WENT TO A 76ers game recently, and it was surprisingly relaxing. It's hard to get worked up when you have little history with the players and no expectation of a win. My only regret was that general manager Sam Hinkie didn't come out and make a deal for a second-round pick. It's a bummer to buy a ticket and not see the team's biggest star in action.
These are strange days in Philadelphia. The two most prominent people on the sports scene are Hinkie and Chip Kelly, the Eagles' coach and de facto GM. In the two years since they came to town, the talk has been about them and their methods more than anyone who plays the games.
That's upside-down, right? No one fell in love with sports to follow the doings of management. Now, though, it's all about the geniuses. You get the feeling that if they made Rocky today, it would focus on Mickey's outside-the-box training methods—how he swapped out the glass of raw eggs for a personalized protein shake.
Protein shakes are but an aspect of the culture Kelly brought from Oregon. He set tongues a-wagging with his high-speed offense, but as conversation pieces go, his no-huddle was a mere warmup act. Since Kelly gained control over personnel in January, he has been flicking Pro Bowlers from his roster as if they were Cheetos crumbs that had landed on his Marcus Mariota scouting report.
Last week Kelly traded running back LeSean McCoy and quarterback Nick Foles and also let receiver Jeremy Maclin leave in free agency. Add Kelly's outright cutting of receiver DeSean Jackson in the 2014 off-season, and you could argue that he's sent packing the team's four most popular players. If locals take their time embracing running back DeMarco Murray, signed from the Cowboys, it will be because Kelly has been turning jerseys bought on the team website for $99.95 into vintage items at a pace that matches his play-calling.
But, hey, at least ol' Chipper, who has led Philly to two 10--6 seasons, wants to win now. Hinkie favors a "win later" strategy that takes the fans' patience for granted, asking them to buy tickets and bravely endure, as if maneuvering for draft picks and chucking away seasons is the only path to victory. (Didn't the Hawks rise in the East by such quaint methods as hiring a good coach, finding value with middle-position draft choices and investing wisely in free agency?)
Kelly's latest deals, though they have the potential to pay off grandly, hint at a similar disregard. The players he acquired in the McCoy and Foles deals, quarterback Sam Bradford and linebacker Kiko Alonso, both missed all of last season with ACL injuries. The view of the pessimist—Philly has a few—is that Kelly can take the risk because he knows that if these moves blow up, he can pull a Nick Saban and retreat to college. As Dolphins coach in 2006, Saban acquired quarterback Daunte Culpepper instead of Drew Brees. When it became obvious that he had made the wrong call, Saban fled Miami for Alabama. The Dolphins still haven't recovered.
Throughout sports we hear much more about the puppet masters than we used to. Why? Some of it, I think, is a side effect of fantasy, which promotes a transitory view of players. In addition, the 24-hour news machine likes GMs because they make moves all year, not just during games. The biggest culprit, though, is Moneyball. The movie, even more than the book, made heroes of the Billy Beanes of the world. Hinkie proceeds with the unblinking conviction of a man who expects to sell his life rights to Brad Pitt.
Here's a request for Kelly and Hinkie: Find players, give them good schemes, but please, keep some of them in town awhile. Make Philadelphia a place where it's safe to buy a jersey again.
Since Hinkie and Kelly have come to Philly, the talk has been more about them than anyone who plays the games.
FERNANDO MEDINA/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (HINKIE)
JAMES LANG/USA TODAY SPORTS (KELLY)