Sam Hinkie, The Sixers’ Rebuild, and Trusting The Process
There were few more divisive figures in professional sports than Samuel Blake Hinkie.
Were. Hinkie stepped down as president and general manager of the Sixers last night.
That’s especially true when you consider the list of sins Hinkie has committed. This isn’t Greg Hardy or Michael Vick. This isn’t even Allen Iverson. There’s no real victim here, at least nobody damaged in a meaningful, real-life kind of way. At worst, Sam Hinkie has wasted 2.5 years of your time.
And, let’s be honest, given how few people cared about the local basketball team in the decade before Hinkie arrived, many weren’t invested enough to have their time really wasted to begin with.
What Sam Hinkie did was challenge convention, the very fabric that sports, and sports fans, operate under. And for that he divided the fan base, and media market, into two opposite poles, two tectonic plates that were initially divergent from each other, but destined to collide again. The resulting earthquakes could be found everywhere, from comments sections, to talk radio, to the water cooler.
Trusting The Process
“Trusting The Process” is a phrase popularized by The Rights to Ricky Sanchez, a Sixers’ podcast hosted by Spike Eskin and Michael Levin. It’s been everywhere of late. From home-game chants, to bus trip invasions, and upcoming lottery parties, to ESPN appearances (both TV and podcast), it’s unexpectedly become rather mainstream.
The phrase has become a rallying cry for the pro-Hinkie portion of the fan base. And, fittingly, a dismissive jab for Hinkie detractors. Hinkie, as he’s been quick to point out, has never uttered the phrase. It may or may not have been mentioned by Brett Brown during his first season with the team, although that is just a rumor at this point. Nobody really knows for sure.
The reality of the situation is, not only did Sam Hinkie not coin the phrase “trusting the process,” he wasn’t its inspiration. That segment of the fanbase, which eventually evolved into the “pro-Hinkie” segment, started forming before his arrival.
Joshua Harris and Process Over Results
Before there was “trusting the process,” a segment of the fan base obsessed over the process used to make a decision as being more important than the results of the decision, because if you use sound processes over and over, eventually the results will follow.
Does that sound like trusting the process? It should. And it came from majority owner Joshua Harris.
“If I had to make that decision again, I’d make it again. Things don’t always work out, you just make good decisions and over time they work out.”
— Joshua Harris on the Andrew Bynum trade, April 17th, 2013.
Note the date. It was the day Doug Collins resigned, 27 days before Sam Hinkie was hired.
Joshua Harris was the progenitor of trusting the process, not Sam Hinkie. It was his process that was being trusted.
Reasons For Trusting The Process
The reasons fans trusted the process were varied, and never quite as simple as detractors suggested.
Some identified with the process-over-results mantra, especially following the disaster of an offseason they experienced the previous summer. Kwame Brown and Nick Young? Really? As supporting pieces of a team centered around Andrew Bynum that you thought could contend?
Gross mismanagement and a haphazard approach to team building, spurred on by impatience and ineptitude, certainly engendered a segment of the fan base that wanted a more calm, deliberate, thoughtful approach to team building.
For others, it was a recognition of how the economic landscape that the NBA operated under forced teams into getting their first difference-makers through the draft. That the first signs of progress weren’t necessarily signs of sustainable success. That wins, by themselves, if not backed by high-level talent acquisition and the development of franchise cornerstones, are not as meaningful as they appear on first glance.
That risks, calculated risks, were necessary. That a small chance at greatness was more valuable than a decent chance at being good enough. That impatience was a real driving force behind poor decisions, and the Sixers’ seemingly unique amount of patience gave them a competitive advantage.
I don’t want to get too deep on this topic — I’ve written 3,000 word articles on this topic alone — but the combination of a soft salary cap to allow teams to go over the cap to retain their players, restricted free agency to inhibit player movement, and an artificial maximum salary restriction which allows teams to fit multiple superstar players under the cap all combine to limit, if not virtually nullify, cap space alone as a means of attracting franchise-altering talent through free agency. Max cap room isn’t enough, you need to already have a superstar on the roster to attract another superstar to your team.
Finally, Sixers’ ownership seemed to realize this.
It had taken a while, of course. In fact, it had taken a change in the ownership group. The Sixers traded franchise icon Allen Iverson on December 20th, 2006. They were 5-18 at the time, staring at a ton of lottery balls leading up to a draft that contained, not one, but two potential franchise-altering talents in Greg Oden and Kevin Durant.
Oden, of course, didn’t end up altering the course of a franchise, but Al Horford (3rd overall) and Mike Conley (4th) did. It was a good draft to have a lot of ping-pong ball combinations.
Instead of embracing the pursuit of ping-pong ball combinations, the Sixers acquired Joe Smith and Andre Miller. They won 17 of their final 26 games. They drafted Thaddeus Young. The course of the franchise remained squarely entrenched in mediocrity.
Sam Hinkie was different.
With an upcoming draft that included Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle, not to mention the Cameroonian big man Joel Embiid who would emerge as a better prospect than any of them, the Sixers seemed like they were finally willing to embrace not only the radical, but also the reality: hitting in the draft, because of the way the league is governed, has become a virtual necessity. Some saw that middle ground — capped out, with mediocre draft picks, and players who nobody is going to trade an established superstar for — as not only not good enough, but detrimental to real progress, quicksand which prevented the team from getting the pieces necessary to carry them to true relevance.
Sure, there are probably some fans who identify with Sam Hinkie personally. Basketball executives have long been dominated by people who “played the game.” Not for Marlow High School, of course, but for the Detroit Pistons. Or, at the very least, UCLA. Sam Hinkie could be identified with, at least from an athleticism standpoint. No doubt that helped.
For most, however, they agreed with these strategies. They agreed with embracing the draft. They agreed with patience. They agreed with the pitfalls that come with desperation. They agreed with process over results. It’s not Sam Hinkie they identified with, but a thought process, a mindset, a belief.
They agreed with Joshua Harris.
Through all of it, Hinkie seemed to remain defiant.
Not outwardly, of course. Hinkie was always cordial to the media, the few times per year he spoke to the media, at least. Hinkie’s defiance showed in his action, or, at times, his lack-thereof.
Hinkie’s moves — to use his cap space to try to pounce on fortuitous trades brought on by desperate teams, to take high-risk, high-reward gambles such as drafting Joel Embiid, to delay production on a fatally flawed player like Michael Carter-Williams for an increased chance to get a true difference maker down the line, to continue to chase ping pong ball combinations until that superstar was confidently in place — were the moves of somebody who clearly thought he still had time.
That 2014 draft alone, with the selection of Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, is the biggest individual reason the Sixers’ situation looks as dire as it currently does. It’s also the the one that has the highest upside to turn the franchise into something special, upside that still exists. For critics, it’s a failure, for supporters, it was the signal of something special. Of a patience, and a willingness to take risk, that still has the chance to pay off with the rarest of the rare rewards, the hardest mission to accomplish in the sport: a true generational talent.
It’s a move that required extreme confidence to make. Confidence in ownership. Confidence in his job security. Confidence he could have only gotten from one place. The owners.
That’s where this whole thing comes back to. Always.
It’s why I called owners the most important piece of the equation all those years ago, before Hinkie even arrived. It’s especially true for a plan as radical as the one Hinkie was carrying out. A general manager restricted by time or fear is going to miss opportunities. The absence of those restrictions can be a real advantage.
But even if the owners were sincere in their desire to see the plan carried out to its conclusion, pressure — from the media, the fan base, the NBA, and from within the ownership group — is a funny thing.
That pressure Hinkie bet wouldn’t influence his bosses finally seemed to cause them to blink.
Enter Bryan Colangelo
We could discuss the parts of the process that caused it to be derailed, and I’m sure we will in the coming days. Certainly, there were aspects Hinkie could have carried out better, from the presence of more veterans, to the quality of the point guard play, to draft-day decisions, the impact losing of this magnitude had on morale, and certainly to relationships, both around the league and with the media. Hinkie wasn’t perfect.
Whether or not Hinkie was the right person to carry out this next phase of the rebuild is a much more nuanced question than whether or not the hiring of Bryan Colangelo as his replacement passes the sniff test.
Spoiler: It doesn’t.
That’s not so much a condemnation on Bryan Colangelo the executive as it is the process that brought about his hiring.
Sure, Colangelo the Younger has made his fair share of mistakes, especially in his time at the helm of the Toronto Raptors. Colangelo didn’t exactly inherit a team barren of foundational pieces when he arrived in Toronto, as the team had a 21-year-old Chris Bosh, 21-year-old Charlie Villanueva, who would go on to be the runner-up for Rookie of the Year and had significant value around the league, and the record which would eventually become the 1st pick in the 2006 NBA draft.
With three prime assets in hand Colangelo wasted two of them almost immediately. He traded Villanueva for an average-at-best point guard in T.J. Ford, one who had huge medical concern. He used the No. 1 pick on Andrea Bargnani, one of the biggest busts in modern-day NBA history. Major signings, such as Jason Kapono, trades, such as Rudy Gay, or re-signings, such as the $50 million contract extension he gave to Bargnani, never worked out.
(It’s also amusing how the Sixers moved on from Hinkie’s controversial rebuild to a guy who has admitted to trying to tank in the past).
The string of failures eventually led to Chris Bosh‘s exit from Toronto in the middle of his physical prime. The Raptors didn’t exceed .500 in any of Colangelo’s final six seasons in Toronto, ending with a 79-151 record over his final three years at the helm.
This isn’t even to say Colangelo is a bad general manager. His acquisition of Kyle Lowry in the summer of 2012 is one of the primary reasons they’re contenders now, as is the drafting of DeMarr DeRozan (9th overall in 2009) and Jonas Valanciunas (5th overall in 2011). Those decisions, while too slow-moving to save Colangelo’s job at the time (which should tell you something about timeframes in today’s NBA), were smart, important, decisions.
His time in Phoenix was just as complicated, even if more consistently positive. The trading of Jason Kidd for Stephon Marbury was an unmitigated disaster, but he pivoted and created cap space to sign Steve Nash to one of the best contracts in the modern era. The drafting of Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire at 9th overall, in 1999 and 2002, respectively, easily push the envelope in Colangelo’s favor.
The part about Colangelo’s hiring that doesn’t pass the sniff test is the way it came about. Unless evidence of an exhaustive search comes to light in the coming days, and one that seems to have real teeth behind it, not one that looks designed to save face, the decision on who should be tapped as arguably the most important non-ownership component of the organization came down to what appears, on the surface, to be nepotism.
The Sixers’ went from conducting a three-month coaching search to hire Brett Brown, interviewing as many candidates as possible to gain insight that could be used in the future, to selecting a general manager because of, seemingly, a birthright.
That’s not to say Bryan Colangelo isn’t qualified. He’s had success in the NBA. That’s not even to say Colangelo might not be the best candidate available.
But the Sixers owed their fans an exhaustive search. With the most important draft, the most important free agency, and the most important trade decisions about to be made, the Sixers owed their fans the thoroughness and the humility necessary to confirm that their initial suspicions about who is best qualified to lead the team into the future were vindicated.
From the outside, that doesn’t appear to have been the case.
It all comes back to the owners. Always.
Sure, we can nitpick Sam Hinkie’s draft record. I think everybody would take Giannis Antetokounmpo over Michael Carter-Williams, or even over the Los Angeles Lakers pick that Michael Carter-Williams was traded for. But if the fact that the decision to draft Andrea Bargnani over LaMarcus Aldridge can come from the same man who plucked Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire 9th shows anything, it’s that perfection in the draft is an unrealistic measure.
But Hinkie, with his no-compromises approach, needed one of three things to happen: perfection, luck or patience.
He could have been perfect, so that the fruits of his rebuilding process became evident abnormally quickly. This isn’t realistic, but if the Sixers have Rudy Gobert, Kristaps Porzingis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Rodney Hood, the narrative likely changes.
Likewise, if he’s lucky, and the Sixers just polished off a season with a healthy Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns changing the way the game is played, the upside in the rebuild would be evident to all. It’s hard to really say you believe in process over results when the bounce of a ping-pong ball, or the twitch of a bone, is the difference between a dynasty and a failure. The decisions were the same. The high-risk, high-reward (high-reward that is still possible, by the way) gambits you previously gave the greenlight to are still the same fundamental decisions today.
Finally, in the absence of perfection and luck, Hinkie needed patience. Patience from the ownership group. Patience that seemed to be a real competitive advantage at the beginning of the rebuild. An ownership group that truly had the patience to prioritize process over results, like they claimed to have had, but now appear to have lost.
The process is dead. Not because the team building strategy will change, and certainly not because Sam Hinkie is no longer around to be its steward.
The process is dead because the true architects of it, the owners, are no longer following the principles they set out with.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the team fail. The Colangelos have had success in this league, and have a stable of players, draft picks, and cap space that can be turned into, or developed into, a star.
But it is a tough pill to swallow for fans who bought into what the owners were selling.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.