Given Ultimate Freedom, Sam Hinkie Did Half The Job
Last week, Philadelphia 76ers general manager and president of basketball operations Sam Hinkie announced his resignation from the team. The move came a few months after the Sixers’ ownership hired long-time NBA executive Jerry Colangelo as chairman, a move that precipitated a reduction in Hinkie’s role and influence and which ultimately led to his departure.
Hinkie announced his resignation to the franchise’s owners via a 13-page internal letter, one almost immediately released publicly by ESPN’s Marc Stein. It is a letter well worth reading in full, providing as it does a first-hand insight into the mind of arguably the NBA’s most unique, enigmatic, reclusive and polarising executives.
Hinkie's resignation was a surprise, and the public release of his resignation letter even more so. But the contents of it should not be. That letter is in style, tone and content, a final report from a hedge fund manager to his investors, a management consultant restricting a struggling business, an interim CEO brought in to get the college ready for Ofsted inspectors.
Only briefly touching on the basketball side of the operation, the end product is described in terms of asset management and ‘repositioning’ because that is the task with which Hinkie was charged (or at least, the one he chose to take on).
While Hinkie may not have been brought in to do only half the job, it became apparent over the course of this past season that that was all the ownership group were going to empower him to do.
The largely triumphant tone of Hinkie's letter speaks to a job description, real or perceived, that was primarily if not exclusively concerned with taking apart what went before and accumulating as many assets as possible. To that end, Hinkie primarily chooses to evaluate himself on how he did that half of the job.
However, that job description is at best only half of the job required of a successful basketball front office. And while Hinkie may not have been brought in to do only half the job, it became apparent over the course of this past season that that was all the ownership group were going to empower him to do.
In basketball operations as in most facets of life, taking something apart is much easier than putting it back together. Ultimately, Hinkie was squeezed out of the picture simply because he did not put it back together especially well, and nor did he seem to try to.
Sam Hinkie did not invent any of that which he practiced. He was not the first executive to place an increased value on the draft, to use cap space for financial flexibility instead of free agent signings, nor to employ any of his basketball asset gathering techniques. His namesake Sam Presti had done all this in his first few years in Seattle/Oklahoma City, and, notwithstanding better luck (the right picks have to fall in the right years in a way no one really controls), did it much better.
Additionally, the man Hinkie himself praises in the letter, Boston Celtics President Danny Ainge, has also enabled a quick and potent rebuild through much the same techniques.
What Hinkie did do was take it to an unquestioned extreme. The 76ers as he leaves them are as close as feasibly possible to having no committed future salary, and have more future draft picks from other teams than it is possible to have on a roster. ‘The Process’, as it came to be known, could not have been conducted much more emphatically.
He was not the first executive to place an increased value on the draft, to use cap space for financial flexibility instead of free agent signings, nor to employ any of his basketball asset gathering techniques.
Hinkie cites in his letter one example of where it could have been when he talks about the missed opportunity to trade for Joel Anthony and a couple of second round picks – it should hereby be noted that for all the emphasis placed on second round picks by Hinkie’s 76ers, they drafted and got nothing for J.P. Tokoto, Cory Jefferson, Jordan McRae and Russ Smith, an important bit of context for any analysis of those second round picks’ worth – yet ‘The Process’ was essentially as emphatic as it could have been, and far more so than anyone ever before has done it.
Regardless of how much his employers were initially on board with his ideas, it took conviction to do what Hinkie did, to stay straight and on message despite the scorn and criticisms that came with it. Only having the conviction that he did, and being able to detach the asset management from the basketball side, allowed him to reposition the Sixers to the extent that he has. And there were some very good moves made within it, not least of which is the trade for Dario Saric, the value of which is yet to be fully realised but which will pay dividends.
However, in dismantling a basketball team, the rebuilding has to begin concurrently and immediately. They sound like nebulous concepts from the outside, but matters such as ‘culture’ and ‘environment’ matter when on the inside. Human beings make basketball teams, and Hinkie had so many young players on the team, on the fringes of the team and in the future plans for the team that he had little to no roster space for veteran guidance, an impossible-to-quantify metric that is nevertheless fundamentally important and only really measured by its absence.
Carl Landry was the sole relative veteran on this year’s team before Jerry Colangelo’s intervention, and Landry likely only survived because he was suitably good of a player to be a tradeable asset in the future. Human beings also pay to watch basketball games, and for all the value this ruthless asset gathering ‘process’ brought to the franchise going forward, basketball is the sport fans pay to watch, not GMing.
It is in these basketball terms that the Sixers ownership felt Hinkie was lacking. The narrative coming from inside to outside (admittedly not without some form of agenda inevitably tacked onto it) was that Hinkie, precisely because of his ruthlessness, was unable to cultivate the relationships and trusts with agents, business managers and whoever else that would attract players to the team when they decided they were ready to start doing that.
In a business where every market has some sort of lure, and in a market where the vast majority of the teams now have significant cap room every years, the Sixers were going to need these factors to compete for the same few players everyone else was competing for. Moreover, there needed to be the culture and environment whereby players and their people could trust that the team meant it when they said they saw them as a part of the plan going forward. And the fans had to have some basketball to watch.
It took conviction to do what Hinkie did, to stay straight and on message despite the scorn and criticisms that came with it.
This sounds like the kind of thing that is easy to say in retrospect, and maybe it is. But it is not a narrative that comes only in retrospect. Hinkie’s letter opens with an acknowledgement that everyone makes mistakes, yet when it came to acknowledging his mistakes, Hinkie’s chosen example is telling.
He openly laments not trading for Joel Anthony and a couple of extra second round picks, and yet makes no mention of what it is that saw him squeezed out. (It certainly was not because he did not trade for Anthony and more picks.) In trying in his opening to affirm that he did not come from a purely business perspective and considered basketball factors just as much as anyone, he instead essentially portrayed the opposite.
If Hinkie is to be evaluated purely for ‘The Process’, then he is mostly a success. It is not in dispute that the Sixers as he leaves them are most replete with team-building assets, more so than any competitor, and infinitely, almost immeasurably better off than the franchise was at the time he took the keys nearly three years ago.
But as a team, the 76ers are currently worse, and could well have been the worst of all time had two of those coveted second round picks not been dealt mid-season for Ish Smith, an extremely average NBA point guard (a term which is meant to his credit) whose averageness was sufficient enough of an upgrade to turn some losses into wins.
In three years, Hinkie managed to acquire at best two NBA rotation-calibre guards with little upside, a couple of highly talented big men whose talents do not co-exist well and who have struggled off the court with either injury, temperament or both, and a couple of decent defensive role players. The best future piece is Nerlens Noel, and that was a move made nearly three years ago. That is not an identity, culture or foundation to envy. The most enviable part is the sheer volume of future assets and flexibility, but ultimately, the players matter the most.
This is a player’s league. It always has been and it always will be. In his preamble, Hinkie acknowledges that emotion and the failings of the human conditions affects managerial decision making, but in evaluating players almost exclusively as assets detached from this human condition, he disconnects them from this same acceptance. The very approach, cut-throat and analytical, that made him a success at the part of the plan he tackled is the very reason he was not a success at the other part.
While acknowledging that the ultimate currency of the NBA is wins, he overlooks the fact that after three years, his team as it stands just went 10-72, only one win better than the all-time worst record in NBA history, an ignominious record his franchise probably would have secured had it not been for the mid-season trade for Smith that Hinkie, second round pick collector, likely did not want to make.
If Hinkie is to be evaluated purely for ‘The Process’, then he is mostly a success. It is not in dispute that the Sixers as he leaves them are most replete with team-building assets, more so than any competitor.
It matters not much empirically if a team wins 10 games or 20, and the notion of the tank is long since tested and begrudgingly accepted as a sound strategy for long-term success. But the perception matters, as does the laying of the foundation for said long-term success. Teams sometimes have to go backwards to go forwards, but in three years, Hinkie’s teams only went backwards.
Players have to have something to want to join, and fans have to have something to root for. Accepting as anyone may be of the need for ‘The Process’ and the ruthless asset-accumulation in that time frame, there still existed a need to put the new foundations in place in that time. It is in this regard that Hinkie did not succeed, and what got him pushed aside.
In his letter, Hinkie lauds Danny Ainge for his planning and his foresight in building the championship Boston Celtics team. But he should also be lauded for how he rebuilt. Ainge took advantage of a foolish and desperate Brooklyn Nets franchise – the best thing any GM can do is take advantage of the self-imposed desperation of others – and dismantled his team while bringing in strong assets in the process. But he never stopped acquiring good players for good prices when he could, always building while also taking down.
While Hinkie was trading away his most significant attempt yet at acquiring a future guard foundation (Michael Carter-Williams), Ainge was trading for Isaiah Thomas, despite having spent a top five pick on a player at that position only months before and despite ostensibly being mired in his own rebuild. That move paid off hugely – Thomas has been a big catalyst for Boston’s hard and fast rebuild, and his team is now a contender for the Conference title while still having all those acquired assets coming up in the future.
Ainge did not completely pull the plug in the way Hinkie did, and as a result, he has a better team. The prognosis for the Celtics, with their young elite coach, talent at all positions and mixture of youth and experience, compares favourably to that of the Sixers in every way unless looked at purely from a ridiculously simplistic who-has-the-most-money-and-picks-in-the-future approach. This is an approach no one should adopt.
In drafting Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid, players who have struggled off the court in their short time in the NBA, Hinkie neither flanked them with the right culture in which to thrive, nor acquired young players who bring any of it with them. Hinkie’s overarching message in his resignation letter was that he had done his job by giving the franchise every chance to succeed in the near and distant futures.
While acknowledging that the ultimate currency of the NBA is wins, he overlooks the fact that after three years, his team as it stands just went 10-72, only one win better than the all-time worst record.
But he only did so on one level. The jury is still out on how successful all of ‘The Process’ will ultimately be, but the verdict was in that Hinkie was not the man to do the rest of it. For that, he must take a further look at himself. By virtue of the mandate he was given and his conviction in following it, Hinkie found himself in the unique position of having an absolutely blank page. He could build the team however he wanted to – he did not have to fit any pieces with any other, as he had the freedom to choose every piece himself. Yet he leaves without having done so.