NBA Insider: Don’t Expect Moneyball Magic From Sixers’ Sam Hinkie

The new GM isn’t a basketball guy, but he can talk to the team owners in their language.

In the coming days and weeks, as new Sixers GM Sam Hinkie and his advanced metrics approach to basketball are celebrated, remember the sage words of an NBA executive I talked to on Friday:

“This is ‘Moneyball,’ and ‘Moneyball hasn’t won a playoff series yet,” he says.

What about that 2009 first-round triumph over Portland?

“That wasn’t Moneyball,” the exec says, dismissively. “That was Yao Ming, who was a transcendent player.”

That is true, but Sixers owners Josh Harris and Adam Aron have more in common with an MBA like Hinkie than they do basketball lifers Rod Thorn and Tony DiLeo. Whether that’s the best thing for the team remains to be seen. Hinkie comes to town from under the wing of advanced metrics poster boy Houston GM Daryl Morey, so he’s a hot property. Rather, he’s hot by association.

Morey’s Rockets won 45 games in 2012-13 and grabbed the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference. Even though Houston fell in six games to Oklahoma City in the first round, Morey was praised as one of the sharpest guys in the NBA. Harris and Aron hope Hinkie, Morey’s assistant, will bring some of those front-office smarts to Philadelphia. It’s a dramatic switch for a franchise that has long relied on executives with substantial basketball experience to make personnel decisions. Like Eagles GM Howie Roseman, who has never strapped on shoulder pads, Hinkie relies heavily on numbers to assess talent. For a couple of Wall Street guys like Harris and Aron, that’s appealing.

“The ownership guys there know nothing about basketball,” the NBA exec says. “Instead of hearing a basketball guy speak over their heads, and have to be subordinate to him, they hired a smart guy who speaks their language.”

Those (both?) of you who consult this space regularly will remember that our executive friend has a pretty good track record with the Sixers. He’s the one who predicted a big bump in the first year under Doug Collins—and then said eventually everyone would get sick of him because of his constant carping. He painted Andrew Bynum as a me-first type who was not healthy and therefore a bad move for the Sixers. Now, he’s weighing in on Hinkie, and what he has to say is pretty interesting, especially for those Morey devotees who expect the Sixers’ new GM to make Moneyball magic in Philly.

First, he asks us to look at Morey’s 2012 draft choices. He chose Jeremy Lamb and then dealt him to Oklahoma City as part of the deal that brought James Harden to Houston. Lamb played 23 games in 2012-2013 and was best known for his key role in the D-League playoffs for Tulsa. Houston’s second pick in the first round last year was Iowa State power forward Royce White, whose severe anxiety disorder prevented him from playing any NBA games and limited his 2012-13 participation to a handful of contests for Rio Grande of the D-League. With his third first-rounder, Morey chose Kentucky forward Terrence Jones, who played in 19 NBA games and shuttled between the varsity and the D-League.

“This is someone who drafted Jeremy Lamb, who couldn’t get off the bench in Oklahoma City, and [a guy] who moved up to take Royce White, when everybody knew he was not interested in playing basketball and was more interested in starting a record label,” the executive says.

Give Morey credit for signing Jeremy Lin, who, clear of the “Lin-sanity” mayhem in New York, has proven to be a solid but hardly groundbreaking point guard, and trading for James Harden, a young star. “That’s not analytics,” the exec reminds us.

Granted, Houston has done a good job mining the draft’s second round for talent, nabbing Chase Budinger and Chandler Parsons there. And Morey’s continual personnel maneuvering allowed him to accumulate the pieces that made the Harden deal possible. But Hinkie is not coming to Philadelphia from a proven, championship franchise. Mostly, it looks like he’s in town because Harris and Aron want someone to approach basketball from the same perspective as they do.

“They found someone who can talk to Josh Harris on his terms,” the executive says. “[Hinkie] won’t patronize him.”

Much has been written about the use of advanced analytics in baseball and football. There is no doubt they have had sizeable impacts on those sports and are growing more important as increasingly sophisticated methods of performance are discovered. NBA franchises are embracing them, too. But even the cast of The Big Bang Theory won’t win big in the league without some serious basketball people on board. If Hinkie doesn’t surround himself with a cadre of top-notch scouts and personnel evaluators, the Sixers don’t stand a chance. Hiring Hinkie as part of the front office makes sense, but the NBA exec believes putting him in charge of the team is a risk.

“You don’t have to give Sam Hinkie the GM job,” the executive says. “You can hire a basketball person as the GM and have Hinkie as the number two. Now, Hinkie has to hire a basketball guy.”

He also has to hire a coach. And that could be a bit problematic, particularly if Hinkie goes back to Houston and tries to lure Rockets assistant Kelvin Sampson to Philadelphia. Sampson, who was banned from the NCAA for recruiting abuses stemming from excessive phone calls and texts to prospects, has been rehabbing his image in the NBA. Sampson is unlikely to be back in Houston, because according to the executive, “the players hate him, especially Harden.” That doesn’t sound too good.

So, get ready for an interesting ride, Sixers fans. But at least you can draw some comfort from the fact that team ownership speaks the same language as its new GM.

The only question is whether that patois includes the word “championship.”

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SUCKER PUNCHES

• It’s nice to see that Ryan Howard was able to break out of his most recent slump Sunday with a big hit, but Daily News writer David Murphy’s “The Case for Trading Ryan Howard” column last week was intriguing indeed. It’s highly unlikely the big first baseman will ever come close to the numbers he put up from 2006 to 2009, and if it’s possible to find a team willing to take him and a chunk of his oppressive contract, the Phillies should consider it seriously, before it’s too late to get anything for him.

• Matt Barkley is going to start at quarterback. Earl Wolff is the next Brian Dawkins. Lane Johnson is a Pro Bowl tackle. Isn’t football great when just the rookies are on the field? The grown-ups put on the helmets this week, so we’ll start to see how the new guys stack up.

• So, when was the last time Eldrick Woods won a major golf tournament? That’s right, 2008. Let’s not get carried away by his triumph at Sawgrass. Woods is still 0 for his last 19 majors, and while the TV types are delighted that he is back at the top of the leaderboard in the JV events, he has yet to play four rounds of dynamite golf when the big camera is on him.

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  • Adam

    There tends to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what Moneyball actually represents, the whole idea is to find players whose value and contract sizes are differentiated, the best value being superstars and rookies. When you realise that the “highest value player in the nba” according to moneyball is in fact that guy from Miami, whose contract is ~$18m, but would be worth some $50m in a purely open market, it begins to make sense what Josh Harris is thinking.

    Just like in Baseball where Oakland moneyball with a $60m payroll would never net you what Red Sox moneyball with $140m could, it’s not about being cheap, it’s about spending properly. If you look at the Miami team, just about everybody is underpaid in one form or another, it’s basically a $150m team getting paid $85m, superstars are underpaid because of the cba, and they feed into veterans willing to take discounts for rings.

    Every single championship team building approach be it moneyball, or 1960’s basketball starts in the same place, it begins with superstar players, with only 5 players on the court at any one time, it has to.