The laughs arrive early in this longform profile of former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, by ESPN Mag contributing writer Jordan Brenner, beginning with the headline: “The man who just can’t win: Sam Hinkie (finally) speaks.” Specifically, I like the parenthetical “finally,” not-so-subtly advancing the fiction of Hinkie’s extreme reticence. How many other NBA general managers have authored 13-page self-justifications in the past six months, or ever? Sam Hinkie has spoken.
You’re not even out of the italicized lead paragraph, describing the Philadelphia 76ers’ selection of forward Ben Simmons with the top pick in last week’s draft, before Brenner shows his hand:
How Philadelphia ended up drafting Simmons on June 23 is a story three years in the making—but one that’s perhaps lost on the No. 1 pick. Two days earlier, the 6-foot-10 forward had posted an Instagram photo of his workout with the 76ers with the caption: “Trust the process.” When later asked by a reporter if he understood the phrase’s significance, he replied: “A little bit. I know it’s been said around a lot of the Sixers community.”
So ... this is another story about how The Process worked because the Sixers won the lottery.
Here it’s worth pointing out that the Sixers received the top pick in this past May’s lottery not because of a three-year Process, and that Process—to the dubious extent it ever was an actual process, and not just a branding term for abject failure—was not vindicated by it. Inasmuch as you can claim that a randomized lottery drawing happened because of anything, the Sixers won the draft lottery because they had the worst record in the NBA in the 2015-16 season. The lottery did not care about the fact that they also forfeited the two seasons prior to that. Indeed the Sixers, for all the games they gave away over the past three seasons, only had a 25 percent chance of landing the top pick; Hinkie’s vindication, if that’s what we’re meant to believe this is, rests on an outcome that was, analytically, more likely not to happen than to happen.
Every spring, the draft lottery awards the subsequent draft’s top selection to one NBA team or another, virtually none of which spent the previous three seasons failing on purpose. An executive who spends three years pursuing what David fucking Kahn can stumble across without trying is not a genius; he is the precise opposite of that.
More to the point: Hinkie apologists who’d like to pose the selection of Ben Simmons as vindication of “The Process” may wish to hold their horses for now. In reverse chronological order, Jahlil Okafor, K.J. McDaniels, Dario Šarić, Joel Embiid, Michael Carter-Williams, and Nerlens Noel have been posed as vindications of “The Process,” too, for various reasons. And yet, somehow, the Sixers won few enough games last season to secure the top pick they used on Simmons. If Simmons turns out to be good enough to justify the hype, will that testify to the genius of a guy who doesn’t work for the team anymore? Or will it be because of the guys who replaced him?
To put it more plainly: Is there a reason why none of Hinkie’s selections have yet turned out to be good basketball players?
But hey, let’s move on.
“So many of my friends will tell me, ‘Don’t do that. Don’t try that. It’s going to end poorly. They’ll run you out,’” Hinkie would later say. “And that’s the reason to do it, because fear has been the motivating factor for way too many people for way too long. There’s a huge agency problem in the whole business, particularly in my role: Keep the job.”
Here is Sam Hinkie saying he didn’t care about job preservation, after a three year campaign focused entirely on convincing the fans and his bosses that they must not judge his job based on his results—that he was giving them a rare, special model of team building, one that could by design and necessity not be evaluated for years. Right to the end, he refused to attach any end date to it. Building one of the most putrid teams in basketball history was the sidelight; Sam Hinkie’s great achievement was creating, in the world’s most results-based field of endeavor, a completely unfalsifiable standard of success. Even now, if the Sixers revert from historically bad to something closer to the NBA mean, it will prove to the believers that Hinkie was fired just as the team was starting to turn around. If they stay terrible, it will prove that they didn’t give him enough of a chance.
This line of hogwash, which describes the exact opposite of reality, goes unchallenged by the reporter, at least in the piece as published. Does Hinkie even know what he’s saying? Does Brenner?
A week after the second interview, the architect of the boldest rebuilding project in NBA history
Wait, I didn’t realize this piece was about Dwyane Wade. I thought it was about the con-artist who got some tech bros to pay him to fail for three years!
would be gone—undone by the very realities he hoped would never apply in Philadelphia.
Like, for example, the reality that you don’t get to keep jobs you’re world-historically bad at.
In Philly’s Xfinity Live, a massive sports bar/venue not 500 yards from Wells Fargo Center, hundreds of fans celebrated the announcement of the team’s first No. 1 pick since 1996. Search for the YouTube video and you’ll see it, a throng of partisans, gleefully chanting: THANK you, HINkie-clap, clap, clap-clap-clap ... THANK you, HINkie-clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.
What they were celebrating was Hinkie’s parting gift to Philadelphia, three seasons in the wrapping.
Okay, I’m going to stop being sarcastic for a second, to ask, in all sincerity: What is the actual journalistic value of a profile piece that adopts, uncritically, every talking point of the executive being profiled? What can it possibly illuminate? Even if Jordan Brenner and his editors (stupidly) buy the story of Hinkie’s (stupid) Process the way Hinkie (who is stupid) (stupidly) tells it, surely they can conceive of a reason to push back against Hinkie’s narrative, just for the sake of presenting a piece that isn’t completely redundant to Hinkie’s own widely read and discussed resignation letter, yes?
Suppose for instance that May’s lottery drawing, like the overwhelming majority of lottery drawings before it, had given the top pick to some team other than the one with the previous season’s worst record. Suppose the Sixers had landed in the second or third spot. Would Brenner have described Brandon Ingram or Jaylen Brown as “Hinkie’s parting gift to Philadelphia, three seasons in the wrapping”—as the grand culmination of a master plan? Probably not, right? Because neither of those two was considered the prize of the 2016 draft, and so it’d be harder to hide the imbalance of throwing away an entire NBA season—or three—to land one of them. Yet Hinkie had no control whatsoever over which of the top four picks the Sixers wound up receiving. This seems a fair point for a journalist to include in his reckoning of things!
And this all comes before you even get to the question of whether Simmons will turn out to have been much of a “parting gift.” The Blazers felt pretty great when they took Greg Oden, too. I doubt the people of Portland have erected many statues of Kevin Pritchard to commemorate the moment. But of course this gets to the central disconnect between Hinkie-ism and reality, the wide difference between wins and optimized odds of winning at some point.
Over the past five seasons, more than 60 percent of the players who made an All-NBA team were top-five picks (and 76 percent came from the top 10).
To get a shot at one of these premium players, then, a team must lose a lot of games.
This is just straight-up fiction. Many of those premium players are available via free agency and trade, every single year, and they prefer going to good teams rather than bad ones.
How many times did the Los Angeles Lakers “lose a lot of games” in order to land Dwight Howard? How many times did the San Antonio Spurs “lose a lot of games” in order to land LaMarcus Aldridge? The Milwaukee Bucks—Milwaukee is nobody’s idea of a hot destination city, by the way—scored huge in last summer’s free-agency bonanza coming off of a season in which they made the playoffs. For that matter, let’s check the factual accuracy of this statement after Kevin Durant finishes choosing from among the Clippers, Heat, Celtics, Spurs, Thunder, and Warriors—the six playoff teams that are the only suitors with whom he’s agreed to meet so far.
And the Sixers succeeded in that with ruthless efficiency: Their 47 wins in Hinkie’s three seasons was the second-worst three-year stretch in NBA history.
They “succeeded” ... at failing.
I’m not going to blockquote the whole next part, but it pulls a neat switcheroo that only becomes baffling and repulsive when you remember that this article was written by someone who is not actually employed by Sam Hinkie.
After conceding that Hinkie had become the target of growing criticism and frustration during the second and third seasons of his tenure in Philadelphia—“In the minds of his critics, though, he failed on every level, and it was getting harder to ignore them”—Brenner characterizes the criticism thusly:
Hinkie, the story went, was impersonal and aloof — high school valedictorian, Stanford Arjay Miller Scholar, Bain Capital consultant, a nerd glued to a laptop, an MBA who treated players as commodities. Definitely not a “basketball guy.”
Thus is a whole spectrum of well-founded and justifiable skepticism—about an executive who was making his product worse on purpose, on promises of a glorious payoff at a later date he refused to specify—reduced to personal distaste for nerds on the part of jocks and traditionalists.
Hey, here is a criticism of Hinkie and “The Process” that has nothing to do with whether he is a “basketball guy” or not: The Sixers played the past few seasons at, near, and/or sometimes below the NBA’s collectively bargained salary floor, by stocking their team with sub-NBA-level players. This is anti-labor, for one thing; it is also a violation of the good-faith agreement by the city of Philadelphia to permit the Sixers monopolistic control of the local pro basketball market; it also meant, by necessity, that Philadelphia’s younger players could not receive mentorship from older players who, as mandated by the CBA, are paid more than the inexperienced D-Leaguers Sam Hinkie preferred to have around. The truth of that is not dependent upon whether or not Sam Hinkie knows what the fuck a screen-the-screener action is.
Agents had their own concerns. Hinkie became known for drafting players in the second round and signing them to four-year partially guaranteed contracts. Without any leverage, agents were forced to accept those team-friendly terms, but they didn’t have to like it.
Those decisions had consequences: Agents and rival GMs were happy to turn Hinkie into the embodiment of every negative stereotype of the analytics movement.
Here again is more flat dishonesty by omission. Remember last summer, when the Sixers had to pass on Kristaps Porzingis in the draft because Porzingis and his agent wanted nothing to do with Hinkie’s “Process” and wouldn’t agree to give the Sixers a physical, a workout, or even a face-to-face meeting? That was the consequence of Hinkie’s bad handling of agents, not some bullshit about him personally being stereotyped as a dweeb. Players didn’t want to come to Philadelphia because of him.
On this point, Hinkie is adamant: More than anything else, he loathes the idea that he was representing a movement. And so it was that a week before he would step down as GM, Hinkie found a seat at La Colombe, a spacious coffeehouse in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia, booted up his laptop and spent three hours breaking down even the most minor, subtle actions on the court, eager to demonstrate his basketball chops.
Yes, okay. He knows the difference between good boxing-out and bad boxing-out. I suppose that means he was smart to offer K.J. McDaniels—at that point the best (and really only) argument in favor of Hinkie’s hoarding of second-round draft picks—an insulting low-ball contract offer and then trade him away for a thimbleful of dandruff.
The 76ers now have Simmons as a potential franchise cornerstone. Joel Embiid, whom Hinkie drafted No. 3 in 2014, might finally be healthy; players who competed against him in open gyms prior to his second foot surgery last summer gushed over his talent. Forward Dario Saric is scheduled to arrive from Europe two seasons after being drafted in the first round. Add those players to recent top picks Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, plus an abundance of salary cap space, and it’s not hard to see how much better next year’s Sixers should be.
Ah yes, truly this team will be the toast of the NBA, what with its half-dozen redundant 20-year-olds, none of whom have ever shown anything on an NBA court, sharing two frontcourt spots.
Now that job belongs to Bryan Colangelo, son of Jerry Colangelo and former GM of the Raptors and Suns. Why Sixers ownership picked this moment to make that move, with the franchise so close to the end of its tunnel of foulness, is complicated. In some ways, it is evidence that The Process worked.
The Sixers shitcanned Hinkie because he was too good?
The 76ers are hardly the first team to build through the draft; The Process was once known as The OKC Thing. But the Sixers’ plan to openly exploit the lottery system by amassing high picks threatened to expose the draft’s flaws and make the NBA look ridiculous.
So it was, league sources say, that the glorification of The Process (by those who actually thought it would work) scared the commissioner, perhaps even more than the condemnation.
Who can imagine another reason, other than a fear of “look[ing] ridiculous,” why the NBA commissioner might not like the sight of one of his league’s top five markets being squandered on a historically atrocious, noncompetitive team? Perhaps, looking at the future of his league, he doesn’t think he can sell a credible entertainment product if teams are deliberately so shitty they can’t even get players to work out for them? Perhaps the commissioner of the NBA can draw a line connecting the management of one of its oldest and most prominent franchises to the long-term health of the league?
No! It must be that he doesn’t want to look silly!
Now consider this: The Lakers won 17 games this season, and their prized rookie, D’Angelo Russell, secretly filmed a conversation in which he asked teammate Nick Young about being with women other than his then-fiancée, Iggy Azalea. Yet no one blamed that incident on the organization’s culture the way Okafor’s troubles were linked to The Process.
Consider too: The Kings haven’t finished with a .500 record since 2005-06 and just hired their sixth coach in five years. In neither case did the NBA force a regime change.
Uh ... maybe because the Kings had just undergone a massive, NBA-facilitated regime change not three years before?
By stepping in and facilitating the Jerry Colangelo move in Philadelphia, then, Silver sent a message: Gross incompetence is acceptable; strategic gaming of a flawed system is not.
No, what’s unacceptable is both gross incompetence and strategic gaming of a flawed system at the same time. The NBA tolerates strategic gaming of the system every single year. Tanking is nothing new. Being so godawful shitty at cashing in on the spoils of tanking that you lock one of the NBA’s largest markets into a cycle of permanent deliberate failure is new.
During nearly nine hours of live hoops on this chilly Thursday in Dunkin’ Donuts Center, the conversation focused on basketball minutiae. From a few rows behind the scorer’s table, Hinkie demonstrated the way one player’s thumb disrupted the rotation on his shot. He noted how another cupped the ball in traffic and finished by spinning it from tough angles, an indicator that he could convert around the rim in the NBA.
Hey, remember when Hinkie passed up Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dennis Schröder to draft Michael Carter-Williams? Maybe let’s not bet the house on his player projections.
He talked culture and psychology — two qualities, conventional wisdom held, that he ignored in favor of metrics.
Ah, okay, so it wasn’t that he ignored those qualities; it’s just that he’s phenomenally incompetent. Got it. Good point.
Here comes my favorite part!
Over coffee in Fishtown, Hinkie clicked on a slide that he has often referenced as a way to explain his thinking. He used it in a meeting with Sixers owners when interviewing for the GM job.
It shows a series of concentric circles, each representing a move that eventually helped the Rockets acquire James Harden in 2012, back when Hinkie was Houston’s executive VP of basketball operations. “I learned that Yao Ming broke his navicular bone like five days before the 2009 draft,” Hinkie said. “From that moment on, all I thought about was going from zero stars to one star. How do you do it?
“We paid a record price to Sam Presti for the 31st pick to draft Carl Landry in 2007. He’s the best offensive rebounder and the best rim finisher in the league as a rookie. And then over time, he ends up in a deal for Kevin Martin. And over time, Kevin Martin ends up in a deal for James Harden. You start with a set of chips, given to you by the league. How do you make it bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, such that you can win?”
It took three years to land Harden in Houston, the end point in a series of deals that, at the time, had many observers scratching their heads over what, exactly, the Rockets were up to.
Here are the Houston Rockets’ win-loss records from the time Yao Ming broke his navicular bone to the time they traded for James Harden:
2009-10 season: 42-40
2010-11 season: 43-39
2011-12 season: 34-32
What’s that you’re saying? The Rockets rebuilt their team after the unexpected catastrophic end of an expensive star center’s career without ever once finishing a season below .500? The Rockets went from the supposed quagmire of mediocrity to championship contention without blowing up their team? The Rockets acquired one of the NBA’s brightest stars via trade rather than the draft? In fact the Rockets haven’t had a top-10 draft pick in 10 years, and yet haven’t finished below .500 a single time in that stretch? This example roundly refutes the entire underlying logic of The Process, and only a hilarious boob would offer it as a defense of The Process, and only an uncritical dunce would accept this without laughing in Sam Hinkie’s fucking face?
I quite agree!
No “observers” were “scratching their heads” during the three years it took Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets to recover fully from the unexpected end of Yao Ming’s career. They were trying to win basketball games. They did that while angling for the move that could land them a superstar. It made sense to everybody, because that’s what professional sports teams are supposed to do.
More to the point, Hinkie is completely full of shit. The Rockets didn’t have a three-year plan. In December of 2011, they swung a three-team trade that would have sent Chris Paul from New Orleans to the Lakers and landed Pau Gasol—at that time the NBA’s best center and one of its 10 best players—in Houston. If David Stern hadn’t vetoed the deal, the Rockets would have successfully rebuilt their team in 18 months, without suffering even one single losing season in the interim.
Contrast that with Hinkie’s plan to rebuild the Sixers after another expensive star center, Andrew Bynum, unexpectedly imploded. In three years, Hinkie never made a single move that improved the Sixers’ actual on-court product, and the Sixers never got within shouting distance of .500, despite playing in a weaker conference, and despite Hinkie starting out with a stable of assets that, even after the Bynum trade, still included then-23-year-old All-Star Jrue Holiday.
The Rockets don’t testify to the Process. They disprove it.
How history will judge Hinkie depends, ironically, not on the process he drove but on whether the ultimate outcome is a Sixers turnaround; his validation depends on the very results his process rejects as being immaterial.
This is precisely inside-out, and an adoption of the very most fraudulent and dishonest of Hinkie’s claims. He can’t be judged by the three years’ worth of results he did produce; he can only be judged whenever the organization he no longer works for eventually has some good results.
But in a way it is almost fitting that Hinkie’s final message would be misconstrued—and that he has once again closed himself off, refusing to talk to reporters to add clarity about his departure.
Says the reporter who just conducted at least two “hourslong conversations” with the guy. Yes, truly, Sam Hinkie is like Howard Hughes, out here in the mall food court where he sat with a reporter from the biggest sports outlet on the planet for several hours talking about himself and housing chalupas.
We close with a hilarious anecdote which neither Hinkie nor the guy interviewing him seem to understand is an illustration of everything dumb about The Process:
Hinkie had actually predated Morey’s arrival in Houston; he was the Rockets’ first analytics specialist. And when the team hired Morey in 2006, the new assistant GM spent Easter weekend logging long hours in the office with Hinkie.
When the two broke for lunch on that Sunday, Hinkie and his wife deliberately took Morey to a nearby Mexican restaurant. “I knew he hadn’t eaten enough Mexican food to live in Texas,” Hinkie says. “I ordered queso so he could be introduced to it. And he loved it.”
Two days later, Morey and Hinkie went out to another Mexican restaurant with a larger group of Rockets staff. “That was literally the reason I’d done it,” Hinkie says, smiling at the memory. He’d tried to prep his new boss, to keep Morey from coming across as what he actually was: an Ohioan by way of Boston.
Hinkie understood the value of messaging. He knew how perception could undermine reality. It would be a shame, he thought, if Morey failed because he didn’t fit in.
But when they took their seats, Morey turned to Hinkie and said, “Sam, let’s order that KWAY-so dip we had the other day!”
Hinkie sighed. “We were so close.”
Hey, here’s a question: Did his unfamiliarity with Mexican food actually hurt Daryl Morey in any way? Did it prevent him from fitting in? Did it prevent him from succeeding? Did perception undermine reality? Or was Sam Hinkie focused on the wrong things, and failing for reasons he still doesn’t understand?