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Friday, May 10, 2013
Back to the future for the 76ers

By Henry Abbott

The Philadelphia 76ers have hired former Houston Rockets second-in-command Sam Hinkie as their new president of basketball operations and general manager.

Hinkie is a highly regarded behind-the-scenes NBA mind who has put in the work on every front, from mastering the nitty gritty of the CBA to traveling the backwaters of the globe scouting prospects. He has been a key figure in building Houston's analyst-thick Moneyball-style front office that has cleverly created advantages for itself -- figuring out how to win the James Harden sweepstakes is just one example. Using innovative contract structure trickery to haul in Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik through free-agency offers other teams couldn't match is another.

Some teams shoot from the hip. Rest assured, under Hinkie, the Sixers will adhere to well-honed long-term strategy. Assuming Hinkie is empowered to follow his principled approach, it would make no sense to bet against them as they wrestle with big decisions like whom to hire as head coach, and whether or not to retain the injured Andrew Bynum.

Effectively out of the loop, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, are the likes of Rod Thorn, Tony DiLeo and Doug Collins.

It's tough to say if this is a departure for the 76ers, or a return to the direction the franchise was headed in when Joshua Harris bought the team in 2011.




When a bundle of smart-guy Wall Streeters -- Josh Harris, Dave Blitzer, Art Wrubel & Co. -- bought the team in the summer of 2011, many thought Collins' days were numbered. It was assumed the Sixers would, in modern Wall Street style, become the Rockets East, using analytics to drive every little decision.

The guess was that the traditional hoops heads in the building -- Collins, Rod Thorn -- were on the way out, sooner or later, likely to be replaced by the ownership group's ready-made candidate, former player-agent Jason Levien, and his handpicked coaches and front-office people. The other key decision-maker, Ed Stefanski, didn't even wait for the other shoe to drop and took the first good job somewhere else, in Toronto.

Change was coming, sooner or later.

The traditional hoops people hung around, though. Most still had contracts, and it's not popular for new owners to clean house immediately. There's an element of paying your respects to how things have long been done.

Before the new owners could reorganize, Collins led a low-expectations team into the playoffs (barely) as an eighth seed. Bulls star Derrick Rose tore his ACL in that series (as you may have heard). And then Joakim Noah got hurt too, alternating between missing time and playing badly hurt. The Bulls are known as the team whose spirit cannot be crushed, but in that series, they were broken. The Sixers became that rare eighth seed that beats a 1-seed -- and then they darn near repeated the accomplishment in the next round, taking the Celtics to a seventh game before bowing out.

It was plain to see, in the bowels of the arena during that playoff run, that the new owners -- in person and with all kinds of family in tow in the locker room, in the stands, in the news conferences, in the private club upstairs with VIP guests -- were falling head over heels for Collins. He knew it too. The team was winning. So soon! The giddiness was all around, and everyone smiled when Collins declared he was a "Sixer for life."

Not that long ago, then-coach Collins was the de facto king of the Sixers organization. The city was lukewarm on the players, but tune in to sports radio in the City of Brotherly Love in the summer of 2012, and nobody agreed on much -- it's Philly, after all -- but everyone agreed Collins was the center of the 76ers' universe.

Thorn was never expected to stay forever. As the apple of the owners' eyes, Collins was either going to be Thorn's de facto replacement, or the guy who made his actual replacement's job almost impossible to do. Whatever Collins wanted would matter. And he tended to want all kinds of things. He was hot and cold on young talents like Evan Turner, and his idea of a great free-agent signing was the perpetually disappointing center Kwame Brown, who was brought in with the theory he had the right kind of body to protect the paint, but has a block percentage worse than some guards.

The new owners interviewed a string of GM candidates in the summer of 2012, including smart up-and-comers Hinkie, the Celtics' highly respected assistant GM Mike Zarren, former Portland assistant GM Tom Penn and others. But they ended up hiring 76ers lifer Tony DiLeo (he has been with the team since 1990, in almost every position imaginable). Sources say he was the choice in part because he was the candidate who could operate in Collins' outsized shadow. For innovators like Hinkie, there would be little chance to succeed with Collins around.

Not coincidentally, around that time Levien extricated himself from the Sixers ownership group, instead partnering with billionaire Robert Pera. They bought the Grizzlies together last fall; Levien calls the shots now as CEO.

Meanwhile, the 2012-13 season began and things went badly for the team. Stat geeks laughed from afar at the collection of notoriously inefficient newcomers like Brown and Nick Young, as well as the impulsive drafting of Arnett Moultrie.

Most importantly, gone was Andre Iguodala. In his place was the perpetually injured Andrew Bynum.

The love affair between owners, city and Collins frayed quickly. The tone in the media soured. It stopped feeling like a team that could beat the top overall seed in the East. With a 34-48 record, the Sixers couldn't even make the playoffs.

On April 18, Collins announced he was stepping down as coach.

The owners have subtly signaled a doubling down on the kinds of quant analytic geekery that had once been Plan A. They hired Aaron Barzilai as the director of basketball analytics (something Collins was public about not valuing much) in November. They became one of the NBA's first 15 teams to use SportVu optical tracking technology. And, in a move that is increasingly a sign of an organization's new-breed strategic thinking (because of subtle advantages to savvy teams), last month they bought a D-League team -- to be called, of all things, the Delaware 87ers.

Meanwhile, the kind of aggressive new-breed thinking that Collins, Thorn, Stefanski et al always assumed would eventually rule the day in Philly, well ... it's back.

Hinkie has a track record of being respectful and humble, even as he outworks and out-thinks the competition. If history is any guide, he'll have little interest in rattling cages by identifying his arrival as a sea change from the way things have been done in Philadelphia.

And maybe that's accurate. In many ways, it's not a sea change. Now Joshua Harris' 76ers are back on course to where they were headed all along, despite the detour. They are once again on the path to becoming the Rockets East, complete with one of the Rockets' key executives.