Sam Hinkie's failure made the NBA fun
Each of the past three Sixers seasons brought more chaos and skepticism, and each new setback was its own test of Sam Hinkie's worldview. For a while, his refusal to blink was taken as confirmation of his brilliance. In the end, his refusal to blink left everyone else covering their eyes, while Sixers owners covered their ass, and the Colangelo family took his job.
When it was all over, there was a 13–page resignation letter to Sixers investors quoting Atul Gawande, Warren Buffett, Abraham Lincoln, Seth Klarman, Charlie Munger, Elon Musk, James Maxwell, Bill James, Bill Belichick, Howard Marks, Amos Tversky, Tim Urban, Lee Sedol, and Max Planck, while citing both Blackberry keyboards and a 10–foot, 400–pound extinct bird in New Zealand, the moa.
What an era. Whatever you want to say about Sam Hinkie, he was never boring. The Process was every bit as crazy and ambitious as advertised, right up until the resignation letter where Hinkie compared himself to Warren Buffet in 1969. It was all legendary. It failed, too. Not just in the obvious, conventional sense—195 losses in three years—but it has to be noted that The Process failed on its own terms.
The Sixers sacrificed three full NBA seasons and there's not really any clear building block on the roster. Joel Embiid hasn't played. Jahlil Okafor hasn't played defense, and he's been on the trade block for five months. Nerlens Noel can't score, and he'll be asking for a massive contract extension soon. The player with the clearest role in the future is Robert Covington, and he was signed as a D–League free agent. He's also regressed this year, and so has Noel.
Hinkie's formula for running a basketball team put an emphasis on risk tolerance, both with scouting players and the NBA lottery itself. "In some decisions," Hinkie's resignation letter reads, "the uncertainties are savage. You have to find a way to get comfortable with that range of outcomes." There were never any guarantees that this would lead to superstars, and the odds were always stacked against the Sixers. Hinkie's principal innovation in Philadelphia was the understanding that you could take as many shots as possible if you were willing to be patient through the losing.
In the abstract, risk tolerance and The Process makes sense. But it's incomplete and incorrect to say that all this worked in theory, only to be interrupted by owners who lost their nerve. It was flawed all along. Even winning the No. 1 pick this spring wouldn't have changed the calculus for the Sixers now. They are still several players away, with a glut of imperfect big men and no answer at either guard spot.
The blindspot here is clear, and has been for a while. This was a team that sacrificed winning for the sake of draft picks, and then didn't invest in any of the infrastructure it takes to develop draft picks once they get to the NBA. The Hinkie Sixers took stars who were too injured to play, surrounded other young players with second–round picks instead of veterans, and nobody was ever put in a position to succeed. They hoarded draft picks, but then used those picks on the most conventional picks available rather than taking risks on prospects like Kristaps Porzingis, Giannis Anetokounmpo, or Dennis Schroeder. They stockpiled assets for a blockbuster trade that would bring another superstar, but neglected to consider that no superstar would ever agree to play for the team that had been punting the regular season for years on end. They hoarded cap space, but then, a TV deal gave cap space to the entire league. Again, it all failed.
But there are so many different ways to fail in the NBA, and you have to credit Hinkie for doing it in the most spectacular way possible. "We were fundamentally aiming for something different," Hinkie told Sixers investors last night. "A goal that lofty is anything but certain. And it sure doesn’t come from those that are content to color within the lines."
It gave the NBA something to argue about for 36 months straight. In an era when millions of basketball fans play armchair GM every day and think about team-building from a macro perspective, here was a GM who took that idea to its theoretical extreme, and refused to apologize for any of it. I disagreed with so much of what Hinkie did over the past few years, but I'll miss him. His vision was unflinching, and watching him try to execute it made the entire sport more fun to follow.
For now, I have four lingering questions: 1) Are the Philadelphia owners trying to sell the team? 2) Where do the Sixers go now? 3) Who made the Okafor pick? 4) What does Hinkie do now? Let's take these one-by-one.
Are the Sixers owners trying to sell the team? Moving on from Hinkie makes a decent amount of sense. The past three years weren't just bad luck, and I understand why paying close attention to the Sixers would make ownership second-guess Hinkie's ability to build a coherent basketball team. However... Turning around and handing control of the team to the Colangelo family is a drastic step in the other direction that makes even less sense. One hypothesis: The Colangelo family has been rumored to be interested in buying into an NBA team for a while, so maybe they are here as a bridge to a new ownership group. Josh Harris and his minority owners purchased the team for $280 million a few years ago, and he will stand to make a significant profit whenever he walks away. Maybe moving on from Hinkie and handing control to the Colangelo family is the first step.
Where do the Sixers go now? They have to trade Okafor or Nerlens Noel this summer, and while those players both have decent value, it's undercut because, again, the entire league knows Philly has to trade one of them. Beyond that, the roster is essentially a blank canvass. If the Sixers can luck out in the lottery, they could come away with Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram and begin to build. The future is bright because it literally cannot get worse than the present. Maybe Embiid will get healthy. Maybe Dario Saric will come to America. Covington and Jerami Grant are both solid pieces to add to a rotation. If they can find a point guard somehow, even better. The most valuable asset they have might be the right to swap future first round picks with a Kings team that could trade DeMarcus Cousins and begin a teardown of their own. There is reason to be hopeful, but there are also plenty of reminders to be patient. The Sixers dug themselves a hole in order to strike gold, and whether they find gold in June, it will now take a while to climb back to relevance.
Who made the Okafor pick? We may never know exactly how the 2015 draft played out in Philadelphia. It's safe to say that the Sixers wanted D'Angelo Russell, only to be thrown off by the Lakers taking him at No. 2. The question is who in Philadelphia decided that Okafor made the most sense at No. 3. It just didn't fit any coherent vision of the future, and obviously, hindsight indicates that almost anyone else in the NBA lottery would have made more sense. Was this an edict from owners who were tired of losing and wanted the most apparently NBA-ready prospect on the board? Was Josh Harris unwilling to live in a world where the Sixers bet the future on Porzingis or Mario Hezonja? Was management freaked out after Joel Embiid's injury setback? It's hard to say, but if you're looking for one moment when The Process officially stopped making sense, it was the Jahlil Okafor pick. And I'll always wonder whether Hinkie made that choice himself.
What does Hinkie do now? Beneath all the rhetoric surrounding him, Hinkie is very smart. He can help any team in the league, and had he been trying harder to build a winner now, he could've helped the Sixers more than he did. He knows basketball better than his knee-jerk critics give him credit for. "Sam’s one of my favorite people,” Kyle Lowry said a few years ago. “I always said he’d be a GM, and he’ll be a great GM. He just knows the game. He understands the analytics, of course. But he also knows the game.” He will have to evolve, though. As I wrote earlier this season, the league has caught up to basketball moneyball, and there's now more to team-building than chasing superstars and mining the hidden value of the second round. Can Hinkie take a step back, recalibrate, and go succeed somewhere else? Probably. He is too smart for this to be the end of the story.