Hinkie preaches patience in a win-now city

Posted: October 31, 2013

At a chain restaurant off City Avenue on Tuesday, Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie was waiting for our waitress to deliver his lunch: a spinach salad and pepperoni pizza combo. His team - which is expected, and in many ways has been constructed, to be the worst in the NBA - opens its season Wednesday night against LeBron James and the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.

There was no point to pussyfooting around the question at the core of the franchise's immediate future.

So, Sam, how do you justify tanking?

To Hinkie, there was no point to a denial.

"All our focus is on building something special for the Sixers, building a team that could in time be interesting," he said. "It's what we all want, all of us. That's why every coach agreed to come. That's why the owners love owning the Sixers. It's the chance to win at the highest level. It's no secret that doesn't happen overnight.

"If you said, 'I want to win the Ironman Triathlon,' it's not enough just to say that. It's not enough just to want that. You have to put in the work required to make that happen. You have to be willing to do all the things necessary. That doesn't seem odd to me at all."

It will to a city that's short on patience, that will forever forgive a franchise's mistakes as long as they're made in the name of winning now. But for the Sixers, such a course of action would be foolish.

Since reaching the NBA Finals with Allen Iverson in 2001, they reeled off 12 consecutive seasons of mediocrity, leaving themselves in no-man's-land until Hinkie arrived this summer with a mandate: We have to bottom out so we can begin again. So the Sixers will flirt with their own NBA record for futility. They went 9-73 in 1972-73, and they may be every bit as bad this season.

"Our fans want to play meaningful games in late April and mid-May and late May and someday June," Hinkie said. "It's what I want most, and a lot of life is about sacrificing what you want now for what you want most."

If this strategy is antithetical to the notion that a professional franchise is obliged to try to put a competitive team on the court, don't blame Hinkie. Blame the NBA, particularly its oppressive salary cap and a draft that rewards failure with the promise of a lottery pick.

Hell, blame basketball itself. By the sport's very nature, a superstar matters more. If the Sixers somehow stay close to the Heat into the fourth quarter Wednesday, James or Dwyane Wade will take control of every Miami offensive possession until the Sixers succumb. Imagine David Ortiz taking every at-bat for the Boston Red Sox over the final three innings of a World Series game. Imagine the St. Louis Cardinals having to retire him nine times to win. It's an apt comparison to what a great player can do down the stretch of an NBA game.

Hinkie's mission is to acquire those sorts of players. He appreciates the San Antonio Spurs' patience and investment in player-development, and that the Oklahoma City Thunder is following that model. But certain teams in certain cities can more easily entice free agents. Philadelphia is one.

"That'll be an advantage for us in time," he said.

The Heat's rise offers a similar template. Miami drafted Caron Butler in 2002, drafted Wade and signed Lamar Odom in 2003, traded Butler and Odom for Shaquille O'Neal in 2004, and won a championship in 2006. With a star in Wade, by freeing salary-cap room and selling the allure of South Beach, the Heat could sign James and Chris Bosh and create a dynasty.

Those teams had to lose big first, though, before they could build any staying power. So Hinkie will tune out the talk-radio rants and ignore the thousands of empty seats at the Wells Fargo Center and keep his eyes focused deep into the distance, and everyone will have to eat spinach until it's time for the tasty pizza.

He recently read The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara's classic novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, and what stayed with him was Shaara's description of Gen. George Pickett's doomed charge against the Union Army, and the lengths that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee would go to.

"A general who'd rather die gloriously than win," Sam Hinkie said. "I want to win, with a capital W."


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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