One startling scene serves as the crux of ESPN writer Pablo Torre's very good magazine feature about the braintrust of the Philadelphia 76ers. In it, the general manager of a rival Eastern Conference team calls together a motley assembly of coaches, scouts, media relations experts, retired spies, and straight-up nefarious criminal underworld figures in a dim corner of an anonymous downtown parking garage. The mood is grim and desperate.
"We must learn how they do it," he whispers, referring to the 76ers, winners of 31 of their last 135 games. "We must unlock their secrets. Stop at nothing. We must crack their code or perish." He hands out thick manila envelopes filled with grainy black-and-white surveillance photos, clandestine recording devices, and pistol flash suppressors; then, crushable cyanide suicide capsules stashed safely in their false molars, he and his operatives commence their operation. Their professional survival and the fate of the NBA hinge on its outcome.
This sinister gathering never appears in the actual text of Torre's article, because it has never happened in real life. By all indications, though, it's pretty much playing on a loop in the movie theater inside Sam Hinkie's skull. Philadelphia's general manager and president of basketball operations is a man so convinced that he's fighting—and winning—a shadow war against the rest of the NBA that he won't even talk to Pablo Torre about how he got his job lest his hungry competitors find in the anecdote some exploitable opening. ("Oh man, lemme tell you Pablo, I was so nervous, I tripped over my shoelace and almost crushed my enchanted, Milton Friedman-shaped keychain fob, which glows green whenever I'm in the presence of an available second-round draft slot.") The movie theater is huge and empty and this paranoid, masturbatory fantasy is the only thing echoing around in it. Sam Hinkie is a moron and a fraud.
Under Hinkie, the 76ers have invested deeply in presenting themselves as an operation at the cutting edge of technological, analytical, and econometric innovation in sports. Their staff looks like what would happen if FiveThirtyEight and Palantir Technologies fucked and gave birth to an org chart—all MIT and Stanford wonks, a former Navy SEAL who "teaches team-building part-time," some dude with a Ph.D. in cognitive and neural systems—and their commitment to internal data gathering is downright fetishistic. They make their players wear motion-tracking GPS devices! They record their free-throw percentages ... during practices! They track and analyze their hydration and sleep patterns! The idea here being, Here is the serious-minded, sophisticated, techno-messianic NBA front office of the future, unlocking and deploying never-before-seen subtleties and optimizations in its flawlessly rational success-maximization process.
This is hilarious! At every turn, the gap between Hinkie and the Sixers' self-presentation, over here, and observable reality, over there, yawns like the goddamn Grand Canyon. Consider the following passage from Torre's article, about Hinkie's aptitude and passion for talent evaluation:
Morey, though, came to believe that evaluation was Hinkie's greatest skill. "He watches more basketball than anyone I know," the Rockets' GM says. "And he was on the road constantly." Hinkie insisted on quizzing team managers and van drivers in an effort to gather data on a college kid. He enthusiastically volunteered to visit one-prospect gyms from Eastern Washington to Istanbul.
Verily, here is a John Forbes Nash of player scouting. Obsessive and unconventional! Digging deeper! Leaving no detail, no matter how minor-seeming, uninterrogated! ("Lemme ask you: How does he handle himself in a van?" "He likes to draw a dick and balls in the window condensation." "Mmm, yes, interesting.") Truly, the amateur draft's inefficiencies and hidden gems are laid bare under the gimlet-eyed gaze of this relentless genius.
Now consider the real world, where in the two drafts Hinkie has overseen since assuming stewardship of Philly's basketball operations, he's come away with Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Michael Carter-Williams, and an assortment of international men of mystery, most of the latter of whom will never so much as appear in a Sixers team photo. Noel and Embiid were both presumptive first overall picks who slid in the draft because of leg injuries; Carter-Williams was a no-brainer at 11th, especially for a team that was in the process of trading young, All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for the rights to Noel. The only thing unusual about any of it is that Noel and Embiid were drafted at least in part for their short-term inability to stop the team from sucking raccoon ass on the court.
Virtually any NBA personnel honcho could use a young All-Star and high draft picks in successive drafts to get a pair of sliding blue-chip prospects with injury and NBA-readiness concerns, a well-regarded but unexceptional player at the NBA's deepest position, and nothing of note from the later parts of the draft. Watching 50,000 hours of game-tape, interrogating a lineup of pizza deliverymen and toll-booth operators, and flipping around second-round picks like they were Magic: The Gathering cards in order to produce this outcome does not make Sam Hinkie a talent-evaluation savant; it makes him a fucking dunce. Both a smart person and a stupid one will pick up a $20 bill off the sidewalk; the difference between them is that the stupid one spends two hours researching international exchange rates and the ergonomic efficiency of bending over before he does it.
To wit: No one disputes that Philadelphia's on-court goal, this season, has been to lose as many games as they can without embarrassing the NBA thoroughly enough to force a rejiggering of the draft lottery system. To accomplish this, Hinkie has monkeyed around ceaselessly, trading players for flotsam and flotsam for assets and assets for other assets until his roster looks like nothing so much as a bad fish-out-of-water comedy in which a judge sentences Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel to donate their play to a sad-sack vocational school's lovably terrible basketball squad. To placate fans, the Sixers have lowered and frozen ticket prices and worked the "We Suck ... But We Play Hard!" angle as hard as an early-days WNBA team. But that isn't enough—they want the players to not just stumble through a miserable, season-long humiliation but to believe they're doing so for the greater glory of Philadelphia basketball! Hell, they took their sad, bad players on a field trip for the sole purpose of indoctrinating them in this nonsense! From Torre's article:
Brown is fond of bringing his entire team on field trips, like the one to a University of Pennsylvania lecture hall in October. There, the Sixers met MacArthur-winning psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, whose TED Talk on grit—which she defines as "passion and perseverance for very long-term goals"—had touched a coach tasked with alchemizing failure into development.
Oh God. Oh God. Can you fucking imagine? They made their players sit through a goddamn TED Talk about grit. Grit! "You see, guys, all this losing—it's actually cool and good! Can't you feel yourselves adding Grit points to your attribute loadout?"
It's a process, Hinkie and his acolytes and apologists want you to understand, subtle and intricate and sophisticated. Trust the process. We drew it up on whiteboards in our open-plan office, like visionary developers, you see. If it turns out to involve as many moves and deals as your average nuclear submarine procurement and development cycle, hell, think of how nice it'll be to watch Jahlil Okafor pull on a Sixers cap in June!
Meanwhile, in New York, Knicks president Phil Jackson—a man whose pursuit of the analytical frontiers of sports management begins and ends with the photo of Luc Longley he has sewn into the crotch of all his pants—has assembled a worse team than Hinkie's, and taken the gruesome lead in their perverse race to failure ... and he didn't even decide to stop gunning for the playoffs until six weeks ago! Everything before that was accidental! On the actual basketball court, Hinkie's cagey, analytics-juiced process is utterly indistinguishable from Jackson's pure ineptitude. (I bet Hinkie works much longer hours, though.) Which of them is the stupid one? Trick question: They're both fucking idiots.
Further consider: their endgames are identical! The spring-loaded defense of Hinkie—that his approach to tanking has the Sixers many millions of dollars below the NBA's salary floor, while the Knicks' tank-job cost them all their cap space and then some—only works if you acknowledge that. The Process—all its technological sheen, its insurgent sneer and sweaty, desperate, Scientology-grade insistence upon its own legitimacy—reaches its fruition with Hinkie standing in the same line as 29 other NBA GMs—including Phil Jackson's stone-dumb, bad-apartment-choosing ass—hoping to unload a big, blunt, CBA-standardized wheelbarrow of cash on one of the tiny number of available stars and hoping one of the shinier ones pops a boner for his city's team and the gated suburbs near which it plays.
The absolute best, most delicious, most wonderful part, is this: when the NBA's gargantuan new television deal sends the salary cap skyrocketing the offseason after next, literally every team, no matter how shamelessly it tanked or how haphazardly it threw money around before, will be bidding on those same four or five players. JaKarr Sampson and K.J. McDaniels didn't buy Hinkie into an exclusive shot at LeBron James or Anthony Davis or Kevin Durant; they bought him the right to bid against himself for the services of a half-dozen consolation prizes. You think it'll help his pitch when he whips out the PowerPoint showing Jerami Grant's sensor-tracked, NBA-best Fatigue Units Per Stride metric?
I just love it so much. Hinkie and his gang of triumphal futurist dorks slapping fatigue-tracking GPS devices on a group of future Turkmenistan Basketball League All-Stars and loading them onto the team bus to go sit through a TED Talk about how the organization will benefit from the collective grit-growth it gains from their constant losing. Hinkie, poker-faced, paranoid, hunched over the secrets and insights of his intricate Master Plan—one that hinges not just on the Sixers winning a weighted draft lottery that has screwed the league's worst team in 22 of the 25 years since its inception, but also on two clumsy, raw young big men with bad leg injuries in their pasts developing into legitimate cornerstone players, and on Michael Carter-Williams not being ruined by these years of nightly humiliation, and on all that abundant cap space sufficing to attract a superstar or two who might reasonably prefer literally any other team, and on one of those stashed-away Euro dudes eventually deciding he'd like to come play for an NBA team that wants to lose, and on that Euro dude being a good player and not Nikoloz Tskitishvili, and on an open front-office floorplan and a team-building Navy SEAL and forwarded Warren Buffett quotes revealing some revolutionary basketball truth beyond "Having Kevin Durant is good." Just imagine Hinkie watching from the shadows of some executive suite at the Wells Fargo Center as his team of long-limbed, metrics-honed, motion-tracked, TED-Talked nobodies scratch out an ugly, meaningless midseason win over the friggin' Hornets, and having no idea how to feel about it. Mmm, yes, the process is working, look at the lessons they've learned, how they've improved, this collection of men I'll dismiss to China the moment they improve enough to seem like they might belong here. Lemme just fire up the ol' Google Glass here to see if our proprietary player valuation metrics still say Anthony Davis is better than Henry Sims.
God bless you, Sam Hinkie. Keep your secrets.
Photo via Associated Press