Poor Relationships Gave Hinkie Little Margin For Error

Had former Sixers' president and general manager Sam Hinkie made more of an effort to cultivate relationships, he may have had the chance to see his plan through.

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“Optics”.

It’s been a popular word when discussing the Sixers of late. In truth, it’s been a popular topic of conversation when discussing the Sixers for several years.

It’s something which Joshua Harris tried to fight against early last week, to little success, attempting to convince fans that Colangelo the Elder wasn’t involved in getting Colangelo the Younger a job within the organization he was chairman of, optics that Bryan Colangelo admitted on Breakfast on Broad almost caused him to turn down the opportunity.

“I actually even said ‘This probably isn’t right for me’ initially,” Colangelo told Breakfast on Broad. “I almost removed myself from the process, to be honest. Once [Jerry] was out of the picture, then we moved forward on a clean basis and it felt good, I convinced myself that this was the right position because I was so excited about what this opportunity looked like.”

It’s a situation that puts Bryan Colangelo in a bit of a tough spot, with some fans already upset at the loss of the previous general manager, and others upset at the optics of a job search that appeared to be anything but extensive.

Colangelo has spent an inordinate amount of time over the past week fighting those optics. At one point during his introductory press conference Colangelo even joked that he was happy to be answering a basketball question.

Where Colangleo has made a considerable effort to fight those optics and shape the narrative, his predecessor, Sam Hinkie, did not.

Hinkie’s plan to rebuild the Sixers was going to be controversial from the get-go. Not because it’s unique, mind you – losing in the NBA to exploit the incentive structure and the economic realities of the league is anything but new – but because of the degree Hinkie went to accomplish his goal. He made no aplologies for the depth to which he executed his master plan. No avenue which could increase the odds of obtaining that transcendent talent in the draft would be discarded, even if that increase was just a percentage point in his favor here or there.

The NBA lottery is no sure thing, both Hinkie and his detractors were quick to remind you, so Hinkie looked to maximize his odds any way he could.

The problem is, most of those strategies led to an alienation of fans. Losing games hurts. Trading popular players like Michael Carter-Williams, even if they had potential fatal flaws that were likely to limit their effectiveness as a basketball player, even if you know they’re going to lose trade value over the next few years, carries with it a negative connotation that you don’t care about the product you’re putting out on the court. Moves, even smart ones, even justifiable ones, were off-putting to a very large portion of the fan base.

If you’re going to go to ther extremes Hinkie did, you have to sell your plan. Hinkie never cared to.

Reporters can be fickle. Not intentionally so, at least not the vast majority of the time, but confirmation bias influences everything we do, say, think, or write. If Hinkie were able to convince some that his plan has some merit to it, even if they don’t wholeheartedly agree with it, he may have earned more favorable reactions when controversial moves were eventually, inevitably, made.

But you can’t subconsciously confirm something you don’t already believe, at least on some level. And information, or a lack thereof, has a way of influencing the narrative.

This tit for tat is something Hinkie, by all accounts, viewed with virtual disdain. Were there benefits to being silent? Of course. The trade with the Orlando Magic, where Hinkie was able to deduce that the Magic were targeting Elfrid Payton in the draft, and used that leverage against them, is a clear reason why.

But there were wins to be had without giving up your competitive advantage. “This player has already been signed”, “we’ve already let this player go to clear roster space”, “we just sent in our draft selection to Silver, here’s who we’re taking.” Olive branches that could have, over time, earned him the benefit of the doubt from those who have the power of shaping the narrative. But Hinkie had no interest in playing the game.

The relationships Bryan Colangelo has formed over the years is a popular justification for his selection as president of basketball operations, relationships which are no doubt beneficial. But there’s this sense that those relationships are actually going to be used to attract free agents, a sense which, in my opinion, is overstated.

Even looking back at Bryan Colangelo’s greatest move in his many years in the league – signing Steve Nash away from Dallas to a 6 year, $65 million contract – didn’t come to fruition because of Colangelo’s connections. Sure, Colangelo drafted Nash 15th overall in the 1996 draft, but there were 20 million reasons Nash chose Phoenix over Dallas, and none of them had to do with Bryan Colangelo’s charm. Nash took Colangelo’s offer, which was $20 million richer than the one Dallas made, back to Cuban in hopes Dallas would match and he would stay with the Mavs. Cuban declined.

There’s a formula to free agency which seems almost too simplistic to be true, but history shows that it largely is: free agents care about money and a chance to win. Offer them that, they’ll sign. Lack those qualities and they’ll look elsewhere. If Colangelo is to be successful this July it will because he did the same thing he did with Nash all those years ago: find somebody who still has the chance to grow, one who fits your system so perfectly that you can get more production out of him than other teams, and overpay the market.

Whatever grades Colangelo gets from pundits this July are meaningless. The key will be the grades retroactively handed out in 2020.

Yet here Colangelo is, with his league-wide relationships being touted and his Rolodex in hand, a picture painted of him that suggests an in-his-prime star is going to join the Sixers and forgo millions of dollars and a chance to win because Colangelo has a nice smile and a friendly rapport with his representatives.

What Colangelo has done, and what Hinkie disregarded, is sell himself, both in the open at press conferences and behind closed doors by playing ‘The game’

That works in reverse as well.

The damage Hinkie did – to his reputation with agents, other general managers, and reporters – was never as big of a threat to Hinkie’s ability to actually perform his job as it was portrayed to be. The reports that he had poor relationships with numerous agents and generally managers had merit, for sure. I don’t think you’d find anyone to suggest that such relationships weren’t strained. But agents and general managers are pragmatic people. They want to sign the biggest contracts possible. To make the best trades possible. As long as Sam Hinkie gave them the best chance to do so, they were going to work with him. They owed themselves, and their clients, that open-mindedness.

Where those reputations damaged Hinkie was in the court of public opinion, a court dominated by the whims of the very people Hinkie spent so much time disregarding.

A prime example of this is the report that Kristaps Porzingis‘ agent refused a workout with the 76ers. The reaction, the narrative that was painted, came down almost instantly: the Sixers were a laughing stock of an organization, and Hinkie’s poor relationships were finally resulting in damage to the franchise.

Except this happens all the time. Every year. Dante Exum refused to work out for the Jazz leading up to the 2014 draft. The Jazz selected him 5th overall anyway. Justise Winslow refused a workout with the Kings in 2015. Both of those players worked out for the Sixers, according to multiple sources, despite whatever relationship Hinkie did or did not have with Rob Pelinka or Joe Branch, the agents for Exum and Winslow, respectively.

There were obvious reasons to decline those workouts, of course. The Jazz just invested the 9th pick in the 2013 draft, the year before Exum came into the league, on Trey Burke, and playing time, and the ability to run the offense, something Exum very much wanted, could be limited. Sacramento had just used high draft picks on Ben McLemore (7th overall in 2013) and Nik Stauskas (8th overall in 2014) in the previous two drafts before Winslow entered the league, which could have limited the playing time available for wing players. Agents want their players to go to the best opportunities possible, and it’s in their right to try to control the draft process in any way they can to accomplish that objective.

Yet when a very similar situation happened in Philadelphia, when Andy Miller, Porzingis’ agent, refused a workout to try to prevent his client from joining a team that had just drafted two big men in back-to-back years, the narrative immediately spun to how Hinkie’s poor relationships were costing the Sixers, an almost unheard of conclusion to reach for an event that’s so commonplace.

Around the league, people were applauding Miller for a brilliant piece of self-promotion. The report, which came out at the end of January, was perfectly timed for Miller. He could get his name out as a power broker who gets the best for his clients, right in time for the signing period when he’d be looking to attract the next wave of NBA draft hopefuls. It’s a story the media, already annoyed at Hinkie for not giving them the information required to break stories and do their jobs, would be more than willing to report.

Everybody wins. Except Hinkie, of course. That’s the cost of not playing the game.

A similar example is the reaction to Jahlil Okafor‘s off-the-court struggles, struggles which proved, in the eyes of many, that the Sixers’ constant losing and lack of veteran presence caused their lone star to fall from grace.

Okafor was involved in three off-the-court incidents which drew considerable attention. One, getting into a fight in Old City, happened before Okafor had even appeared in a preseason game for the Sixers. Another, the speeding incident, happened before the Sixers played a regular season game. The narrative that losing at a historic rate was the instigating factor in these two mistakes of Okafor’s was interesting, to say the least.

You almost wonder what would have happened if those two events had been reported on at the time they happened.

Had the series of events unfolded that way, you wonder if, when Okafor got into that fateful fight after November 25th’s game in Boston, the narrative would have instead been of a 19-year-old kid making mistakes that 19-year-old kids frequently make, especially those who may be struggling to handle their new-found fame and fortune. But that’s not the way it played out. Instead, this all came to light in a dizzyingly short period of time after the Boston incident, when the team was 0-16 and the narrative had already been set.

Hinkie’s plan, by design, was going to put a lot of stress on ownership. Losing, especially at that level, always does.

And if Hinkie were going to employ a strategy that was already going to bring a ton of heat down onto the team, if he were going to ask ownership to be more patient than just about any other ownership group in the history of the game, having the Porzingis and Okafor situations interpreted the way they were just added more weight onto ownership’s shoulders, shoulders which were already likely on the precipice of collapsing even without the weight of additional, perhaps overblown, distractions allegedly caused by Hinkie’s shortcomings.

Hinkie needed to control the narrative to limit the pressure to just that which was inevitable. He didn’t, in large part because he didn’t even try.

None of that is to say that Hinkie’s execution of the plan was perfect, of course.

If Hinkie had one player who he could hang his hat on as ‘the guy’ to build around going forward, he’d probably still be in Philadelphia preparing for June 23rd’s NBA draft. Part of that failure was luck (the lottery and Karl-Anthony Towns), part of that was a willingness to take risk (Joel Embiid), a risk which we still have no idea whether it will or will not pay off in the end, and part of that was missing on elite talent (Giannis Antetokounmpo). It’s kind of ridiculous to try to grade the success or failure of a general manager’s drafting ability when, out of the two draft classes he tanked for, he’s, by choice and by luck, only gotten 53 games of NBA play out of, but those were the risks he willingly took.

The decision to chase an improved probability of a superstar is an interesting thought experiment. On the one hand, such a stubborn pursuit of any and all means which could increase the chances of getting a superstar through the draft, regardless of how it reflects on you, is oddly commendable. So many plans fail because of half measures spurred on by vanity, impatience, and job security, somebody who approached the most difficult task in basketball with such defiance was easy to get behind for some.

On the other hand, for such a logical, pragmatic individual like Hinkie, was 10 wins and a 25% chance at the #1 pick worth more than 20 wins and a 19.9% chance, if it also meant Hinkie wasn’t here to see the plan through? Idealism is great, except when your fate is determined by others who may not hold that same level of conviction.

Much is made about Hinkie’s relationships around the league. Where that impact was felt the most may have been in the court of public opinion, and if Hinkie were to pursue a plan to so aggressively play the margins, he needed to play the games necessary to gain the benefit of the doubt.

He failed.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.