as a destination for free agents. No superstar is choosing to join them on their journey - not an unrestricted free agent who has his pick of destinations, not a restricted free agent who could have his current team match another's offer sheet.
Besides, with the NBA's salary cap on course to rise by about $42 million over the next two years, thanks to revenue from the league's new TV deal with ESPN and Turner, having ample cap space won't be as great an advantage as it once was. It won't be much of an advantage at all, for nearly every team will have it, and it will be easier for a franchise to re-sign a homegrown star. It's happening already. Look at the last 24 hours.
So Hinkie has done something smart: He's hoarded draft picks, because the best way to get superstars and grow something of substance over time around superstars won't be to sign them in free agency. The best way has been and will be to draft them. The Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers were awful organizations, bottom-feeders, before the former drafted Michael Jordan and the latter drafted James. For all the deserved laurels tossed at Gregg Popovich's feet, Duncan has been the alpha and omega of the San Antonio Spurs since his arrival. James wouldn't have decided to play for the Miami Heat if Dwyane Wade weren't already there. You can get a superstar by signing or trading for him. You keep a superstar by drafting him.
No, there are never any guarantees, but Hinkie is increasing his odds of acquiring those kinds of players. For the cost of two of the Sixers' second-round picks this year and $26.7 million in salary between veterans Carl Landry and Jason Thompson, Hinkie got a big shooting guard who had been a lottery pick last year in Nik Stauskas, a 2018 first-round pick, and the right to exchange first-round picks with Sacramento in both 2016 and 2017. Based on trades Hinkie has made and his strategy of breaking the roster down to reconstruct it from rubble, the Sixers could have four first-round picks in the 2016 draft - with the option to flip their pick for the Kings'. Opportunity is there, loads of it, and anyone dying for the Sixers to accelerate their rebuilding plan will just have to wait one more year.
There's at least one guy around here who has no problem with that.