Get all of Rob Mahoney’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
Sam Hinkie is no longer the general manager and president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, nor the active symbol of the NBA’s most ambitious rebuild. Matters in Philadelphia came to a head on Wednesday with Hinkie’s resignation—an act reportedly prompted by the Sixers’ intention to add another executive at his level. Hinkie had gone about his business even after Jerry Colangelo was hired to supplant him. The addition of another leading voice, however, would dilute Hinkie’s contributions to the point where he would apparently rather not participate in The Process at all.
So marks the end of one of the most controversial teambuilding eras in league history. Hinkie, with the initial backing of Sixers owner Josh Harris, committed to a championship-or-bust blueprint built on the premise of playing a longer game than any other franchise. Expecting only distant returns allowed Hinkie to dismantle a mediocre roster, bank on consecutive lottery picks as the raw materials of a new team structure and leverage cap space to acquire more picks that could be used or dealt. Some took issue with the plan, others its shamelessness. Hinkie leaves his post having agitated plenty around the league, if in part because of the short-term freedom that his strategy allowed.
Hinkie can be accused of a great many things: overlooking the effects that a constant roster churn might have on the 76ers internally; failing to shape the narrative surrounding his team through engaging in public relations even semi-regularly; misjudging the long-term implications of Joel Embiid’s injuries; and, clearly, overestimating the patience of his team’s owner. Yet Hinkie did not sell Harris a bill of goods. This was a plot agreed upon—first pitched to Harris by Hinkie when he interviewed for the job and confirmed by his hiring. Hinkie went about executing that plan within the established parameters, if in a way that paid little mind to franchise optics.
The 76ers under Hinkie and Harris set out to be bad. They simply may have reinforced that message too loudly when doing things like selecting Embiid (who at that point was already set to miss his rookie year) and Dario Saric (whose arrival date in the NBA was, and is, unknown) in the same draft following a 19-win season. It was moves like those that set up the Sixers as a punchline and put the franchise on a constant defensive. Rather than see the trade that flipped plateauing Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams for a prized first-round pick as a smart value play, many guffawed at Philadelphia’s disregard of the present. It didn’t help that the first year of Sixers basketball under Hinkie’s watch was abjectly terrible. That it was purposefully so made it no more watchable and no less obvious.
It’s almost beside the point that Hinkie’s Sixers never (until this year) actually finished a season with the league’s worst record. Some other team always managed to bottom out further, and some others cashed in on lottery luck at Philadelphia’s expense. Those butterfly effects caused the Sixers all kinds of trouble. The pick that could have been Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker instead conveyed Embiid; the selection that became Jahlil Okafor could have conveyed Karl-Anthony Towns or D’Angelo Russell. Hinkie took hits because of his complete disregard for teambuilding convention, though in some ways he and the Sixers were really undone by the turn of the lottery odds.
Every course of team construction is heavily contingent on luck. Hinkie’s process appeared to be especially so because some of the probabilities involved were so clearly defined. Sound bets that didn’t pan out were deemed foolish gambles, all because the calculations behind them were laid bare in the NBA’s lottery system. High-level contention is always a long shot. Philadelphia accepted that doubt implicitly by playing to risk in its rebuild—essentially banking on a few dismal seasons to return one or two of the cornerstone prospects needed to vault sustainably.
Instead, the Sixers ended up with more promising picks, a few flawed, high-level prospects, the rights to one of the best players not in the NBA, several hits on low-cost gambles, and plenty of baggage. That isn’t the haul Philadelphia had hoped for, but nothing is guaranteed—even to a front office that is so acutely aware of its risks and rewards. It was accepted upfront that some elements of Hinkie’s plan would operate on delay; that, if anything, was the advantage gained by taking this particular approach. Yet enough tension manifested as to rattle Harris and challenge his convictions. Colangelo’s hiring was a bend—if one that might ultimately help the franchise. The decision to duplicate Hinkie’s position by hiring Colangelo’s son (and former Raptors general manager) Bryan Colangelo, on the other hand, was a symbolic break of the franchise’s internal order. What was one voice in steering the franchise had now become three—two of which were a father and a son who could overrule Hinkie at any turn. It’s hard to blame him for leaving.
Read all 13 pages of Sam Hinkie’s resignation letter below
It’s also likely that when Philadelphia does elevate its station, it will do so using the assets that Hinkie had so deftly acquired. This imperfect mix was never meant to be judged as a final product. It was a collection of players and pieces that might soon become something, once redundancies were sorted and draft picks redeemed. This off-season looked to be a prime opportunity for some of those aligned investments to pay off. Hinkie simply didn’t have the good will within the organization to see the summer through. We’ll never know what could have been—or the depths to which this process might have plunged—had Hinkie done even a slightly better job of managing upward and outward.
Whatever remains of The Process folds over into the designs of the Colangelos. Philadelphia is a changed franchise—less callous in some ways, less calculating in others and surely lacking in the sort of ambition that could lead a franchise through three years of anguish for the fickle promise of something greater.