On April 6th, 2016, Sam Hinkie stepped down as the General Manager of the Philadelphia Sixers. On his way out the door, Hinkie left a thoughtful letter to the equity partners of the franchise. The content was interesting, and gave us a glimpse inside the mind of what we now know as #TrustTheProcess. I do feel that his approach deserves a real conversation, for the first time we actually aren’t just assuming what we thought we knew about Hinkie’s thinking, but actually hearing firsthand what his goals and perception were.
Hinkie felt that he needed to take a long-term approach, and do something different from the rest of the league. As he explains it, “The strategy we settled on was straightforward, even if arduous. Replenish the talent pipeline, improve the quality and quantity of players on the roster, shift the style of play towards tomorrow’s champions, and become a culture focused on innovation.” Like most young new leaders, he wanted to come in and create his own path, and he fully understood the backlash he would get from it. He compared the plan with the Sixers to investing, and playing the long-term game while creating “Tomorrow’s champion”. Hinkie stressed that some of the best moves, and players came from years of preparation. On his appearance on the Zach Lowe podcast, he gave a detailed account of how the Boston Celtics were able to build a strong roster today because of the moves that could be traced back to 3-4 years ago (during the Big Three Era). He echoes this thought to his former equity partners, “Jeff Bezos says that if Amazon has a good quarter it’s because of work they did 3, 4, 5 years ago—not because they did a good job that quarter. Today’s league-leading Golden State Warriors acquired Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut, and Klay Thompson almost 4 years ago, nearly 4 years ago exactly, and almost 5 years ago.”
It’s hard to remember now, but when Hinkie acquired the Sixers it was after they made a bold attempt to compete, and came up very short. They had no star players, no future draft picks to look forward to, and no way to compete or tank effectively. In this regard, Hinkie did a great job in acquiring a treasure load of picks. “In the first 26 months on the job we added more than one draft pick (or pick swap) per month to our coffers. That’s more than 26 new picks or options to swap picks over and above the two per year the NBA allots each club. That’s not any official record, because no one keeps track of such records. But it is the most ever. And it’s not close. And we kick ourselves for not adding another handful.” It was a clear goal that he set for the team, and he hit it, setting up the team nicely for years to come. However, I do believe that his biggest flaw came with his inability to transform a solid business approach to the actual product on the court.
One of the interesting aspects of his Hinkie’s time as the General Manager is just exactly how much flexibility he thought he had while tanking. He states that, “We set out to maximize the odds of acquiring star players using all three available methods of acquiring players (draft, free agency, and trade). 1. Draft: invest in the deepest pool of star players—young players via the NBA Draft. 2. Free Agency: maintain financial flexibility to assume contract liabilities of other teams to acquire picks and prospects and move quickly toward special opportunities in signings/trade. 3. Trade: gather attractive, improving players to (best case) develop to win games for the Sixers, or (worst case) trade for better players or players likely to improve at a faster rate.” In the past we’ve discussed these avenues of rebuilding, and I’ve been critical of the Sixers approach because it put all the focus on the draft, and left little to no real chances of being serious players in free agency or the trade market. How do you convince a top free agent to come to Philadelphia when there are 8-10 teams with similar amounts of money and better basketball situations? Sure you could go after less skilled guys, but you’ll also be bidding with teams that are good to great looking for erotation players, and other bad teams who don’t have the reputation of being the laughing stock of the league. What Hinkie doesn’t seem to have considered is one, top players want to get paid and win off the bat, two, because of their reputation they’ll most likely have to overpay for role guys, and three, most of the league is going to have a great deal of financial stability.
Trades are a possibility, and if they decide to flip one of their prized bigs this offseason they might have a chance to secure a solid piece. However, outside of the bigs, the talent is mediocre. Teams aren’t going to make the same mistake of trading a young blossoming player like James Harden away for a few scrappy guys like Jerian Grant, and Robert Covington. Maybe you can entice a desperate team with picks, but as the Celtics learned, when you want a truly impactful player, you must be prepared to take a substantial cut of your own core. Good trades happen when teams have a surplus of one thing (Frontcourt guys, point guards, etc.), and find a team with a need of their surplus, and a surplus of their need. Looking at the Sixers right now, the surplus isn’t clear because the downside of being non-competitive is you don’t form a true identity that a front office can build off of which makes things difficult in the off-season or trade deadline.
Hinkie also gave some perceived predictors of Sixers direction that didn’t add up. He proudly pointed to the fact that the Sixers had ranked 6th in Pace in the last two seasons as justification of progress on the court. Up to this point there has been very minimal proof to show that pace is in fact a predictor or even needed to field a successful team. Today 5 of the 10 top teams in pace are in the lottery, however, teams like the Utah Jazz, Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Memphis Grizzles, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, and the Dallas Mavericks are in the bottom 10. That’s not to say you can’t win with pace, if you have certain star players that play the best in that system then it can work. The Sixers have no stars, and a lot of the players on this roster won’t be around when they actually start competing.
On the other end, one thing that I found extremely impressive was his emphasis on player development such as building a world-class training center, and an “ever-evolving player development program”. Though it sounds vague, the logic is sound. Hinkie wasn’t just building to eventually be competitive in five years, he was trying to create a system that can keep producing for decades. As most great minds do, he was constantly looking to other around the league for guidance. From the heavy drafting of international players like the Spurs, understanding the patience that helped build today’s juggernauts like the Golden State Warriors, and having the gumption of knowing that doing something new isn’t always going to be welcome. Where Hinkie was flawed was his understanding of how his practical, but business-oriented long-term approach would play to current players, media outlets, and ultimately his own colleagues.
Basketball is entertainment. Fans spend hours reading their favorite bloggers, watching games, and spend a lots of money because they want to be entertained. The longer the product on the court stays stagnated, the louder the groans of the local media become who have to cover the team every night. This bleeds it’s way into national media, and eventually the owners find their franchise being the subject of intense scrutiny. We live in an era of mass information, communication, and opinions. People get a lot, see a lot, and talk a lot. We want all our information fast, and forget it just as quick. Perception matters, and front offices care about the reputation of their brand. Without tangible on-court results, the message was too hard to accept. Maybe in a different city where a fan base wasn’t surrounded by the mediocrity of the Philadelphia Phillies, and Eagles, the pressure wouldn’t have felt so intense, but it did. The Process didn’t just need luck in terms of draft position, but also in patience from it’s fans, ownership, and a deeper understanding from the 4th estate. It worked for a time, but when you suffer a full 82 games of forcefully being the worst team in the league, and never smell a top two pick, the burden became too extreme. Despite all this, I think Sam Hinkie had the right train of thought. He inherited a franchise in a bad spot, and created a situation where the new general manager (Bryan Colangelo) can come in with tools at his disposal to engineer a plan with tangible on-court results. The perceived notion that the ending of Hinkie’s tenure means the end of the “Trust the Process” model is foolish. Everything the new management does from here on out will be an extension of the groundwork Hinkie laid. Even if you don’t believe in his plan, which I don’t, there’s no denying that he’s done quality work regaining assets, and can rest on the fact that he left the situation better than he came in.