GM Report: Sam Hinkie

Was Sam Hinkie a success or failure as a GM in Philly?  This answer really depends on how you evaluate the question.  The sixers have won 47 games over three years, which is beyond awful but they have acquired a ton of draft picks.  The answer, then, really depends on how you evaluate GMs.  On some level, Hinkie has improved the Sixers but was it worth sacrificing three seasons of basketball?  Let’s review Hinkie’s moves and see what comes of it…

On its face, Hinkie’s plan wasn’t that radical.   He sought to trade the middling players the franchise had and rebuild through the draft.  Teams routinely blow up their rosters to start over because it has long been accepted that the worst place to be in the NBA is with a mediocre team that flirts with the playoffs but that has a low ceiling and no ability to attract or acquire a star.  Despite this fact, Hinkie has been derided as the face of the “analytics” GM who lacks tethering to the real world of the NBA and that his rebuilding plan was particularly radical.

Kevin Pelton found that Hinkie inherited a bad situation where a rebuild was necessary and that the team is better off now than it was when he took over.  The team had mortgaged its future for Andrew Bynum, whose knees ended up preventing him from ever playing in Philly.  At the time of Hinkie’s hiring, the roster had three noteworthy assets: Evan Turner, Jrue Holiday, and the 11th pick in the 2013 draft.  More modest but somewhat significant assets included Thaddeus Young (who had only a year left on his contract) and Spencer Hawes.  That’s not a lot to play with.

Turner was a high pick but already looked more like a role player than star, Holiday looked really good, and Young and Hawes were solid.  Still, this team was not close to competing.  Hinkie broke up a 30-win team to dip into the lottery.  This was perfectly rational and had nothing to do with any sort of mechanical application of analytics that missed some larger point.

In that sense, it is hard to hit Hinkie too hard for some of the losing.  To illustrate this point, you just have to look at Turner’s recent comments.  After Hinkie resigned, Turner said that Hinkie had done a nice job gathering picks but he also questioned if Philly should’ve broken up its previous core.  Turner said this group of players is still tight and that “every now and then, in between a drink, we’ll be like damn, they should have never split us up.”

Athletic dreams aside, this wasn’t a viable core.  First, Williams and Iguodala left in free agency in 2012, a year before Hinkie was hired (in Turner’s defense, he might be referring to the Philly organization as a whole and not just Hinkie).  Second, that core still doesn’t sound like a very good team.  Turner and Williams are solid enough role players, Holiday hasn’t been healthy (in fact, New Orleans accused Hinkie of hiding Hoilday’s knee issues and Philly was later ordered to pay New Orleans $3 million), and Iguodala is a nice player but has not been a star since leaving Philly.

So, there is no realistic basis to question Hinkie’s conclusion that Philly had to start over but that isn’t the end of the story.  What about his rebuilding decisions? Amassing lottery picks is a good idea but is not a guarantee that you will hit a star, even if you draft perfectly.  Let’s take a look at each of Hinkie’s drafts:

-2013:  The 76ers drafted Michael Carter-Williams at 11 and traded Holiday for the sixth overall pick, Nerlens Noel (who would miss the season with a pre-existing knee injury).  MCW was a solid enough pick and won Rookie of the Year.  Philly would’ve done better with Giannis Antetokounmpo but 13 other teams missed him too and MCW was still one of the better players on the board.  As for Noel, he hasn’t been quite as valuable as Holiday the past three seasons but the trade made sense because Philly wanted to be bad in 2013-14 and they didn’t want to invest in Holiday with his potential for injury.

-2014: Philly was placed in a tough spot by getting the third pick.  With Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker off the boards, Hinkie was forced to choose between the already injured Joel Embiid, who projected into a potential star but had a foot injury, and nice prospects like Aaron Gordon and Marcus Smart.  Hinkie went with the higher potential Embiid.  It’s hard to know if this was a bad call at the time.  If Embiid’s medicals were solid, he was a no-brainer over Gordon and Smart.  If the medicals looked bad, this was a bad pick.  Of course we now know that Embiid’s foot has been quite a problem and he still hasn’t played in an NBA game.  In retrospect, taking Smart would’ve been quite helpful to a team with a terrible backcourt like Philly (though they still wouldn’t have been good).

2015:  Again, Philly had the third pick and missed out on the only clear star (Karl-Anthony Towns) and the guard they really wanted (D’Angelo Russell).  It’s too early to pass judgment on this pick but taking Jahlil Okafor over Kristaps Porzingis doesn’t look like a good call.  Okafor has some scoring ability but he wasn’t efficient, his rebounding has been weak, and his defense hasn’t been great.

Drafting is difficult and even the best GM needs some luck. The real bad luck was really that Philly never got better than a third pick in this stretch and missed a shot at the only obvious superstar in Towns.   With the players on the board when he slated to draft, Hinkie would’ve had to nail all three of these drafts (taking Antetokounmpo, Smart, and Porzingis), just to make a decent team.  Few GMs pick so well in three seasons and, even then, Philly would have a fun team but would still not necessarily be a playoff team now.  Gathering draft picks could eventually pay off but Hinkie’s opportunities to draft the past three years were more limited than he could’ve guessed.

There are two takeaways from this drafting history: despite all the whining from other teams, the lottery system worked!  The Sixers tanked and still never got the top pick.  The second, as mentioned above, is that picks are an opportunity at getting assets and not a guarantee.  Talent doesn’t come into the NBA evenly.  For example, in 2002, the top picks were Yao Ming, Mike Dunleavy, and Jay Williams.  A year later, in 2003, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony were available.  There is no amount of GM planning that can create that kind of luck.

If there is one problem with Hinkie’s tenure it is his failure to recognize that there is a cost to tanking.  Even if your ownership gives you the blessing to tank, no fan base (particularly not a tough one like Philly) will quietly suffer through multiple execrable years and let the GM survive unscathed.  Philly win totals during the Hinkie reign were low to start and are now carter-level low (19, 18, and 10 respectively).  Not only is that a bad trend line but few GMs could survive a 10-win season, a total so absurdly low that it’ll go into the history books.  It wasn’t until Hinkie realized that 2015-16 could be a historically bad one that he acquired decent enough point guard, Ish Smith, to be merely terrible (they were 1-30 before Ish came over).

The takeaway from Hinkie’s tenure is that his philosophy on tanking was too absolute.  He saw no merit in keeping around a few veterans who might keep things in the 20-win territory because that would take away lottery chances.  Instead, the roster was flooded with second-rounders and projects, some of whom might eventually have value, but couldn’t meet basic levels of ability in the here and now.  In order for a team to function, however, you can’t fly that low.

Sam Hinkie, upon resigning, sent a 13-page letter, citing to visionaries in investing, science, sports, and analytics, and implying that his tenure was similarly misunderstood by the masses.  I won’t rehash the whole letter but here’s a sample: “In May of 1969, a 38 year-old Warren Buffett sat down at a typewriter to inform his investors that he was closing his fund (the Buffett Partnership).  His reason: market conditions were such that he no longer had the requisite confidence that he could make good decision on behalf of the investors and deliver on his commitments to them.  So he would stop investing on their behalf.  For me, that’s today.”

The letter was widely viewed as weird and somewhat arrogant.  This returns us to the question of whether Hinkie was a visionary or someone who was just totally out of touch.  It seems that Hinkie was perfectly competent as a GM but fundamentally did not understand that one aspect of his job was that he was accountable to his own “investors,” namely ownership and the fans.  Each of these groups has its own interests and its own power to register its complaints.  Hinkie did not see value in short-sighted goals like winning 25 or 30 games or bringing in a few mediocre vets but some moderate incremental improvement was necessary for him to continue working.

Unlike Buffett, the market for acquiring players hasn’t changed for Hinkie.  What did change was the amount of goodwill he had with the fans and owners.  Like any executive in government or business, Hinkie did not understand the practical limits of his power.  By giving no value to public relations and incremental short-term goals, Hinkie couldn’t keep his power when his goodwill was eroded.

The better analogy that Hinkie missed in his letter was not to Buffett but to the hedge funds chronicled in the “Big Short.”  This group had shorted the housing market but had to pay millions in carrying costs to hold the position until the market cracked enough to make them money.  If they ran out of money or their investors did not stick with them, the positions would’ve been scrapped and the chance to make big cash would’ve evaporated for all parties.  Hence, the need for the hedge funds to educate the investors and keep them calm.  It isn’t easy or fair but that’s life.

Hinkie’s carrying cost for the losing was a natural consequence of his plan to get as many high picks a possible and the ongoing premiums he was paying were in the form of fan anger and public scorn.  It is possible that this plan might still pay off but Hinkie’s bank of goodwill was done because he didn’t understand that public relations was a very important part of his job.

This doesn’t make Hinkie a total failure, an one-note analytics dork, or some sort of visionary who was misunderstood.  He’s just a guy who missed the total equation.  He wasn’t the first GM to miss something and won’t be the last. It would certainly be interesting to see him try again and see what he would do differently.

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