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NBA Saturday: Hinkie Should Get Credit for 76ers’ Future Success

Sam Hinkie made mistakes, but his moves laid the foundation for the 76ers’ potential future success.

Jesse Blancarte

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By now just about every NBA fan is well aware that earlier this week, Sam Hinkie stepped down as the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Hinkie’s tenure in Philadelphia has been controversial from the start. He set out a long term path to take the 76ers from a middle of the pack team (Philadelphia had not won more than 45 regular season games since the 2002-03 season) to contention by tanking for a few seasons, acquiring assets and preserving cap flexibility, among other things. It’s not a new strategy. The term “tanking” existed long before any casual NBA fan even knew who Sam Hinkie was. What made Hinkie’s tenure different was the fact that the tanking was so blatant, so hard to ignore and the fact that he and his front office chose to not speak publicly about it. In doing so, Hinkie left a vacuum for everyone else to explain the strategy, its merits, its flaws, whether it was hurting the NBA, whether it was fair to 76ers fans and whether it should even be allowed.

Hinkie’s mistakes were self-inflicted and mostly made on non-basketball related matters, which, at least in part, led him down a path that resulted in his resignation. The result of that is Hinkie won’t be around to execute the final stages of his rebuild. Instead, Jerry and Bryan Colangelo will likely be the ones in power when the team becomes well-balanced between up-and-coming prospects, stabilizing veterans and an ongoing infusion of talent through the team’s hoard of assets, which were acquired by Hinkie over the last few years. When that happens, the prevailing view will likely be that Jerry and Bryan Colangelo were the ones that saved the 76ers from Hinkie and turned the team around — a view that, at least in part, will be misguided.

As Hinkie explained in his 13-page resignation letter (which is widely being called his “manifesto”), by citing to Jeff Bezos, the Founder and CEO of Amazon, success today is built on decisions made in years past. If and when the 76ers are back in contention a few years from now, it will be because of Hinkie’s work over the last few years.

To understand the impact of Hinkie’s tenure, it’s important to remember where the 76ers were as a team when he arrived. To prepare for the 2012-13 season, Hinkie’s predecessor, Tony DiLeo, made some curious moves: He traded for Dorell Wright, signed Nick Young, Kwame Brown and Royal Ivey and re-signed Spencer Hawes. He also agreed to a four-team trade that sent Nikola Vučević, Maurice Harkless and a future-first round pick to the Orlando Magic and Andre Iguodala to the Denver Nuggets. In return, the 76ers received Jason Richardson and Andrew Bynum, who would never end up actually playing for Philadelphia because of ongoing injuries that ultimately derailed his career.

While the team had some nice, young players like Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young on the roster, there was no foundation for future contention. Enter Hinkie, who from the beginning operated under some guiding principles that, as mentioned above, are not unprecedented strategies. While his manifesto isn’t the lightest read, he did outline those principles succinctly on page eight:

  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.

Despite some missteps along the way, Hinkie remained true to those principles. Here is a quick rundown of some of Hinkie’s moves, which altogether have put the 76ers in an enviable position moving forward:

  • Traded Jrue Holiday and the 42nd pick (Pierre Jackson) for Nerlens Noel and the Pelicans’ 2014 first-round pick. He also selected Michael Carter-Williams 11th that same night, hoping he could replace Holiday as the team’s lead guard.
  • In less than a year, Hinkie had essentially cleared the team out of its rotation players that no longer fit the long term plan, clearing out the cap sheet while bringing in future assets.
  • Selected Joel Embiid with the third overall pick and traded Elfrid Payton to the Orlando Magic for Dario Saric and a future second-round pick (a trade that can’t be accurately evaluated until Saric plays for Philadelphia). Then, in the second round, Hinkie snagged players like K.J. McDaniels and Jerami Grant.
  • In the 2014 offseason, Hinkie traded Thaddeus Young for Alexey Shved, Luc Mbah a Moute and the Miami HEAT’s 2015 first-round pick.
  • Signed Robert Covington in November, 2014.
  • At the 2015 trade deadline, Hinkie traded Carter-Williams and McDaniels for JaVale McGee, Isaiah Canaan and three draft picks – most notably a protected 2015 first round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers.
  • In the 2015 draft, Hinkie chose Jahlil Okafor with the third overall pick, controversially adding another center to his roster (while leaving Kristaps Porzingis on the board).
  • He traded Arturas Gudaitis (47th pick) and Luka Mitrovic (60th pick) to the Sacramento Kings in exchange shooting guard Nik Stauskas, Carl Landry and Jason Thompson, Sacramento’s 2018 first-round pick and the right to swap firsts with Sacramento in both 2016 and 2017.

There are other moves made that are too numerous to include here, but these are just some of the more significant ones. In this list, we see that Hinkie clearly made a huge commitment towards investing in the draft, though there were certainly some missed opportunities over the last few drafts. He refrained from going out and overpaying mid-tier free agents with the cap space he had, which could have helped his team win some more games and relieve some of the mounting pressure he had created for himself. He made shrewd moves to capitalize on players’ value, such as when he moved Carter-Williams, who had won Rookie of the Year, but whose jumper was broken. He also continued to leverage his flexibility by taking on other team’s contractual liabilities in order to acquire future assets.

Hinkie didn’t take any shortcuts on his long term path to contention. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t make mistakes. His refusal to engage the public on his plan allowed others to dictate the conversation and the narrative. Rather than explaining why he believed it made sense to acquire redundant players, or players that wouldn’t play in Philadelphia for several seasons, he allowed the public to believe he was a cold accumulator of assets with no basketball sense. He reportedly alienated relationships around the league, including agents, which could have hurt him when it came time to start filling in the roster with veteran free agents. And, as we can see in the way he drafted his manifesto, his philosophical approach to just about all things, including basketball, can make it hard to relate to him on a personal level.

Those failings ultimately cost Hinkie his job. But, in the aggregate, Hinkie’s failings did nothing to hurt the 76ers’ long term outlook. Sure, they lost a ton of games, set records for futility, suffered through constant ridicule, fostered an environment where a player like Okafor could be lured into a fight because he was being ridiculed for his team’s shortcomings and acquired players that ultimately might not fit together. But, he also hired Brett Brown, who has done a good job of developing his players and guiding his players through the torment of losing so frequently. He also made calculated moves that were well-reasoned. He won, or at least did well in just about every single trade he made with other teams. He didn’t cut corners and bite on free agents that didn’t fit the team’s long term plans for contention. The result of all of that is the Bryan and Jerry Colangelo have a mountain of cap space and assets to use in building this roster into a contender. How they do that is up to them, but if a player like Jimmy Butler is made available, the 76ers have better assets to make that deal happen than just about any other team in the league.

Aside from the Boston Celtics, it’s hard to argue that any team has the sort of flexibility or assets to leverage than the 76ers. Maybe that doesn’t seem like it’s worth the pain 76ers fans have endured over the past few seasons. However, it’s safe to argue that if Brooklyn Nets fans had a choice, they would trade the last few seasons of trying (and mostly failing) to be competitive by trading away future assets and taking on large contracts for the 76ers’ past few seasons and current circumstances.

All of this isn’t to say that Hinkie got a raw deal, or that he didn’t play a part in getting to the point where he felt inclined to resign. Again, Hinkie made multiple mistakes. Some were related to basketball decisions, more were related towards non-basketball matters. But, a few years from now when the 76ers are perhaps making a deep run in the Eastern Conference playoffs, or putting together one of the best overall rosters in the league, let’s not forget who laid the foundation for the team’s future success.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team

Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.

Joel Brigham

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When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)

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