The Sixers start over

September, 27, 2013
9/27/13
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Sixers GM Sam Hinkie got the to job in Philadelphia, and seemingly within minutes, had essentially won draft night by somehow amassing a collection of four lottery picks -- the same number of lottery picks that, for instance, the Thunder used to turn their franchise around. Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams are already here, and in the mighty 2014 draft the Sixers will have their own pick, and, quite probably, an excellent pick from the Pelicans.

The youth movement is underway. And for all the love people have for Noel and Carter-Williams, and knowing the Pelicans pick has protections, it's clear the only way this team will get a "next LeBron" or "next Durant" type player -- Andrew Wiggins, for instance -- is if it comes from the Sixers' own pick.

As in, the crazy high pick the whole NBA expects they will be awarded for the wretchedness of losses they are about to unleash.

Look around the gym Friday at the Sixers' media day at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (where the team rents a gym in lieu of a practice facility). Noel is dribbling between his legs, smiling for the camera. Carter-Williams wears a Cat in the Hat hat shooting a reading promotion. A posse of season-ticket holders in the corner are hanging on forward Royce White's every word. Everyone is happy, because the losses are not yet wearing everybody down.

Who knows if it'll work. But it just might be that Hinkie's four-pack of lottery tickets is exactly how a contender is born. Sixers fans have been famously morose essentially forever. But now their familiar sludge of doom comes with a shot of espresso. There's a new roster, a new GM and a new coach, and a flotilla of talented youngsters. The Sixers may be as doomed as ever, but now they're doomed with a plan. Which is such a better way to be doomed.

A beat writer takes it all in then declares to his colleagues: "Everything's just so great right now. But you know it's only downhill from here."

Because anyone who has taken a moment to analyze Philly's current predicament realizes fans mostly value wins, while this team is valuing losses, and the roster reflects it. This team is going to be terrible, for a season, at least, in the name of rebuilding.

Jason Richardson is one of this team's rare veterans. I asked him what feels different about this season. "All the young faces!" he declares. "We was a young team last year. This team is really young. Three or four guys are really veterans, and everybody else is like rookies. It's going to be fun to see, because those guys are going to learn a lot this year."

The gym was full of players, being grilled about the upcoming season, and no one had any bravado. This season, there are no rivalries, no playoff aspirations, none of the normal "just maybe, if the stars align" thinking.

There are also no autograph seekers -- you could walk into this event off the street without a credential, as it happens -- because there are no stars. Who's the team's best player? Evan Turner? Thaddeus Young, maybe? Based on his high potential and cheap contract, Noel may be the key asset, but there isn't even much confidence Noel will play anytime soon -- projected as the top overall pick, the defensive big man fell to the sixth pick because he's coming off major knee surgery.

What the team has, maybe, are a few strands, ideas, mainly, that could -- if Hinkie and new coach Brett Brown are lucky as well as smart -- emerge into this thing called "winning culture." In other words, just maybe this season, in addition to a great pick, can deliver a way of approaching the job of playing in the NBA in a way that will pay off over the long-term.

Brown is from the Spurs, which is no small part of his qualifications. The Sixers don't need wins right now, but they do need a foundation for big winning down the road.

Malik Rose calls games for Sixers TV now, but for eight years he played for San Antonio, and for much of that time Brown was the coach he dealt with most. How long has Rose known the Sixers new head coach? "Too long!" he insists, laughing.

I've always kind of wondered if "culture," in terms of ideals, or things people say to each other, is something that really translates consistently to wins. So I ask Rose if there's really something, a real thing, Brown can actually transport from San Antonio to Philadelphia. (If you don't bring Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili with it, does it still exist?) Is "winning culture" real?

"YES. Oh. Absolutely. There's a culture." Rose is emphatic. "I know it's going to work here, too. Guys are held accountable. You're at the highest level of basketball in the world. That means keeping your mind, body, spirit -- everything -- ready to do your job. And if you're ready to do your job you're held accountable. And it goes from the future Hall of Famer to the 12th man."

What does it mean to be held accountable? Would you be fined?

"We never really found out what that meant," says Rose. "Knowing that those were the repercussions, you came into camp ready. You never had to worry about guys not coming into camp ready. It was just a way of life. Everything was about winning. Everything was about basketball. All other things, contracts, endorsements, even to a certain extent, family issues, if it wasn't anything life-threatening, or health-related, that stuff got pushed back when November came around."

I start to say that I recently learned that in the military, research shows the best motivation, by far, is ... Rose finishes the sentence: "The guy right next to you." Right. When the team culture is good, you work hard so you don't let that teammate down. That's how this ideally works.

Encouraging: Carter-Williams' comment about Brown was that "I can tell he really cares about us."

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It is about love, according to the military research. And it is about work. Knowing Duncan and Parker would be in great shape kept Rose in great shape.

Hinkie is like a broken record on that topic. Nothing impresses him about a player more than a "great capacity to work." That is the foundation of the culture, and Brown, who was unpaid when he began with the Spurs, has lived it.

"He was just the grunt on the team," remembers Rose. "There to rebound. There to run drills. He started from the bottom. If ever you wanted to reach him, you looked in the gym."

"Coach Brown is a really unique coach. And it's his first time. It's awesome and exciting for me," says Royce White, a former first-round pick of the Rockets who has yet to play a regular season game because of complications of mental health issues. White has been in town working with Brown for two weeks, and says "it kind of feels like when I played for another coach who was doing this for his first time in [Iowa State head coach Fred] Hoiberg. It feels like that first time. Building that culture. And I'll hopefully be able to let him know that I'm loyal to him. He's a great guy."

Brown is also articulating the new vision for the franchise through an accent thick with the timbre of New England, where he grew up, and Australia, where he lived much of his adult life and met his wife. (Brown calls it "Bostralian.")

"For the most part I can understand him," says White with a laugh. "More so than being able to hear exactly what he's saying, you can feel him. Sometimes I don't know exactly what he's saying, but I'm like I feel you. I feel you. I feel the energy. It's a good thing."

Henry Abbott | email

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