Sixers' Sam Hinkie hopes he gets it right

LeBron James had 21 points, 10 assists, and eight rebounds. The reigning MVP scored 10 of his points in the fourth quarter.
LeBron James had 21 points, 10 assists, and eight rebounds. The reigning MVP scored 10 of his points in the fourth quarter. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff)
Posted: January 18, 2014

For a few seconds Friday night, a Fox Sports camera found Greg Oden on the visitors' bench at the Wells Fargo Center, framing a close-up of a facial expression that's become so common over the years.

There was Oden, the league's top pick in the 2007 draft, with his head turned to the right to follow the action in the Miami Heat's 101-86 victory over the Sixers, his right hand touching his lower lip, a faraway look in his eyes. Oden's face filled the screen before the camera quickly cut back to the game, back to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and the overmatched Sixers. But the shot stayed on Oden's profile long enough to accent his place as an NBA cautionary tale, as a reminder of the risk intrinsic to the Sixers' rebuilding process.

Signed in the offseason to a one-year contract, Oden played his first game for the Heat on Wednesday, scoring six points in eight minutes, the effort so taxing and his pro career so riddled with knee problems that Miami coach Erik Spoelstra didn't bother suiting him up Friday. Wednesday's game was Oden's 83d in the NBA, his first since December 2009, and, in hindsight, the Portland Trailblazers' decision to select him instead of Kevin Durant is already one of the great regrets in draft history - to repeat: in hindsight.

"You could see why you had to draft him number one," said Sixers coach Brett Brown, who as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs had to scout and game-plan for Oden on the rare occasions Oden was in the Blazers' lineup.

"You just remember a big man who was mobile. As you projected him out, if he could retain his health and skill package and aggressive game that at times he had, you could see why he was such an attraction."

The lesson implied in Brown's evaluation of a young, healthy Oden applies perfectly to the Sixers' situation: You can do everything right, and you can still get it wrong. Under general manager Sam Hinkie, the Sixers are doing what they should have done long ago. No more treading water. No more half-measures. They're starting fresh - with Michael Carter-Williams and, eventually, with Nerlens Noel; with the prospect of two high first-round picks in this year's draft; with salary-cap room to spare.

Those prospective assets are the foundation of Hinkie's plan to make the Sixers relevant again, and no team could present a better example of a similar strategy's success than the Heat. It drafted Wade in '03, riding him to a championship three years later. And since the franchise signed James and Chris Bosh in 2010, it has won two more titles and reached three consecutive Finals.

That's the best-case scenario for the Sixers out of this odd season, out of what amounts to an 82-game open tryout. That's what Hinkie is shooting for - the moon. And that's why he was doubly bold on draft day last year, not only trading an all-star guard in Jrue Holiday, but in acquiring Noel, whom the New Orleans Pelicans had taken with the sixth overall pick. Remember: Though it may be natural to compare the Sixers' acquisition of Noel to the Blazers' selection of Oden, Hinkie's decision was the greater gamble, because Noel was already injured and likely to miss most, if not all, of this season. True to expectations, and despite this week's scuttlebutt, Noel hasn't taken the floor.

Nevertheless, Hinkie remains confident that the Noel trade will prove a smart one. He's willing to bank that a 19-year-old can recover from knee surgery and develop into an elite center. And if he doesn't, well, in Hinkie's mind, one failed draft pick won't destroy a franchise, especially one in the Sixers' state, just as they have nothing to lose by signing a series of John Does and seeing whether any of them might turn out to be a newly earthed diamond.

"Nerlens," Hinkie said, "is indicative of what we're doing here," and that means taking chances on players who can become superstars. It means ignoring the bunt sign and swinging for the fence at every pitch.

When that approach works, you get LeBron James. You get Dwyane Wade. When it doesn't, you get Greg Oden, happy these days just to be able to play basketball again, to be a backup center on a contending team, his knees wrapped in ice bags after a game he didn't even play.

"I thought my career was going to be headed in a different direction," Oden said. "But you can't predict what's going to happen."

It's a sobering truth, to be sure, yet Sam Hinkie could only laugh at the suggestion that Nerlens Noel was another Greg Oden, that the plan he's implemented might not lead the Sixers to a championship someday, and he's right. Of course it might not. But it's the only one that might.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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