Sam Hinkie Dared To Be Great For Sixers
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”
Robert F. Kennedy, 1966
The above quote by Robert F. Kennedy, delivered at the University of Capetown in South Africa on June 6th, 1966, rings home when talking about the state of the Sixers, and about team building in the NBA.
Fear drives everything in life. It has to. It’s the way we as a species survived. Self-preservation, above all, is also the motivator behind far too many shortsighted and hasty decisions.
That’s become especially true in the modern sports landscape. It was bad enough with 24-hour sports news stations and talk radio hosts in every major city, but add in the internet, with prognosticators around every corner reacting to events that happened just a second ago, and we live in the moment more than we ever have, and ever should.
That kind of thinking makes it difficult, nigh impossible, to go out on a limb. To take risks and still be able to withstand failure. To delay gratification for something big and grand.
Make a trade now that improves your team by 5 wins and it gains you three years of employment. Make a trade that makes you worse and you’re on the hotseat, one more step away from the unemployment line.
That immediate result, which is usually influenced by events years in the past, is all that we seem capable of judging.
The problem is that comes into conflict with the rewards system of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement.
The fact that the NBA is a superstar driven league is nothing new. There’s only one basketball, of course. The best players play 35-40 minutes, on a court shared with only four other teammates. By design, one player can have a monumental impact.
It’s also nothing new that these players are exceedingly difficult to acquire. Just look at the history of the Philadelphia 76ers, one of the more storied franchises in the history of the league, and you can see that’s the case. These players usually require just one name to identify: Allen, Chuck, Wilt, The Doctor. Even casual fans know who I’m talking about. Yet ever since inept management essentially ran Charles Barkley out of town during the prime of his career, the Sixers have had just one such player in the 24 years since.
But it gets worse. Much worse. The NBA compounds the frustrating impact-over-scarcity equation that naturally exists by making these players, by design, difficult to acquire once they’re into the league.
If you require proof of how much the NBA wants teams to have a decided advantage to retain their own stars, the league has a rule, Bird Rights, colloquially named after a superstar in the league at the time the collective bargaining agreement was introduced.
The rule exists so that teams, even if they’ve mismanaged their salary cap, can go over the cap retain their players. The thought of Larry Bird leaving the Celtics was terrifying. In many respects, it still is, even while many basketball fans have grown up in the free agency era, the thought of teams losing stars, their team identity, their ability to attract fans to come to stadiums, scares the league.
Teams having little hope isn’t nearly the threat that teams losing hope is.
The list of rules goes on. Restricted free agency prevents young superstars from realistically being available to sign away. Instead, you’ll have to wait until they become unrestricted, 9 years into their NBA career, to have a legitimate chance. Limiting what superstars can make further increases this problem. It’s one thing to give teams the ability to match any contract a player gets, but when you enforce a system of rent-control, that decision becomes a no-brainer.
Capping max contracts also allows teams to fit multiple superstars under the cap with relative ease. If Kevin Durant could go out there and command $60 million in free agency, like he might under a true free market economy, the Thunder might have to make a decision between Durant or Russell Westbrook. The Warriors might have to decide between Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Combining LeBron James with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, and later with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, would never be possible if these rules weren’t in place.
Then you add in the ability for teams to go over the cap, regardless of how well their cap has been managed, to keep these clusters of superstars in place and you end up with the 15-or-so real difference makers in the league grouped into just a handful of teams.
The distribution of superstars is akin to a desert of irrelevancy, with an oasis here and there of teams that look almost insurmountable. If you’re not Golden State, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, or Cleveland, this season almost feels like a waste of time. That’s a direct result of the environment the collective bargaining agreement has cultivated.
In an environment such as this, risk makes sense. Get that superstar in the draft — the draft that rookie scale contracts drastically mitigates the risk of; those superstars that the CBA virtually guarantees will be on your team for 9 seasons through restricted free agency; those superstars that the CBA turns into the only recruiting chips in free agency that really matter through maximum salary contracts — and everything changes.
The rules in the CBA, which create a huge barrier-to-entry for 80 percent of the teams in the league, also provides incredible safety nets for those who have successfully crossed that barrier.
If you look at the graph below, I would bet even the most casual NBA fans can identify the players that caused the drastic changes in win totals, either through their departure or arrival.
That’s why probability has always been both the most overrated, and underrated, aspect of this rebuild.
Overrated because the guarantee of success has never been there, and never advertised as such. Many, many think-pieces have been written about the Sixers’ rebuild pointing out that success was no guarantee. No kidding.
What the rebuild has been about was increasing the probability to have success in the most difficult, but important, aspect of team building: obtaining a superstar player. It’s something this city has failed at for decades. It’s why this city hasn’t had a truly relevant team since 2001.
If you’ve heard Sam Hinkie talk over the years, he’s frequently stated that progress isn’t linear. All of the above is why. Incredible growth, relevant growth, growth that is sustainable all the way through contention, isn’t really possible until one of the best players in the league, or a player with the ability to become one of the best players in the league, is on your roster. After that, the NBA tilts the scale in your advantage.
In mathematics this is frequently referred to as a J-Curve. It’s called that because, well, when the x-axis is defined as time and the y-axis as growth, it looks like a J.
It’s something that private equity guys, like the Sixers owners, are certainly familiar with. That the investment in the first couple of years is going to drastically outweigh the return, but will set you up for incredible future growth, growth potential that would not be possible without those initial down years.
It’s an upside that exists in the NBA as well, especially with the rules currently in place, which make the presence of a superstar even more rewarding than it otherwise would have been. But it’s a path rarely pursued, not because nobody else has the idea, but instead because NBA general managers rarely have the kind of rope to make it through that downturn. That fear then drives decision makers to not even pursue the path, to instead pursue one that will provide them the job security they so desperately require.
The Sixers, we thought, were different.
Instead, NBA general managers typically make moves to limit the length of that trough, even if it means it decreases the sharp angle of the upside that was supposed to make the downturn worth it. If Sam Hinkie takes a team from 34 wins to 10, and has the job pulled out from under him, he’s going to be a footnote in history. If Bryan Colangelo comes in and makes moves to improve the team to 41 wins in the near future, even if it limits the upside the team was previously chasing, even if he hits the go-button before having the superstar required to reach the top part of that graph, he’ll be hailed a hero. It’s human nature, especially in this culture.
The rules in the NBA also make the acquisition of a superstar harder than it normally would have been. So while the Sixers pursued a path — by dumping just-solid players with big contracts, chasing ping-pong balls, and taking long-term gambits with high upside — that virtually guaranteed hitting the dip in the above graph, the upside was never guaranteed, all the Sixers could chase was an improved probability.
Is it a possibility that none of these work out? That Joel Embiid can’t stay healthy, that Dario Saric isn’t a difference maker (or, worse, never comes over), that the Sixers fall to 4 in the draft, the Lakers pick ends up at 5th, Jahlil Okafor never improves his defense enough to turn a franchise around, and the cap space the Sixers have so meticulously kept can’t be used to attract a free agent, and these three years created a run to the lowest levels without the growth to be worthwhile? Of course.
That downside is easier for fans, and media members, to envision right now, because we’re in the middle of it. Growth is always hardest to identify when you’re in the trough. Pressure is at its maximum. Decisions, especially when driven by fear, pressure, and self-preservation, are at their worst.
That maximum upside, the best-case-scenario growth, is already less than in a perfect world. Fate has a way of doing that, which is no more readily evident for Sixers fans than turning on a Minnesota Timberwolves game and watching Karl-Anthony Towns, and dreaming what he might become over the years.
But there’s still quite a bit of upside left in the Sixers’ rebuild, upside that makes the risk worth it.
Joel Embiid still has the potential to be the most dominant big man this city has seen since Moses Malone, and that’s being conservative. Nerlens Noel the best defender since Dikembe Mutombo. If Embiid can’t stay healthy, either Brandon Ingram or Ben Simmons, of which the Sixers currently have a 50% chance of getting, an almost unheard of probability in these kind of things, would bring the best non-Embiid prospect since Allen Iverson.
This kind of upside, the upside of the possibility of Towns, Simmons, a healthy Embiid, is enough that I would happily go through the last three years of losing to chase once again. The upside is worth it. The economic reality of the NBA encourages it.
In the end, the NBA encourages taking risks to maximize the chance of getting a star. Did Sam Hinkie make some mistakes along the way? Sure. But make no mistake about it, that upside in the above graph is why he pursued the path he did, not some ridiculous “running a ponzi scheme” criticism some would have you believe, as if a then-35-year-old general manager wants his reputation tarnished for a couple of years worth of pay he could have made in numerous other fields, most of which don’t contain the public outcry professional basketball does.
While the NBA encourages taking risks, our reactionary culture discourages it. We, and, one could argue, Joshua Harris, grade based on results, not process. Any thought otherwise is a nice idea, but recent sports history suggests rarely, if ever, a reality.
So while Sixers fans really didn’t risk much during the last three years — the thought of “losing” a couple of 30-win seasons isn’t causing me to lose much sleep — Hinkie and his staff did. Reputations have a way of sticking.
Could Hinkie have done things slightly differently, improved the optics around the team, paid more attention to the relationships which could have bought him more leeway, more benefit of the doubt, to see this thing through? Certainly. But, ultimately, Hinkie required either exceptional luck (landing the #1 pick to draft Towns) or exceptional patience to see his rebuild through this down period, and the expectation of either was tremendously risky.
In this environment that encourages risks, but punishes risk-takers, I applaud Sam Hinkie and his staff for taking the risks necessary to set the Sixers up for the possibility of future growth the franchise hasn’t seen in decades, even if he put himself in the crosshairs to do so.
I will spend the next few years encouraged by the upside of Joel Embiid. I will look forward to Brandon Ingram, Ben Simmons, or whatever that pick becomes. To the incredible set of options the Lakers pick, Sacramento pick swaps, and future Sacramento first round pick provides.
In a sports culture dictated by fear, Sixers fans still get the fruits of one of the most unique front office strategies in recent memory. It’s still a wonderfully unique time to be a Sixers fan.
You just have to be not terrified of uncertainty.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.