An unlikely Chip Kelly disciple: Hinkie

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Eagles head coach Chip Kelly and 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie. (Staff and USA Today photos)

Chip Kelly and Sam Hinkie have never met, and they don't seem to have much in common these days.

On the promise that the 76ers will be better positioned to become an elite franchise, Hinkie has built a team that has lost a Sixers-record 16 games to start this season and that could set an NBA standard for dreadfulness. But the best reason to believe that Hinkie, the team's general manager, knows what he's doing, that a stronger Sixers roster will eventually rise from this rubble, is his willingness to consider and embrace the ideas of others, so long as those ideas hold up to logic and all available evidence.

It's there that he has found a kinship with Kelly, who last season coached the Eagles to the NFC East title and this season has them at 9-3 and in first place again ahead of Sunday's matchup against the defending Super Bowl champions - the Seattle Seahawks.

As it turns out, Kelly has been an object of Hinkie's fascination for the last five years, dating to Hinkie's days as an executive with the Houston Rockets - an indication of just how far Kelly's influence reaches.

By the fall of 2009, the midst of Kelly's first season as Oregon's head coach, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, Hinkie, and the rest of the team's player-personnel people already had begun using deeper statistical analyses and unconventional wisdom as talent-evaluation tools. As part of that philosophy, Rockets owner Leslie Alexander dispatched two members of the organization to Eugene: Gersson Rosas and Chris Finch, who at the time were the general manager and head coach, respectively, of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets' affiliate in the NBA Development League.

Rosas and Finch stayed long enough to watch a couple of Oregon's practices and chat with a couple of Kelly's assistant coaches, observing Kelly's warp-speed workouts and streamlined teaching sequences, noting how the Rockets could apply the same principles themselves.

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"It was mostly about practice efficiencies," Finch, now an assistant under Rockets coach Kevin McHale, said in a recent interview. "How can you really model practice after the nature of the game, the pace of the game? Traditionally, football and basketball practices have this built-up sequence, and Chip's more like, 'Start fast. Get faster.' That's what it was - to see what we could graft over to basketball."

With the front office's blessing, Finch implemented variations of Kelly's ideas into the Vipers' routine. They cranked music during practices, both to simulate the background noise of real-game conditions and to reenergize players when they began to tire. They practiced in short segments, often putting the players through shell drills - special shooting situations, five-on-zero offensive sets, live scrimmages - without stopping the drills to teach.

"Most of the coaching, we did off the floor while the players were waiting to get their next rep," said Finch, a Reading native. "We kept contact at a minimum but intensity at a maximum."

The players, according to Finch, loved it.

"Even though we were going for 100 miles an hour every time, we were going for less time," he said. "So an hour, sometimes 45 minutes, and we were getting 15-20 segments of stuff in there. It kept guys fresh."

The Vipers won the D-League championship that season, and Finch was named the league's coach of the year. His successor, Nick Nurse, who's now an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors, used another Kelly-inspired strategy: Instead of shouting out the names of his offensive and defensive sets, he held up cards with coded number sequences on them - codes that only he, his coaches, and his players knew. The Vipers won another championship under Nurse.

Those results were all the confirmation that Hinkie needed to persuade him that, if he ever got the chance to be in charge of an NBA franchise, he would put the same measures into practice at basketball's highest level. So at their training camp this year at Stockton, the Sixers blasted rock and rap music and ran and ran and ran, and Hinkie has spoken with admiration of team-oriented wrinkles other franchises have considered, such as Sacramento's idea of playing four-on-five defense so one player can cherry-pick on offense.

"The NBA doesn't like these innovations," Hinkie said, "because it's a players' league."

Nevertheless, Hinkie is committed to laying this foundation, no matter how long it might take to work, no matter what it might cost the Sixers in the short term. It's no accident that he hired Brett Brown to be the team's head coach, for Brown spent 12 years with the San Antonio Spurs - the Sixers' opponent Monday, the reigning NBA champions, the league's model for forward thinking. And it's worth noting that the Rockets, after winning 54 games last season, are 13-4 this season.

"You can't be afraid to be embarrassed if you're going to try new things," Finch said. "That's part of the reason we did it. What do we do that's really old school and not efficient anymore? What do we do just because it's always been done this way? Let's try to figure out a better way."

Chip Kelly and the Eagles may have. Sam Hinkie is betting that the Sixers will someday. The two men do have something in common: the audacity to reject the tired, the old, the stale. It's the most important trait they could share.

 


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski