More Sports:

April 08, 2016

Reflecting on the Sam Hinkie era, and what it means going forward

Sixers NBA

Sam Hinkie’s leaked resignation letter to the Philadelphia 76ers ownership group is a fitting punctuation mark to his almost three-year reign as general manager and president of basketball operations that was never uninteresting. It’s thorough, eccentric, unapologetic, perhaps self-important, and so much else. 

You know, kind of like The Process.

More than anything, though, the letter is polarizing. While some found it (which I believe wasn’t written for public consumption, although that is a tricky subject in and of itself) brilliant, others felt it was ridiculous. Here are a few takeaways from the 7,000-word manifesto, the end of the Hinkie era, and where the Sixers go from here:

“The Letter” was Hinkie’s first actual defense of The Process

The Sixers received a lot of criticism for all of the losing, and Hinkie in turn received a lot of criticism for not responding to it. In his mind, though, there was a functionality to this radio silence. Basically, Hinkie didn’t want anybody else trying to replicate the Sixers’ path. He wished to be the first person anyone called when dangling second-round picks and a bad contract. From the letter:

To attempt to convince others that our actions are just will serve to paint us in a different light among some of our competitors as progressives worth emulating, versus adversaries worthy of their disdain. Call me old-fashioned, but sometimes the optimal place for your light is hiding directly under a bushel.

If Hinkie spelled out the method to his madness, maybe others would attempt to do the same. That was his reasoning, anyway.

And as Hinkie later explains in the letter with an example about the Palo Alto real estate market, high-level success isn’t just predicated on being right; it’s about being both right and unique. So if remaining unresponsive allowed Hinkie’s strategy to stay far from consensus, he was content with not firing back to all of the criticism.

While this radio silence might have been a competitive advantage for the Sixers, which is debatable, it certainly didn’t help Hinkie’s job security in the end.

[While on the subject, anyone who believed that job security was a primary motivation for any of Hinkie’s moves, primarily the Michael Carter-Williams trade, can now safely take the L on that one.]

Winning big in the NBA is hard, and it takes a lot of luck

Hinkie set a straightforward path, and he was unwavering in attempting to execute his grand plan. At one point during the letter, he directly answered his critics (emphasis mine):

This continuity of focus has served to frustrate many. I’ve found those most frustrated are those that either underestimate the enormity of the challenge or fundamentally want something else.

There isn’t one way to win a title in the NBA, which is also clearly spelled out in the letter. Make no mistake, though, all of them are low percentage plays. Take the greatest basketball team I have ever seen: You can be the Golden State Warriors and never dip below 26 wins, but the best shooter of all-time doesn’t fall to you if David Kahn decides to pair Steph Curry with Ricky Rubio on draft night instead of Jonny Flynn. It’s also much harder to fill out and keep such a loaded roster intact if Curry doesn’t have serious ankle problems earlier in his career and eventually signs what becomes an insanely below-market deal. The Dubs have a fantastic organization that deserves a ton of credit, but The New York Times Magazine doesn’t give a damn about what Joe Lacob thinks if they don’t catch some major breaks along the way.

How about the Sixers from 2004-2012? A lot of the draft selections (Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Jrue Holiday, Nikola Vucevic) are pretty darn defensible after considering where Billy King, Ed Stefanski Tony DiLeo and others were picking. As we know, those Sixers got nowhere close to a championship. Mostly, people just complained about Iguodala, an excellent player during his time here miscast as a top scoring option, taking the last shot.

I’m rambling, but the point stands: Regardless of how you go about it, this league is hard. It was tough for Sam Hinkie, just like it’s going to be tough for Jerry and Bryan Colangelo. From Hinkie’s letter:

A league with 30 intense competitors requires a culture of finding new, better ways to solve repeating problems. In the short term, investing in that sort of innovation often doesn’t look like much progress, if any. Abraham Lincoln said “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

[By the way, it looks like Honest Abe didn’t say that. We have reached out to his reps for comment, but so far there has been no response.]

Hinkie was often painted as a guy who “thought he had all of the answers” when it was just the opposite. 

He wrote that the highest odds of a drafted player turning into a star are around 20 percent. Of course, this line of thought devalues the skill involved in scouting and drafting. Is it a game of skill or a game of chance? It’s both, but Hinkie comes off as someone much closer to the chance side of the ledger. At some point, especially when the strategy is so dependent on the draft, you really do have to nail one of those decisions.

Maybe he did. 

Joel Embiid’s upside is incredible, as is his risk. Dario Saric is a 22-year-old power forward that can dribble, pass, and shoot at 6’10,” but we have no idea how his game translates to the NBA. If the ping-pong balls work out this time, Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram are both very good prospects. The Lakers' pick will either be 4th or 5th this year or roll over to a potentially loaded 2017 NBA Draft.

Could Hinkie’s execution have been better? I think so, but there is also a chance that the Sixers’ long-term outlook looks much brighter 12 months from now regardless of what direction the Colangelos take the franchise.

He was making moves for 2016 and beyond

Hinkie believes current success is often dependent on what happens far in the past. He used examples of the current Warriors drafting Klay Thompson/Draymond Green in 2011/2012 as well as all of the prior moves that Daryl Morey -- Hinkie's former boss in Houston -- and Danny Ainge used to put themselves in a position to trade for a superstar (James Harden, Kevin Garnett). In the case of Morey and Harden, Hinkie was along for the ride, sitting shotgun.

Along those same lines, Hinkie believes the current core of young players will be better 4-5 years after when they were drafted, just like Green and Thompson. Back to the letter:

This story underscores what our players, particularly our best players, are in greatest need of — time. The gap between driving wins today and driving wins tomorrow will be heavily influenced by a bunch of factors, but the biggest one is time. For players like Jahlil, Nerlens, and Jerami, getting much nearer the middle of their new NBA cohort will go a long way toward letting their talents shine through, just as it has their whole basketball lives when they were nearer the middle of those cohorts. Get down the experience curve, the faster the better. They are 20, 21, and 22 years old.

Okafor, Noel and Grant will likely make improvements with time. The question is, “How good are they exactly going to be?” That’s important. Hinkie noted that Okafor drew double teams on his first night, but is he going to become the type of passer that can consistently punish teams sending an extra defender his way? And then can he become an adequate player on the other end to the point that he becomes a net positive overall?

You can ask those type of real questions of any theoretical building block on the Sixers roster, but just like the players, Hinkie was under the impression that he would have time. He was honest about trying to execute a long-term strategy, allowed to do so, and then the rug was pulled out from underneath him 2.5 years after he began.

The crops have been replanted


That is one way Hinkie described the situation he inherited. “Your crops had been eaten” was another, and it’s almost impossible to argue with him. This is what he took over in May 2013 (via Hoop 76):

At the very least, Hinkie replanted those crops. The Colangelos are entering a situation immeasurably better than the one Hinkie inherited. Let’s talk some zugzwang:

The NBA can be a league of desperation, those that are in it and those that can avoid it. So many find themselves caught in the zugzwang, the point in the game where all possible moves make you worse off. Your positioning is now the opposite of that.

The Sixers have the optionality ability to make a lot of different moves, and for that, they can point to letting Sam Hinkie do his thing for a couple of years.

The new front office deserves a chance

If Adrian Wojnarowski’s reporting is correct — and he’s the best in the business — the manner in which Jerry Colangelo orchestrated this whole thing was cutthroat, some real Tywin Lannister type stuff. It also paints his son in a more sympathetic light, even if the optics of his assumed hiring remain terrible. If ownership truly believed that Hinkie would go along with Bryan Colangelo working next to him, that sounds surprisingly naïve. A group that can’t decisively pick a side (Sam or Jerry) doesn’t inspire much confidence going forward, either.

To bury the lede, I liked Hinkie’s vision. If I were running the Sixers, he would still be running the basketball operations. 

But there is this idea prevalent among Process Trusters and elsewhere that Jerry and Bryan will automatically make short-sighted moves that completely railroad everything that Hinkie tried to do over the last three years. 

In my opinion, this way of thinking is a mistake. They deserve to be judged on the merits of their work, especially since an era with results that are still so incomplete is already being judged prematurely (in both directions, mind you). Don’t make the same mistake that so many in Philadelphia made with Hinkie three years ago.

Sam Hinkie and Jerry Colangelo couldn’t find a way to make it work, but the future of the Sixers is going to rely heavily on both of them.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann