Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Failure Artist Sam Hinkie Produces His Masterpiece

Illustration for article titled Failure Artist Sam Hinkie Produces His Masterpiece

Professional engineer of failure Sam Hinkie quit the Philadelphia 76ers last night via a batshit, borderline incoherent, hilariously self-congratulatory 13-page resignation letter, inadvertently rendering into generous flattery every joke made at his expense over the three years he spent failing at nearly every facet of his job and calling it a Process.

To hear whole wide swaths of NBA media tell it, this is a tragic end for Hinkie. He did the thankless work of clearing Philadelphia’s messy slate, and now won’t get to do the more gratifying (and comprehensible to his simpleminded haters) work of building on the foundation he laid. Here’s SB Nation’s Mike Prada, giving voice to this notion:


Here’s his colleague, Paul Flannery, with a similar take:

Here’s Philadelphia basketblogger Andrew Unterberger on The 700 Level, waxing, uh ... look, maybe you should just read it for yourself:

It’s hard to believe that Colangelo would completely reverse the course that Our Dark Lord [Hinkie] had set us on, and even if he makes a couple poor decisions, the Hink’s handicapped us with assets enough that whiffing on one or two of them doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Ultimately, maybe it was Hinkie’s Sixers destiny to be the guy before the guy. Maybe it makes sense that the guy who strips your old house down to its foundation isn’t the same as the guy who designs and builds you a brand new one. It’s sad that Hinkie wasn’t given the proper chance to prove that he could do both, but nobody expected the Sixers to be under construction this long, with this many delays.


ESPN’s Kevin Pelton decrees the conclusion that Hinkie is leaving the Sixers better than he found them “inescapable.” Sporting News’s Adi Joseph writes that “Hinkie’s genius was understanding exactly what he was doing.”

A lot of different sorts of people, from sober and totally reasonable national writers to deranged Sixers fans, are on board with some version of this basic idea: Yes, it was imperfect, and no, it didn’t always work out for the best, but Hinkie did hard work that had to be done to turn the Sixers into a championship team, and say what you will, he had a clear vision and he stayed with it. There are two issues with this. First, having an idea and resolve are laudable so far as the idea is good, and the resolve put to good ends; if I get the idea in my head that drinking hot lava will turn me into a bitchin’ fire demon, and I just keep pouring it down my throat, that’s not really admirable. Second, Hinkie had no idea what he was doing. There was no focused plan; there just a vague notion that success requires unconventional thinking, and so that the more unconventional the thinking the more success there would be, ending finally in a rejection of the relationship between cause and effect. Don’t believe me? Ask Hinkie!


We’ve already posted several times about the batshit 13-page manifesto Hinkie sent his bosses as a resignation letter last night. We’ve asked for people to send it to us; we’ve published it; we’ve read parts of it aloud. I still fear you—you, there!—may not have read it. You should. It’s a remarkable piece of work. Here are some of my favorite bits.

Hinkie derides attempting to win or acquire good players as conformism

There has been much criticism of our approach. There will be more. A competitive league like the NBA necessitates a zig while our competitors comfortably zag. We often chose not to defend ourselves against much of the criticism, largely in an effort to stay true to the ideal of having the longest view in the room. 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.


This is great. We totally could have convinced everybody that the already-popular and well-understood practice of tanking for draft picks and gaming the CBA was the best idea, but then we would have lost the market advantage of doing a particularly shameless and extreme version of the same shit a third of the teams in the NBA do every year.

Posing conventional wisdom and/or dismal banality as revolutionary insight will be a recurring motif in this letter. Why, it’s almost as though Sam Hinkie is a TED-humping moron!


Hinkie compares himself to Warren Buffett

In May of 1969, a 38-year-old Warren Buffett sat down at a typewriter to inform his investors that he was closing his fund (then Buffett Partnership). His reason: market conditions were such that he no longer had the requisite confidence that he could make good decisions on behalf of the investors and deliver on his commitments to them. So he would stop investing on their behalf.

For me, that’s today.

Now, look. I am not the world’s biggest Warren Buffett enthusiast, but I can spot at least one big problem with this analogy! In order for it to work, Warren Buffett would have to have spent three years prior to that day racking up an investment record so world-historically atrocious that the Securities and Exchange Commission forced his fund to hire a more experienced manager so he’d stop shaming the entire practice of investing. He would have to have turned investors’ money into loss on loss on loss—a virtually unbroken string of abject failure sweetened by promises of marginally better odds at a nonetheless extremely unlikely jackpot at a later date he routinely refused to specify. He would, in other words, have to have been a charlatan whose bosses already were planning to shit-can him. Like Sam Hinkie!


Hinkie lauds himself for making an obvious move that turned out poorly

Here is a neat bit of intellectual dishonesty:

You can be wrong for the right reasons. This may well prove to be Joel Embiid. There is signal everywhere that Joel is unique, from the practice gyms in Lawrence, Kansas to Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania to Doha, Qatar where he does something awe inspiring far too regularly. We remain hopeful (and optimistic) about his long-term playing career, but we don’t yet know exactly how it will turn out. The decision to draft Joel third, though, still looks to me to be the correct one in hindsight given the underlying reasoning.


First of all, drafting Joel Embiid third overall was barely a “decision” at all, much less a daring one. He’d been the consensus first overall pick until leg problems ended his freshman season at the University of Kansas and raised the specter of Greg Oden; by the third pick, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were gone. Taking Embiid was the most passive, least daring thing the Sixers could do, in that spot. The “underlying reasoning” was Duh, literally anyone would take Joel Embiid with this pick.

Secondly, the Sixers only were in position to make the third overall pick in the 2014 draft because, one year before, Hinkie had forfeited the entire 2013-14 season by trading a 23-year-old All-Star (Jrue Holiday) for another one-and-done center with catastrophic leg problems (Nerlens Noel) who wouldn’t be able to play for a year. This is convenient context to ignore, here; Holiday’s injury problems before and after the trade make a handy defense of the decision to get rid of him, unless your plan is to defend the Embiid pick by claiming that it shouldn’t be judged on the basis of injury problems nobody could have foreseen at the time. That’s a defense Sam Hinkie would like to reserve for himself, since it makes him look a lot better than the truth, which is that he drafted Joel Embiid not just for his potential value as a basketball player, but for his short-term value as a renewable Get Out Of Evaluation Free card.


(By the way, a few picks later in Noel draft, this putative player-evaluation savant passed up Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dennis Schröder to select Michael Carter-Williams—once again the very safest choice he could have made, and a worse point guard than either of those two—to replace Holiday. But nobody knew Antetokounmpo or Schröder would be all that good!, his stans are rushing to type, defending him by saying he’s actually just like everybody else.

(For that matter, why didn’t Carter-Williams improve as much as either of those two players in the season-plus before the Sixers dumped him?)


Hinkie proposes that not being good is the new good

We talk a great deal about being curious, not critical. About asking the question until you understand something truly. About not being afraid to ask the obvious question that everyone else seems to know the answer to. And about the willingness to say three simple words, “I don’t know.”


Actually, acquiring three lottery-pick centers in three consecutive drafts was good because knowledge is a lie.

Investing in disruptive innovation doesn’t ferment misunderstanding, it necessitates it. Jeff Bezos says it this way: “There are a few prerequisites to inventing … You have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to think long-term. You have to be willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.”


I like to think of what R.C. Buford was doing during all the time Sam Hinkie spent combing Davos slideshows for the “Actually, failure is cool and good” quotes of various messianic technocrats. Just R.C. Buford, eating some good-ass Tex-Mex, signing a French guard who’ll later get a five-year deal from the Knicks, and letting some cute San Antonio moppets check out his multiple championship rings.

Hinkie notes that the Golden State Warriors drafted good players

Jeff Bezos says that if Amazon has a good quarter it’s because of work they did 3, 4, 5 years ago—not because they did a good job that quarter. Today’s league-leading Golden State Warriors acquired Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut, and Klay Thompson almost 4 years ago, nearly 4 years ago exactly, and almost 5 years ago. In this league, the long view picks at the lock of mediocrity.


Today’s league-leading Golden State Warriors drafted Klay Thompson 11th overall in 2011, after finishing the 2010-11 season in precisely the “lock of mediocrity” (36-46, 12th in the West) Hinkie’s team-building strategy is engineered to avoid. Today’s league-leading Golden State Warriors acquired then 28-year-old Andrew Bogut via precisely the kind of move—a trade of young players for veterans who offered immediate improvement to a 23-win team—regarded most scornfully by Sam Hinkie’s entire team-building approach, summarized multiple times in this letter (including as the header of the very section in which this paragraph appears) as “the longest view in the room.” And today’s league-leading Golden State Warriors waited out Draymond Green’s improvement, rather than cashing him in for Isaiah fucking Canaan and another second-round pick the moment he showed a flash of potential.

More to the point, today’s league-leading Golden State Warriors did not just get good this season. Or didn’t Sam Hinkie notice that they won the NBA Finals last season, and went to the playoffs each of the two seasons prior to that? The moves he’s crediting to an assiduous focus on the long view helped today’s league-leading Golden State Warriors win more games right away.


Hinkie asserts that it’s good to both be good and put yourself in a position to get a star player like James Harden

More practically, to take the long view has an unintuitive advantage built in—fewer competitors. Here’s Warren Buffett in the late 80s on this topic: “In any sort of a contest—financial, mental, or physical—it’s an enormous advantage to have opponents who have been taught that it’s useless to even try.” Ask who wants to trade for an in-his-prime Kevin Garnett and 30 hands will go up. Ask who planned for it three or four years in advance and Danny Ainge is nearly alone. Same for Daryl Morey in Houston trading for James Harden. San Antonio’s Peter Holt said after signing LaMarcus Aldridge this summer, “R.C.[Buford] came to us with this plan three years ago, four years ago—seriously. And we’ve worked at it ever since.”


I want to align myself with the bold unorthodox thinkers, the ones who say things like “Let’s trade for Kevin Garnett” or “We should sign LaMarcus Aldridge.” Y’know, unconventional ideas like how it might be good to get perennial All-Stars on your team if you can.

Truly, Sam Hinkie has unlocked the most disruptive innovation of all: Having great players is good.


(This may be quibbling over details, but the reference to James Harden is particularly silly. No, Daryl Morey did not spend years planning to trade for James Harden. He spent years planning to trade for somebody, targeted Pau Gasol, then had to sit on his hands for a season after David Stern killed the three-way trade that would have brought Gasol to Houston. He still had most of those trade chips sitting around when it became clear the Oklahoma City Thunder weren’t going to pay Harden what he wanted—but he wouldn’t have if a once-in-NBA-history intervention hadn’t robbed him of the player he wanted in the first place.)

Hinkie asserts that things just happen and that no one has any control over any of it, which makes you wonder what the point of any of it is, man

To develop truly contrarian views will require a never-ending thirst for better, more diverse inputs. What player do you think is most undervalued? Get him for your team. What basketball axiom is most likely to be untrue? Take it on and do the opposite. What is the biggest, least valuable time sink for the organization? Stop doing it. Otherwise, it’s a big game of pitty pat, and you’re stuck just hoping for good things to happen, rather than developing a strategy for how to make them happen.


Hey, remember when he defended the Embiid pick by saying, effectively, Whaddaya gonna do, sometimes guys get hurt? Those were good times, a few paragraphs ago, when he absolved himself of the most important choice he made in three years running an NBA team with the kind of rhetorical shrug at which he’s now scoffing.

The illusion of control is an opiate, though. Nonetheless, it is annoyingly necessary to get comfortable with many grades of maybe. Sixers fans come up to me to say hello and many of them say the same thing (almost instinctively) as we part, “Good luck.” My standard reply: “Thanks. We’ll need it.”


We got unlucky with Embiid, but it wasn’t our fault because the reasoning was sound. But also, only suckers get caught waiting for good things to happen instead of making them happen. But also, control is impossible.

This fucking weasel. Seriously. Dress it up with Palo Alto sales-pitch aphorisms all the fuck you want, but the argument he is making here is, “All the loss and failure and embarrassment was part of a sophisticated plan, unless you think it was failing, in which case we got fucked by random happenstance.”


Hinkie praises the value of being wrong, but also of not being wrong

While contrarian views are absolutely necessary to truly deliver, conventional wisdom is still wise. It is generally accepted as the conventional view because it is considered the best we have. Get back on defense. Share the ball. Box out. Run the lanes. Contest a shot.


Pursue good players. Pay them competitively. Improve your team.

(On the other hand, none of these things actually are any good if your goal is to lose.)


Hinkie ...

You can skip this next part, if you just ate some food.

I inherited Marlene Barnes as my executive assistant, a widowed lifelong Philadelphian that joined the Sixers in the fall of 1977. I was born in the winter of 1977. Marlene has worked for 11 different GMs and 5 head coaches at the Sixers. The names evoke many memories for you lifelong Sixers fans and students of history like me: Pat Williams, John Nash, Gene Shue, Jim Lynam, John Lucas, Brad Greenberg, Larry Brown, Billy King, Ed Stefanski, Rod Thorn. With us, she was immediately thrown into a new, more entrepreneurial work environment with a boss full of quirks different than any she had ever encountered. She adapted wonderfully, and now is a regular Slack wizard along with much of our staff, has seamlessly plugged into one productivity hack after another, and has ordered more books from Amazon than she ever thought possible. Her presence served as an everyday reminder to me of the impermanence of my leadership. I told her within a few weeks of working together that when I see her in the mornings I’m reminded that I am a steward—today’s steward—of her Sixers.



[puke puke puuuuuuuuke]

Hinkie congratulates himself for bringing in bad centers three years running

We have had the good fortune of drafting relatively early, giving us access to some especially talented players, including Jahlil Okafor (#3), Joel Embiid (#3), and Nerlens Noel (#6).


Those three players play the same position. Joel Embiid has not played an official basketball game since three weeks before the end of his lone season at the University of Kansas, more than two years ago. Okafor had a respectable rookie season in box-score terms; he also can’t share the floor with Noel. And “good fortune” is pushing it, since Hinkie actively made the Sixers worse to get each of those three picks; in Noel’s and Embiid’s cases, he made the Sixers worse by selecting them.

Hinkie congratulates himself for bringing in two scrubs

We also put ourselves into position to draft in the second round, where we found two 22-year-old gems to date, including Jerami Grant (#39) and Richaun Holmes (#37).


“Gems.” Neither of those two is a replacement-level player; probably neither would be in the NBA at all if the Sixers were not in the market for cheap players who cannot produce wins.

Hinkie chastises himself for failing to bring in a below-average player, congratulates himself for eventually bringing him in

Robert [Covington] is a mistake I rubbed my own nose in for over a year. The 2013 Draft was a flurry of activity for us—a handful of trades and selections in both the first and second rounds. We had more action following the draft as we tried to finalize our summer league team and get the myriad trade calls set up with the NBA. I could see this coming a few days before and we informed the media that this kind of approach might lead to an unusually late start for the post-draft press conference. Several of you were still there late that night. At about 1:00 a.m. 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.


Robert Covington shoots 38 percent from the floor and is one of the worst players logging regular minutes in the entire NBA. He’s also older than Kawhi Leonard. That is an opportunity you shudder at having taken.

Hinkie muses on the mysteries of player development

We need to identify high potential prospects and find ways to add them to our program. Then we need to work with them on their game in a targeted way to maximize their performance, their impact on the floor, and their value. One way is to draft them and put them on our 15-man roster. We do that.

Another is to draft them and hold their exclusive NBA rights while they play professionally in a league that doesn’t start with N and end with A. Now we do that.


Yet a third way is to draft them and put them on the 15-man roster and pair them with a proud, credible NBA veteran who can show them the ropes and help them cope with the humiliation of getting clobbered every night. Y’know, like the Minnesota Timberwolves did for Karl-Anthony Towns, by keeping Kevin Garnett around. The Sixers do that, too! They just had to hire Jerry Colangelo to make it happen, because Sam Hinkie spent the first half of the season sitting on his hands while Jahlil Okafor imploded in front of him, because he is bad at his job.

Hinkie lists unimpressive players he’s brought in

We have used several of those picks [amassed via pick swaps and salary-dump trades] to move around in the draft, to facilitate other deals, in trade for players to add to our team, and to select players for our team. Players like Jerami Grant (part of the haul from the Spencer Hawes trade), Nerlens Noel & Dario Saric (via the Jrue Holiday trade and its derivative), Ish Smith (used one of the two picks we acquired in the Eric Maynor trade, plus another), Richaun Holmes (part of the proceeds via the K.J. McDaniels trade), and others.


Reminder: The 76ers are 10-68 at the time of this writing. Those picks have not improved the team, because mostly that is a list of shitty players.

Here is the thing. In the past few years the Timberwolves have nabbed Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine, and (hell) even Shabazz Muhammad; they stink, but their GM is not being run out of town on a rail. The Bucks saw Larry Sanders wig his way all the way out of the NBA and they still have Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, and John Henson to show for their efforts; their GM is not a punchline. The Orlando Magic, too, have been putrid, but fans at least can imagine some combination of Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja, and Victor Oladipo as guys who will still be on the team whenever it next isn’t very bad. Ditto the Utah Jazz with Gordon Heyward, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Dante Exum, Alec Burks, and so on. Hell, even fucking Lakers fans have reason to feel like the three seasons they’ve spent being atrocious have yielded a core on which to hang some optimism: D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr.


This is all to say that if the Sixers had a discernible nucleus in place, Sam Hinkie almost certainly would have a job today, despite his 47-195 record. But, this is the best he can do to vindicate The Process after three years in the NBA’s toilet: “We have three centers—no two of whom have a future playing together, one of whom hasn’t played organized basketball in two years, and the best of whom projects as a smaller, clumsier Brook Lopez—plus a bunch of really, reeeeally bad nobodies with no future in the NBA.” He didn’t just fail at winning basketball games. He failed at exploiting the spoils of losing them.

Hinkie promises a well-stocked D-League team, well into the future

Yet we still retain the rights to more future 2nd round picks at our disposal going forward than 27 other NBA teams.



Hinkie vaunts at having somewhat increased the team’s chances of having chances at getting decent players, provided the team evaluates amateur talent well, which he didn’t

In the upcoming May draft lottery, we have what will likely be the best ever odds to get the #1 overall pick (nearly 30%) [because our team has been so incredibly shitty for the past three seasons], a roughly 50/50 chance at a top-2 pick (the highest ever) [because on a nightly basis we put on the most embarrassing show in all of professional sports], and a roughly 50/50 chance at two top-5 picks [because our product is garbage], which would be the best lottery night haul ever.


I mean, would it? You still have to actually draft and develop good players with those hypothetical selections. It’s not a good haul if, for example, you use those picks on a big man whose knees are on the back of his legs and a point guard who dribbles with both hands at the same time. (In case you were wondering which outcome Sixers ownership might have hoped to avert by reducing Hinkie’s decision-making power within the organization.)

Lottery night will be nerve-wracking for most and exciting for all. I said to Josh & David last year during the NBA’s Draft Lottery that it is rare for the importance of luck in our lives to be laid bare for the whole world to see.


One might even say that you have to artificially construct such scenarios, via team-building strategies specifically engineered to disperse all responsibility and accountability into the outcome of a blind lottery drawing!

Hinkie notes that his master plan has left the Sixers in such bad shape that they can only improve from here

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.


Actually, this is true. The Sixers really can’t get worse off than they are, unless they rehire Sam Hinkie.

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