Newly former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie’s “Process” encompassed a number of tenets, but its basic philosophical underpinning was that the NBA draft is the best and cheapest way to build a contender, and that the NBA draft is a crapshoot. A roll of the dice.
Much of the MBA-speak gobbledygook in his instantly infamous 13-page letter of resignation is a defense of the strategy of sacrificing nearly everything—entire seasons, fan goodwill, league relationships—to acquire draft picks. The sheer quantity of upcoming picks the team has is what he points to in his letter as evidence that his plan has been working. Note that his analysis of the picks is limited to their relative value as assets, and not the players the 76ers will be able to select with them (emphasis his):
In the upcoming May draft lottery, we have what will likely be the best ever odds to get the #1 overall pick (nearly 30%), a roughly 50/50 chance at a top-2 pick (the highest ever), and a roughly 50/50 chance at two top-5 picks, which would be the best lottery night haul ever. That same bounce of a ping pong ball (almost a flip of a coin) will determine if we have three first round picks this year (unusual) or four (unprecedented). That’s this year. Or this quarter, if you will.
If you were to estimate the value of those firsts and the ones to follow, from this point forward we have essentially two NBA teams’ worth of first round pick value plus the third most second round picks in the league.
The most telling insight into how Hinkie thinks about picks isn’t to be found in this letter, though, but in something he said at a press conference last season:
We will not bat a thousand on every single draft pick. We also have them by the bushelful, in part, because of that. We don’t have any hubris that we will get them all right. We’re not certain that we have an enormous edge over anybody else. In some cases, we might not have an edge at all.
What at first blush looks like something insightful is actually a wonderful bit of sleight-of-hand. Hinkie admits that—at best—he’s only a slightly better than average drafter, yet uses this as an argument for The Process and his continued employment. Since the 76ers aren’t good at drafting, the logic goes, they need to lose a lot and trade away everything that isn’t bolted down in order to amass enough picks to ensure a few of them succeed. It’s pretty brazen: The Process hinges upon drafting future stars, yet Hinkie admits he can’t tell who these players are.
If the NBA draft were indeed a crapshoot, Hinkie’s strategy would make sense, and he wouldn’t be widely derided. But the NBA draft isn’t a crapshoot! We know this because, over time, some executives have clearly shown they’re better than others at drafting.
In San Antonio, RC Buford and Gregg Popovich have drafted Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Beno Udrih, Tiago Splitter, George Hill, DeJuan Blair, and traded for Kawhi Leonard on draft night. In Golden State, Larry Riley and Bob Myers and Jerry West have drafted Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, and Draymond Green. In Oklahoma City, Sam Presti drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams, and Cameron Payne.
This isn’t to say there’s no luck in the draft (there’s a lot), or that the above executives haven’t made poor draft picks (they have). But drafting—which relies heavily upon player evaluation, maybe the single most important skill for a general manager to have—is very clearly a skill. RC Buford and Sam Presti definitely have it, and David Kahn definitely doesn’t. Sam Hinkie admits that he doesn’t either.
Placing outsized importance on the draft as a vehicle to improve a team is a perfectly reasonable strategy. But Hinkie essentially attempted to game the draft while dismissing the most proven and best way of doing so—actually being better at spotting talent than rival executives.
The simple fact of the matter is that in three years Sam Hinkie showed that he was a poor talent evaluator. Nerlens Noel isn’t Steven Adams or Rudy Gobert, Michael Carter-Williams isn’t Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid isn’t Aaron Gordon, Jahlil Okafor isn’t Kristaps Porzingis. Hinkie drafted over 10 players in the second round and tore through D-Leaguers and end-of-the-benchers via trade and ended up with just one (or maybe two) back-of-the-rotation players. One of the few times he did find something resembling real talent in the second round—K.J. McDaniels—Hinkie offered the player an insulting contract and soon traded him.
If poor talent evaluation were Hinkie’s only sin, he’d probably still have a job. But he was a poor talent evaluator whose master plan required one of the worst three-year stretches in NBA history, the alienation of 76ers fans, the destruction of working relationships with agents and other executives, and a dramatic drop-off in profits for the 76ers owners before it could start being carried out.
Hinkie amassed a ton of draft picks and constantly used the 76ers’ cap room to force his way into trades and acquire small assets. There’s an irony in the fact that, with the full quiver of picks that he’s rightfully proud of coming due in the 2016 draft, the smartest move for the 76ers is having anybody but Hinkie decide what to do with them.