- Sam Hinkie received credit for 'tanking' and collecting young players as general manager of the 76ers, but his ability to identify talent and build a team remain underrated.
He was wearing his patented scouting attire: Dark blue blazer, dress shirt casually unbuttoned one notch from the top, and blue jeans. Yet instead of the black dress shoes that typically completed his outfit, Sam Hinkie wore “Georgetown” Jordan XI Retro Lows to the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League one afternoon this past July.
Hinkie has calmly sported this look—sans the Js—all over the globe, spending myriad nights in European hotel rooms scouring every crevice of the basketball world to evaluate the next high profile prospect. After hours as a gym rat overseas, he digested the finest local cuisines and landmarks, wines and art. Simplifying his wardrobe allowed for packing light and provided more time to consume the riches each city had to offer.
Which is why I sought him out that day at Cox Pavilion. Roughly 36 hours after my flight home from Vegas, I was set to depart for a four-week Eurotrip. There wasn’t a better person in attendance to ask for travel advice. He offered several restaurant recommendations in Italy and Spain and waxed poetic about La Sagrada Familia. The way he spoke of the sun flooding the cathedral through the church’s magnificent stained glass windows reminded me of his plan to infuse the 76ers’ new practice facility with natural sunlight.
It was that worldly viewpoint that always impressed me about Hinkie during his tenure as the Philadelphia 76ers’ general manager. He had an uncanny ability to see the forest for the trees. The piece of his 13-page, leaked resignation letter that has stuck with me the most is an anecdote detailing how swingman Robert Covington ultimately arrived at the Wells Fargo Center.
“At about 1:00 a.m,” Hinkie wrote about the night of the 2013 NBA Draft. “I went downstairs to address an equally exhausted media on deadline from their editors. When I returned upstairs, the undrafted Robert Covington was gone, having agreed to play for another club’s summer league team, eventually making their regular season roster. He torched the D-League that year, haunting me all the while. When he became available 17 months later, we pounced. But I shudder, even now, at that (nearly) missed opportunity.”
The Sixers signed Covington on November 15, 2014, needing all 17 of his points against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Dec. 3 to register their first victory of the season. I had lunch with a Philly assistant coach in Boston shortly after, who admitted, before Covington signed, the staff was legitimately concerned they did not have the shooting to win a single game that season.
Convington’s Philadelphia tenure is the perfect example of Hinkle's team-building philosophy, even more so than The Process, Joel Embiid, or Ben Simmons. The brazen tank job Hinkie employed was clearly designed to deliver premier draft pick after premier draft pick for the 76ers, just as the surplus of second round picks he acquired bordered on absurd. But what frequently flew under the radar was his fixation on the most mundane elements of team building. Forgetting the concept of winning games unearthed a new depth of, frankly, throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Covington remains the 76ers’ starting small forward. And while his three-point shooting has plummeted to start the season—he drained 36.3% of his long-range attempts the last two seasons—the undrafted 6’9” Tennessee State product has morphed into one of the better perimeter defenders in the entire league. Covington ranks seventh in the NBA in steals per 48 minutes and fourth in the league in deflections per game, according to NBA.com tracking data. He trails only Chris Paul, Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard—all perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidates. Once his shooting returns—he’s shooting 45% from three during his past 4 games—Hinkie may very well have found one of the 3-and-D wings every championship-caliber team is searching for. There’s a reason Allen Crabbe and Solomon Hill inked such lucrative contracts this summer.
The Sixers acquired, owned the rights to, or signed 99 players during Hinkie’s time in Philadelphia. He signed 11 different 10-day contracts and completed 26 trades. It’s considered easy to tear down a basketball roster to its bitter core, shaving scrap after scrap until you’re left with a team that only wins 10 games. It’s the pure rebuild that earns the title of tanking and staves off owners and general managers who prefer to make the playoffs as an eight seed.
It became obvious Sixers ownership no longer trusted Hinkie to complete The Process, hiring Jerry Colangelo to make the most awkward front office odd couple in the league’s recent memory, and he wrote as such in his resignation. The team’s unsuccessful record blinded onlookers far and wide from his rebuilding successes, like Covington and fellow undrafted marksmen Hollis Thompson—a career 40% three-point shooter that will undoubtedly get paid this summer—let alone the surplus of young picks in Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric, Richaun Holmes and Jerami Grant, all of which Hinkie selected below their true value on their respective draft nights.
The Sixers could contend in the Eastern Conference in the near future, boasting a starting lineup featuring Embiid, Simmons, Covington, Saric and a sweet-shooting point guard they acquire via the draft pick Hinkie handed incumbent GM Bryan Colangelo after trading Michael Carter-Williams for what became the Los Angeles Lakers’ top-3 protected selection this June. But no matter what form the 76ers take, Hinkie can only watch from afar.