It’s weird that people in the NBA world who are known – rightly or wrongly – as numbers guys are often considered to be the type who don’t care about chemistry, tradition and are found to be lacking in their appreciation of the “human element” of the game. After all, an analytical approach could quite well find the value in those things in novel ways.
No person in the NBA, in the eyes of most fans and media, represented that divide between the rigid mathematical approach and the way team building has been done before as much as Sam Hinkie, now the former general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. At least in part, that label is somewhat deserved. The Sixers have won 47 games in the past three seasons with Hinkie as the GM – a 19.4 winning percentage and a feat unlikely to be matched by another GM again. The crude look of the past three years of extraordinary tanking hasn’t been improved by Hinkie’s 13-page resignation letter to the Sixers ownership group, in which Hinkie rather obtusely quotes Warren Buffett, Elon Musk and, to go all-out with the jargon, long-dead physicist Max Planck. Many have already taken this as a sign of Hinkie’s hubris, and desperation to be known as the smartest guy in the room.
Some of the criticism Hinkie has received would seem fair, having had multiple reported problems dealing with agents, the rest of the league and media. Hinkie has waived players without first briefing their agents about it – which, according to Zach Lowe of ESPN.com, has been “a major irritant among player representatives.”
Hinkie’s role diminished recently with the hiring of Jerry Colangelo and his subsequent stepping down from the GM position has been met with precisely the kinds of comments you would expect based on how differently people have viewed the strength and current success of the Sixers rebuilding plan. There are Hinkie enthusiasts who still believe that every move he made was the right one, and that the original vision was genius and multiple championships were just around the corner. On the other end of the spectrum, people are laughing and congratulating themselves on knowing the Sixers would be doomed to fail. Hinkie was after all just a fantasy basketball manager who didn’t care about building a winning culture. Between the extremes some are saying that Hinkie took a bold risk, but it just didn’t work out. Others are busy pointing out if Hinkie was so smart and focused on high risk, high reward plays, why didn’t he pick Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kristaps Porzingis when the Sixers had the chance?
Without rehashing every deal the Sixers made under Hinkie over the past three years in detail – by now the draft picks that are owed to the Sixers are so numerous and conditional on series of events taking place that are impossible to predict, it would take a team of lawyers and a 10,000 word write-up to figure out what belongs where – it’s obvious that in isolation, every big move Hinkie made was at the very least justifiable, and probably the right one to make.
Successful trades but not getting lucky
Trading Jrue Holiday (despite shamefully failing to disclose his leg injury, for which the Sixers paid $3 million to the New Orleans Pelicans in damages) for Nerlens Noel and a first-rounder was a great deal to jumpstart the rebuild for a team that had just finished a 34-48 season and didn’t have much upside. Drafting Elfrid Payton and flipping him for Dario Saric and another first-rounder on a draft night was a no-brainer move. Moving Michael Carter-Williams, who has been horrible on the Bucks, for a pick that has a 45 percent chance of being either the fourth or fifth pick in this year’s draft and becomes unprotected next season is absolute robbery. Allowing the Kings to dump Nik Stauskas and a potentially unprotected first-round draft pick right after DeMarcus Cousins’ contract with the Sacramento Kings ends for zero assets could still become one of the best trades ever made by an NBA GM.
No analysis of Hinkie’s moves and intricacies of how the Sixers were building their team will likely take into account the amount of luck that goes into building NBA franchises both in the long- and short-term view, even the most successful ones. When Stephen Curry was battling bad ankles, no one could have ever guessed what he’d be today, and Steve Kerr wouldn’t have even known to start Draymond Green had David Lee been healthy at the start of their first championship season. Kawhi Leonard couldn’t shoot at all in college and now he’s among the most efficient three-point shooters in the league. The best player in the Brandon Jennings–Brandon Knight trade became Khris Middleton, who was a throw-in at the time. The Timberwolves were bailed out by the Cavaliers’ 1.7 percent lottery odds and got Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love. Next season the Wolves realized their one-in-four shot at the first pick and got Karl Anthony-Towns, who became one of the best rookie bigs ever. It’s virtually impossible to accidentally fall into the most promising young team in the NBA more elegantly than the Wolves did.
The obvious example of bad luck the Sixers have had is with Joel Embiid. Embiid was considered to be by far the best prospect in the draft, a lock for the No.1 overall pick before being injured. Things couldn’t have possibly gone any worse with Embiid and the Sixers than they have so far, since literally every outcome would have been better than him being out for two entire years. At the time, no one would have expected it. Also, it’s quite easy to argue the Sixers would have been in a better spot if they had paired Noel up with D’Angelo Russell, who they would have surely taken with the second pick had the Lakers not jumped them in the draft lottery. Personally, I wasn’t a fan of the Jahlil Okafor pick and thought it was a horrible plan to pair him with Noel. Philadelphia was never going to play Okafor, Noel, Embiid and Saric in any combination together, and resources could have been used elsewhere.
Not having bad luck isn’t enough. To really start building a championship contender and a dynasty, you have to get a big break or two that saves management from themselves. Teams need a big hit, whether it be by getting a transformational player by half-accident in the top of the lottery or a Rodney Hood at the bottom of the first round.
For whatever reason, Hinkie wasn’t able to piece together the right combination of a few talented young players to get the NBA world excited about the future of the team. But in the NBA, turnarounds can happen suddenly. There’s a reasonable chance the Sixers could end up with the first, fourth and 20th pick in this summer’s draft. If two of those players turn out to be incredibly promising, suddenly the franchise’s fortunes will be turned around. Hinkie will receive none of the credit if this happens, but most probably it’ll be one of his moves that eventually turns the tide.
The Sixers traded away Andre Iguodala, Nikola Vucevic and a first-round pick for Andrew Bynum during the summer of 2012, and the starting lineup for that season ended up being Holiday, Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen and Thaddeus Young after Bynum got injured bowling. Considering where each of those players are today, and that the rest of the roster is almost unrecognizable to the casual NBA fan, how much better could their future possibly look right now?
In examining every move Hinkie ever made as the GM of the Sixers, I find myself agreeing with practically everything he has done, except for on one crucial point.
It probably wasn’t necessary to be this bad.
The Sixers could have won a couple more games per season and signed one or two more young players with a real shot to stick with the team long-term without losing more than draft spot, if that, over the course of three years.
Teams tank all the time and without a doubt the league’s incentive structure clearly encourages being bad. It’s just the optics were so bad in this case. The constant media attention on the Sixers would have been lessened and Philadelphia could have operated under less scrutiny. Being a complete joke in the eyes of everyone can’t help when you eventually want to go into real free agency negotiations.
It’ll probably be awhile before anyone tries the Sam Hinkie special again, and it seems that no matter the original commitment from ownership, executing a multi-year plan of sucking as much as possible isn’t an easy pill to swallow.
Losing, apparently, just isn’t much fun.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.