What could Hinkie have done differently during his time in Philly? Will he ever get another shot at running an NBA franchise?
Our expert panel breaks down what lies ahead for Hinkie and the organization he leaves behind.
1. What went wrong? What could Hinkie have done differently?
Second, Sixers ownership lost its stomach for having “the longest view in the room,” to use Hinkie’s phrase. The plan was always predicated on patience and an imperviousness to ridicule, and the Sixers let go of the rope.
With better salesmanship, Hinkie might have been able to buy the plan a bit more time. But as he stated in his 13-page resignation letter, Hinkie believed that “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.”
Zach Lowe, ESPN.com: Hinkie drafted three players he knew would not contribute for at least one season; one of those, Joel Embiid, lost a second season; four of his lottery picks play either power forward or center; and there is no evidence yet that he drafted anyone who wildly outperformed expectations for their draft slot, unless you include Michael-Carter Williams in his rookie season.
The Sixers also could have sprinkled in a couple of veteran free agents to raise the cultural bar — and the quality of play — without inflating the win total too much.
Ramona Shelburne, ESPN.com: Communication, at every level. With the players on his team, the rest of the league, the fans and the media. He’s incredible intellectually, with bold ideas, but you have to translate those ideas to the people affected by them.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Hinkie hurt himself immeasurably through his reluctance to communicate, not only with the outside world but also players/coaches/executives within the Sixers’ own walls. This is a league of humans. People and relationships are huge.
I’m saying this not as a haughty media member demanding access; you’ve got to speak to your fan base when you’re running a team and at least try to make them feel like they can understand the plan or The Process or whatever you want to call it.
We’re obviously talking about a smart guy with a bold strategy who might end up looking a lot smarter if some of these picks and recent draftees develop. But you can’t shut the world out and, more importantly, you most certainly can’t build a successful organizational culture that way.
Pablo Torre, ESPN The Magazine: Ownership underestimated the blowback of a tanking strategy that was designed to deter imitators. Public confusion, which the hypercompetitive Hinkie courted in order to maximize competitive advantage, was an acceptable risk until the intellect of his bosses gave way to their emotion.
But selling The Process to America probably wouldn’t have saved Hinkie, either. The increasingly blunt truth of sports in America: Most people do not value process over results, and most never will.
2. What is the role of the league’s incentive structure in the Philadelphia story? Would you change that structure?
Arnovitz: I don’t believe for a second that Hinkie would’ve pursued this strategy if the NBA’s incentive structure wasn’t completely ridiculous. Absurd rules yield absurd results. The best structure would have no NBA draft at all (rookie free agency would make the NBA more like every other business).
Since that’s probably a nonstarter, the second-best remedy would be something akin to “The Wheel,” whereby draft position is divorced from performance.
Lowe: There are competing incentives — the incentives to be happy in the present by winning more games and making more money, set against the incentives of winning championships. The latter is everything here. If those incentives motivate you, and the other ones don’t, a super-tank is a natural path to take.
The league should think about reform, and the idea they pitched ahead of last season was interesting. But the NBA is a big tree: Shake one branch, and you affect the others. Be careful.
Shelburne: Hinkie basically tried to game the system to its fullest extent. I thought of him like an accountant who pushed every tax loophole to its fullest extent. Is that wrong? Maybe not legally. But i think it violates the spirit of competition. When an accountant or taxpayer does that, he often gets audited.
Stein: Maybe I’m a dummy who doesn’t fully understand the math here, but I don’t think the lottery system is broken. If teams want to tank for a mere 25 percent shot at the No. 1 pick, let ’em. History tells us how hard it is for the worst team in the league to actually win the lottery and land the No. 1 pick.
Changing the lottery system, to me, would have been a dramatic overreaction to the negative press one team has largely generated. You can’t “outlaw” tanking. Good teams tank games, too, when it suits them in terms of playoff seeding. My main quibble with the notion of lottery reform is the idea that tanking teams are going unpunished. The current system is actually more punitive than it gets credit for.
Torre: For all of this Sixers handwringing, I have yet to see a valid argument against the fundamental logic of their approach. Criticizing the system Hinkie gamed, though, is wholly fair: I’d love to see lottery reform, even if NBA ownership does not.
I specifically love FiveThirtyEight’s proposal for a lottery playoff: 14 lottery teams, single-elimination, with the winner getting the first pick, the runner-up getting the second and on down. Give me chaos.
3. Which teams at 38 or more wins should prefer Philly’s future?
Arnovitz: As Hinkie pointed out in his letter, the Sixers have “two teams worth” of No. 1 picks and the most financial flexibility in the league. With that in mind, along with their well-built infrastructure, I can’t say Dallas, Detroit, Indiana or Charlotte is more likely to see a conference finals sooner than the Sixers.
Memphis, Indiana and Chicago each have a nice showcase piece or two, but they will also need some luck to catapult themselves back into contention.
Lowe: Hard to say, given we don’t know when Embiid will play, how good he’ll be or who Philly drafts going forward. But a few that come to mind: Dallas (old, out some picks),Memphis (ditto),Houston. Maybe even Atlanta (if Al Horford bolts),Miami and Charlotte (if Nic Batum leaves, or declines),though the Heat have a way of staying near the top.
Go below 38 wins, and you could find a few others.
Shelburne: Honestly, it’s hard for me to come up with someone. Maybe the Grizzlies or the Hawks, two small-market teams with top players hitting free agency. But even those teams have a great culture established. I don’t see culture building in Philadelphia at all.
Stein: I think most would prefer to be where the Sixers are. They have so many assets that would interest rival teams, which thus gives them so many avenues to improve.
But you shouldn’t underestimate the immense cost that the Sixers have paid to get here. The damage to their brand league-wide and, even more importantly, with their own fan base is immense. So you can’t gloss over what Philly has sacrificed to get to the point that it might have four first-round picks in June’s draft …. which is why this question is so hard to answer.
The franchise essentially punted on three successive seasons, which is what prompted ownership to abandon its previous plan so quickly and import two NBA lifers in Jerry Colangelo and Bryan Colangelo to try to repair the reputational damage and yet still capitalize on all of Hinkie’s positive work.
Torre: Assuming we’re judging these teams by odds of title contention, assuming that you need a superstar to attract another superstar, assuming you generally need multiple stars to win a title, and assuming that it’s just offensive to pick a team legitimately in the current title hunt, I’ll take the Sixers’ future over that of Detroit, Dallas and Memphis. And I’m tempted to say Chicago, too, big market be damned, depending on the health of Jimmy Butler.
4. Will Sam Hinkie ever get the opportunity to run another NBA team? Should he?
Arnovitz: He will and should. He inherited a 34-win team with a downward trajectory, depleted of future assets and stripped of much of its young talent. In less than three years, he restocked the cupboard and turned a stodgy organization into a forward-looking one.
Given the profile of the new-economy NBA owner, there will probably be one with enough risk tolerance to install Hinkie and empower him.
Lowe: He will and should. Time heals most everything, and these jobs cycle open pretty often. It might take a while, especially if he refuses anything below a GM job. Look at how long Bryan Colangelo was out of the league, and what it took for him to get back in.
Hinkie is a next-level thinker who loves the game. He probably learned some lessons about dealing with agents, players and other things that should help him in his next job.
Shelburne: He won’t and shouldn’t. I think he can work in basketball again, but not necessarily as the captain of the ship. I like iconoclasts and risk takers. But what Hinkie failed to realize is that his actions affected a lot of other people, and he didn’t necessarily support those folks. Is it fair for Sixers coach Brett Brown to have to explain Hinkie’s strategy night after night?
Stein: He won’t and should. Getting back in the league at another level, by contrast, will be a snap. He’s had a prominent role in the hierarchy of two franchises already and has a lot to offer in terms of experience, knowledge, methodology, etc.
He saw being more communicative as “defending himself,” which was an undeniable mistake, but it’s also not the sort of sin that merits an irreversible excommunication. He’ll have the opportunity to work as a consultant for somebody, for starters, as soon as he’s ready. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s involved with a new team by draft night … if he’s willing.
Yet when it comes to being the lead executive again, my sense is that the bashing he’s absorbed over the past three seasons is bound to make other teams gun-shy. And the disclosure of his manifesto is also likely to hurt his brand further in the short term.
I will say, though, that it’s more than conceivable we see the narrative change if some of the picks he’s stockpiled leads to a difference-making trade or just a couple of legit stars who develop in-house.
Torre: He will and should. Look: The dude conducted more transactions than anyone, proof of an obsessive work ethic, and won virtually every trade. And the demographics of NBA ownership, trending toward tech and private equity, still favor Process. Those dudes probably see a market opportunity in the ability to ignore the emotional costs aforementioned. Never underestimate the aspirational anti-humanity of billionaires.
5. What are your main takeaways from the Hinkie era in Philadelphia, or his 13-page memo?
Arnovitz: There is an average, safe way to run basketball operations for an NBA franchise, but that’s not why Hinkie got into this business. The management-speak was off-putting to some, as was his disregard for some of the social norms that have traditionally governed the league, but his willingness to try something new and depart from the Let’s-Trade-for-Rudy-Gay school of NBA franchise maintenance was appealing.
Lowe: It’s the latest reminder that almost no one, regardless of what they say in those early salad days, has the patience for prolonged losing. Competitors get antsy. Losing at historic levels seeps into the walls of an organization, creating issues you don’t necessarily anticipate. There appears to be a two-year timetable on extreme pain.
Shelburne: It read to me like the words of a brilliant academic screaming from the top of an ivory tower, but the people who need to hear him aren’t going to listen or understand. That was the problem the whole time. He might be an innovator, but nobody was following.
Stein: Writing was clearly cathartic for him. But you have to believe he knew, deep down, that a letter sent to so many people was going to wind up in the grubby hands of a media member. And it will do nothing to dispel the suggestion that Hinkie speaks a different language that “basketball people,” which is obviously not the perception you want if you’re hoping to run an NBA franchise. Another of the unintended consequences here is that the notion of what thick skin he has also been heavily dented.
Torre: That letter might be my favorite piece of sports writing in 2016. It is absurd in its ambition, semi-opaque in its motive and painful in its sincerity, and I don’t think I disagreed with any of it. Sam Hinkie went out as some combination of Martin Luther, Jerry Maguire and David Attenborough. (Behold the moa.) It was the perfect capstone: As polarizing as the thing is, we learned a lot, and it made the NBA infinitely more interesting.