When Sixers owner Josh Harris sat behind a podium at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine on May 14 and told the world that he’d hired then-Rockets assistant general manager Sam Hinkie to run his franchise, it represented a stunning about-face for the organization. In the course of a month, Doug Collins and the Doug Collins Philosophy of Basketball -- the 76ers’ face and animating force the previous three seasons -- had been repudiated with breathtaking swiftness. With a single hire, an organization that was as mired in traditional thinking as any in the sport had suddenly and completely devoted itself to a bold new pursuit: mastering the science of winning basketball games.
Hinkie, a Daryl Morey acolyte who quietly made a name for himself in league circles as perhaps the most probabilistic thinker in a singularly rational Houston front office, threw down the gauntlet almost immediately. On draft night, in his first meaningful move as general manager, Hinkie traded his best player (or at least the player widely believed to be his best) in exchange for a significantly more valuable asset: a future. In return for Jrue Holiday, the rookie GM landed Nerlens Noel (the consensus No. 1 prospect in the run-up to the 2013 draft), a top-five protected pick in 2014 that’s likely to wind up in the lottery and substantially improved odds of gaining a top selection with his team’s own pick in the same heralded draft. The move was a game-changer.
Though Hinkie has denied the trade was a function of the dim view advanced metrics take of Holiday (“A, I wouldn’t disparage [Holiday] and B, I think he’s good and he’ll do a good job in New Orleans this year,” he told me before the season) it strains credulity, given Hinkie’s background and values, to think that it’s merely a coincidence that the point guard he traded is a poor player by measure of these stats while the one he drafted (Michael Carter-Williams) was comparatively an analytic darling. The trade drew a bright red line in the sand: It was the beginning of a new era of player evaluation in Philadelphia.
The stark changes have extended to in-game strategy, as well. The 76ers’ shot charts between this season and last don’t look anything alike. A Philadelphia team that, under Collins, led the NBA in 16- to 23-foot shots in 2012-13 with 24 a game (deepening the self-inflicted wound, the team was only 28th in field goal percentage from this range), now leads the league in attempts from within 5 feet of the basket and places 12th in 3-pointers attempted.
When asked how conscious the decision to move away from the midrange game was, Hinkie was blunt. “Conscious,” he said with a smirk. “I don’t have a good scale for degrees of consciousness, but it’s something our coaches have focused on.”
And while up-tempo basketball has become something of an analytic shibboleth, the previously sluggish Sixers are leading the NBA in pace of play, using 102 possessions per 48 minutes, almost 10 more per game than they used in 2012-13.
Philadelphia’s data mining is still in its nascent stages, too. The Sixers were one of the first 15 subscribers to SportVU, the camera systems that capture player movement and turn it into actionable data, and have since been installed in every NBA arena. While the organization has been tight-lipped about how precisely this intel influences its X’s and O’s, Hinkie admits to being an enthusiast, and one of the earliest adopters, of the technology. “We [in Houston] were customer zero,” he told a group of bloggers at an October breakfast.
“It’s like a lot of competitive environments,” he said of the NBA. “There’s an advantage, and then it goes away quickly. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t new ones. You have to find new ones.”
And so the Sixers have. One of these “new ones” is centered in the growing discipline of sports science. The team is a client of Catapult Technology, a company started by a pair of scientists from the Australian Institute of Sport that uses GPS sensors to track and record player movement during practice. Catapult purports to help teams individualize exercise schedules and reduce injury rates. “Every player has worn it every day I’ve been here,” Hinkie said. “It can allow you to dial up or down practice intensity or dial up or down conditioning for each player.” Philip Skiba, a sports scientist who studies the benefits of highly individualized training, maintains that endurance athletes can get as much as a 25 percent performance boost from programs like Catapult.
The team’s methodical approach to training is complemented by a new and unique emphasis on nutrition. While the players don’t have strictly individualized diets prescribed to them by the team, they are grouped into several nutritional tiers based on their body-mass index and body fat percentage.
Lavoy Allen, who admitted that he’s on the lowest tier, joked after a recent game he’s just allowed to have “water and leaves off trees” at this point. “It’s pretty specific,” the third-year forward added. “Even when we travel, we get a paper in our room on what we can eat and what we have to stay away from.” The veteran said that, in seasons past, it was a relative culinary free-for-all. “[I was] ordering burgers at 2 o’clock on the morning. Thank God for 24-hour room service.”
It’s important to emphasize that these aren’t merely directives that are ordered from on high, then carried out by puzzled and skeptical foot soldiers. Both the emphasis on fitness and nutrition have the full-throated support of the coach Hinkie hired, Brett Brown, and the staff the organization built around him. Everyone in Philadelphia is pulling in the same direction.
Brown worked closely with the Australian Institute of Sport during his time as coach of the country’s national team and spoke glowingly of its methods after he was hired to lead the 76ers. “You look at cutting-edge technology that comes out of sports science and the [Australian] Institute of Sport is among the leaders around the world, very globally recognized as cutting edge ... My main influence is what went on at the Olympics and at the Institute of Sport and my earlier days [in Australia].” During Brown’s stint in San Antonio, the Spurs became one of the first NBA teams to start using Catapult.
Brown’s staff is like-minded, brought in from organizations that are among the most forward thinking in the sport. Chad Iske and Vance Walberg came over from Denver, Lloyd Pierce from the Grizzlies and Billy Lange from a Villanova basketball program that places a premium on science. This isn’t an accident, Hinkie explained. “We’ve come from similar environments,” the GM said. “Our coaches all come from environments where they value [analytic thinking], and that’s why they’re here. ... This is natural for a lot of people in our office. Because of where they’ve been. Because of what they’ve been doing.”
Philadelphia’s scientific bent can seem academic at first blush, but on closer inspection it looks more like good, old fashioned common sense. Winning basketball requires, at its most basic level, great players to be in great shape and play in a great scheme. The Sixers are simply using the best facts available to get an edge in each of these areas.
It will take time, though. Maybe even years before the machine Hinkie has built starts churning out championship-caliber teams, but that’s fine. Hinkie and the Sixers are willing to wait. Waiting itself might be part of the plan.
“If you’re thinking about how you’re going to win the game tonight, that makes three million of us,” Hinkie said. “[But] if one of your goals is, ‘How are we going to do this eight years out, or nine years out, or four years out, or 30 years out?’ you might be the only person in the world focused on that. It might be a tournament of one rather than a tournament of three million.”
The future is now in Philadelphia. Contention? Well, that might have to wait.