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Empty Tank: Hinkie’s Shadow Looms Over NBA

Entering this season, no team is obviously tanking. Ben Dowsett explores why this is the case.

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Sam Hinkie’s resignation as the general manager in Philadelphia brought a clear end to an era. What began as the league’s most fascinating experiment, a test of how far one team could push the league’s rules on restocking talent, finally reached its breaking point after just three years.

As reporting shed light on what was ultimately a very strange departure from Hinkie, it became clear issues with his process were both internal and external. His impersonal handling of many young players reportedly irked a number of agents, a small-but-influential group of power brokers who often shared his orbit. His well known desire to extract every drop of value in trades bothered some opposing executives – another small group with whom Hinkie would have to cross paths repeatedly as part of the job.

Divisions stacked up closer to home, as well. “Trust the Process” was either a battle cry or a punch line in Philly depending on which side of the tape you were on, and it wasn’t even always clear publicly where members of Hinkie’s own organization fell.

Whether you call it an ouster or a true resignation, Hinkie’s eventual departure signaled at least a partial white flag. Even in a context where all parties understood the broad reasoning behind his approach, the particulars were cumulatively too much to handle. Jerry Colangelo was brought in and a rebuilt management team had already begun to run contrary to the Hinkie ethos well before he was out the door, their pivot all but sealed by a resignation letter that eventually became public.

And as the league’s tanking poster boys finally prepare for a season where winning games is more than a farce, Philly’s situation serves as an interesting microcosm for the league as a whole: For the first time since Hinkie’s plan was put into place, and likely since well before that even, we’re set to enter an NBA season without a single obvious tanking candidate.

Is this just a one-year coincidence, or is it the beginning of a larger league-wide sea trend? There’s evidence on both sides.

On the one hand, it’s easy to point to temporary circumstance. The 76ers are jumping onto the front foot, and a few other primary tanking possibilities are either treading water or buried in the shallow end.

The Nets owe a 2017 pick swap to Boston, and though they still probably won’t be very good, that’s more due to lack of resources left over from a previous administration than a conscious tank attempt they have no actual reason to pursue. The Lakers already slogged through an unprecedented losing season for their franchise in a relatively blatant (and ultimately successful) attempt to hold onto last year’s top-three protected pick; it’s widely assumed they lack the stomach to do so again, and the jump from Byron Scott to Luke Walton plus expected development from high-ceiling youth might make it impossible anyway. The Suns are another team that could end up with a pretty ugly record regardless, but with multiple expected high-impact prospects in the fold from the 2015 and 2016 drafts plus guys like Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler still in town, it feels like they’re going for gold and living with the results as long as the kids develop.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt the situation in Philadelphia made a lasting impression around the league. The NBA is a cyclical beast, and impersonators come with the territory.

“Things in the NBA, much like real life, can be so ‘trendy’ at times,” one assistant coach told Basketball Insiders. “Seems to me like people saw the Sixers’ situation, and because it didn’t go well, and the [front office] staff wasn’t allowed to see it through, [other teams] went away from ‘tanking’ because of it.”

Using other franchises as cautionary tales is standard practice in this league, and Hinkie’s 76ers attached a stigma to “strategic losing” that isn’t likely going anywhere soon. NBA basketball isn’t a video game. Even the most devout and disciplined observers of an analytical approach are prone to natural biases over such a long period of time. The agents, the opposing executives, the players in that Philly locker room, most of all the fans – at a certain point, the promise of eventual utopia crumbles under the weight of the present and the limits of human patience.

Of course, the other shoe dropping in Philly hasn’t suddenly removed the incentives that got their tanking ball rolling in the first place. CBA negotiations loom over these conversations, but with optimism growing that a new deal can be reached before December’s opt-out date, most don’t think fear of an unknown future is what’s getting in the way. There’s no bigger factor in a potential NBA title than superstar talent, and there’s no more reliable way to acquire (and retain) superstar talent than bottoming out and selecting at the top of the draft.

Some around the league consider Hinkie a brave pioneer through this lens, a martyr who blazed the trail to follow – and identified the pitfalls along the way. With the right tweaks around the margins, a savvy franchise can improve the optics of a tank job without actually changing much thematically.

“I do believe that some form of tanking will happen after the first quarter of the season,” the assistant coach said. “Some [front offices] start to feel like they won’t have a chance at making the playoffs.”

This has already been a common practice to some degree or another in previous years, and it could be an approach GMs are more aggressive about to avoid the up-front resistance Hinkie ran into frequently. Front offices obviously can’t instruct a coach to start losing suddenly mid-season, but it’s also not as if they have no control over their team’s makeup. Injuries can dictate these decisions on their own sometimes, but they’re just as often convenient excuses – rest a vet a few extra games here, hold a rookie out for “precautionary reasons” there. More refined tankers have already been drawing from this well for a long time, and given the ambiguity used in many cases, there’s a theoretical cap to how much the league could ever prevent this sort of thing.

There’s also no guarantee this is the beginning of the end for the full-on tank job. Pick swaps may have prevented one or two this very season, and an abbreviated version of Hinkie’s multi-year project could be more reasonable for teams in the right situation.

“I think [you] need a few ingredients,” a team executive told Basketball Insiders. “A team that’s stuck in a bad spot and has its own pick, and a GM that doesn’t feel pressure to win that season.”

Another half-decade project, though? Not likely.

“[It] still will be a long time, if ever, before anyone does it as blatantly as the 76ers again,” he said.

If we’ve learned anything about the NBA over the years, though, it’s to never entirely count out any range of possibilities. Could league insiders have expected a Hinkie-style teardown even a decade ago? Probably not. Copycats abound, and results are king.

“I do wonder,” says the assistant coach, referring again to how trendy the league can be, “if we see the Sixers become contenders in the next couple of years, how that will affect things?”

If Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric all become stars and shake up the league’s balance of power on the way to prolific success, maybe those bemoaning Hinkie’s failures are suddenly looking to him as the blueprint for team-building – especially in smaller markets where attracting superstars is all but impossible. If another before them reaches the light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps it encourages more teams to start the journey themselves.

For now, though, the league will surely take a one-year hiatus from preseason tank talk. Ongoing CBA negotiations are a bigger fish to fry, and some time away from an issue that was gaining a lot of steam could cool waters Adam Silver and his team were slowly starting to sink into. The long-term effects of Hinkie’s experiment are yet to be seen, but his effect on the current tanking market is clear and pronounced.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Grizzlies trade Jonas Valanciunas to Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez, the New Orleans Pelicans are shipping guard Eric Bledsoe, center Steven Adams, the Nos. 10 and 40 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, and two future first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for center Jonas Valanciunas and the Nos. 17 and 51 picks of this week’s upcoming draft. So, the Pelicans are giving up the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick. Valanciunas, the 29-year-old veteran center, averaged 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 62 games played throughout the 2020-21 season. He also shot 59 percent from the field. The seven-foot Lithuanian also ranks fourth overall in true shooting percentage (.616) among active players. On July 11, 2019, Valanciunas signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Grizzlies. He is set to earn $4 million next season.

Additionally, in 71 games played last season, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The six-foot-one guard also shot 42.1 percent from the field in the 2020-21 season. On November 23, 2020, as part of a four-team trade, Bledsoe and Adams were traded to the Pelicans from the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two future first-round picks and the right to swap two additional first-round picks. Last season, in 71 games played, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. His field goal percentage was 42.1 percent as well. The 11-year veteran is set to earn $18,125,000 in the 2021-22 season. Before he was traded to New Orleans, on March 4, 2019, the guard signed a four-year, $70 million extension. He earned his first All-Defensive second-team selection in the 2019-20 season.

Moreover, in 58 games played last season, Adams averaged 7.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. The six-foot-eleven center ranks fifth among active players for effective field goal shooting percentage (.591). The eight-year veteran also ranks third in offensive rebounding percentage, with an active statistic of 14 percent. On November 23, 2020, the same day Adams was traded to the Pelicans, he signed a two-year, $35 million extension. For next season, he is projected to earn $17,073,171. To add to this trade news, the Grizzlies and Pelicans are swapping second-round picks in this year’s draft, too. Referencing NBA.com’s “Consensus Mock Draft” article, with the No. 10 pick of the draft, the Pelicans were originally expected to draft either Josh Giddey or Davion Mitchell at this number. However, plans have now changed.

From ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the trade will not be finalized until August 6th, and this is because of the annual salaries of these said players. Free agency will begin on August 2, 6:00 p.m. (EST). Furthermore, per Spotrac’s 2021-22 NBA salary cap table, next season’s luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. The team’s current available luxury tax space is $22,555,195. The Pelicans and Grizzlies have a salary cap maximum of $112,414,000. Brandon Ingram, Bledsoe, and Adams had a combined cap percentage of 39.2 percent. Considering that Bledsoe and Adams are traded away, this will clear up $35,198,171 of dead cap space.

Yesterday, CBS Sports reported the news pertaining to Lonzo Ball’s desire to remain in New Orleans. With extra cap space, the team is expected to re-sign the 23-year-old guard. Likewise, for the Grizzlies, the teams has a luxury tax space of $37,019,952. Their current cap space is $8,321,229. As stated before, the transactions have not yet been finalized. The Grizzlies’ outgoing cap is now $14 million, but from the contracts of Adams and Bledsoe, they are bringing in $35,198,171.

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NBA Trade Rumors: Jazz considering trade offers for Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft

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Per one interesting announcement from Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Utah Jazz are open to trading forward Bojan Bogdanovic, forward-guard Joe Ingles, small forward Royce O’Neale, and the No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Fischer stated, “The Utah Jazz are known to be one of the few teams actually searching to move playoff-tested talent. Retaining Mike Conley is an offseason priority, sources said, and the Jazz have held numerous discussions with teams around the league about offloading salary to create for Conley in free agency.” Point guard Mike Conley is set to become a free agent this offseason. Though, general manager Justin Zanik will aim to re-sign the 33-year-old guard in the coming weeks. Conley earned $34.5 million in the 2020-21 season.

“League personnel most often mention Joe Ingles as the Jazz wing to watch, and Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale are also considered available for trade as Utah narrows its focus towards building a contender around Donovan Mitchel. The Jazz are also open to discuss trading their No. 30 pick, sources said.” In the 2020-21 season, in 72 games played, Bogdanovic averaged 17 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. On May 1, 2021, in the team’s 106-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the six-foot-seven Croatian scored a season-high 34 points, shooting 12-for-22, and he finished his performance with four rebounds and four assists as well. On July 7, 2019, he signed a four-year, $73 million contract with the Jazz.

In 67 games played last season, Ingles averaged 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The six-foot-eight forward is set to earn $14 million in the 2021-22 season. Plus, among the mentioned players, Royce O’Neale has contributed the least. In 71 games played last season, he averaged seven points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. On January 19, 2020, the forward signed a four-year, $36 million extension with the team. He will earn $8.6 million next season. According to The Athletic, in the team’s seventh workout for draft prospects, they viewed Quentin Grimes, David Duke, Matt Mitchell, and a few other players. In the first round, if the team chooses not to draft any of the players they are holding workouts for, the organization will trade the No. 30 pick.

Just for a reminder, retrieved from Spotrac, the 2021-22 NBA luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. Utah’s active roster cap is $133,284,695, the maximum cap is $112,414,000, and the current cap space is $72,990,215. Furthermore, center Rudy Gobert currently has the highest guaranteed contract on the team. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. Gobert is set to earn $35.3 million in the coming season, whereas Donovan Mitchell will earn $28.1 million. Gobert and Mitchell combined consume 47.6 percent of the team’s salary cap. For the upcoming 2021-22 season, the Jazz have a guaranteed total of $129,719,453. Based on the team’s future outlook, the Jazz will have to make a trade or two in order to retain their star players. This should go without saying.

NBA Analysis Network reported a few days ago that a potential Jazz-Knicks trade target is Bojan Bogdanovic. Greg Patuto proposed the Knicks receiving Bogdanovic, while the Jazz would receive Kevin Knox II, and the Nos. 19 and No. 32 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft. Now, this could still happen at some point during this draft week, but then again, sports bettors and fans alike understand that these news reports could be just rumors. The most intelligent, unforthcoming general managers know not to leave bread crumb trails for the media, especially leading into the offseason. They will do everything necessary to protect their foolproof plans.

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Raptors, Pacers, Timberwolves, Kings, and Cavaliers among teams showing interest in Ben Simmons

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According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, five teams have shown interest in pursuing Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers. Fischer reported, “Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota, Sacramento, and Toronto all showed interest in acquiring the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.” Furthermore, the teams are wanting Simmons to change position from point guard to forward. “Multiple executives from those teams, when contacted by Bleacher Report, mentioned their excitement at incorporating Simmons as a play-making forward—not at the point guard position he’s played in Philadelphia.” The six-foot-eleven guard averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in the 2020-21 NBA season. This might sound fine for a young rookie, but as a five-year player, these aforementioned statistics were career lows.

However, the 25-year-old also earned his third NBA All-Star selection and second All-Defensive first-team selection last season. After a less than mediocre performance in his third postseason of his NBA career, the majority of 76ers’ fans would agree that it’s now time for Simmons to have a change in scenery. With a regular season record of 49-23 (.681), the No. 1 ranked 76ers in the Eastern Conference entered the conference semifinals as favorites over the Atlanta Hawks. Leading into this series, some NBA analysts were predicting Philadelphia to prevail four games to two. The 2016 first overall pick was expected to limit Trae Young in scoring and rally his team from point deficits, but none of this ever manifested.

Pertaining to postseason averages, Simmons had a playoff series-low of 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the conference semifinals against the Hawks. This lackluster showing proved to be a more significant downfall for the superstar, considering Simmons had only five points, eight rebounds, and 13 assists in Game 7 versus the Hawks. In the 2019-20 season, he averaged 2.1 steals per game, leading all other players in the league. Moreover, Simmons currently ranks sixth in the NBA for active player triple-doubles (32). With a total of 32 career triple-doubles, he ranks 13th on the all-time list, tied with Clippers’ guard Rajon Rondo.

On July 16, 2019, Simmons signed a five-year, $169.65 million contract extension with the 76ers. He is set to earn $30.5 million in the 2021-22 season. Among these teams interested in Simmons, Cavs’ Kevin Love has the fourth largest contract guarantee of $91.4 million. Love is due to earn $31.3 million next season, and the 13-year veteran’s contract consumes 26 percent of the team’s salary cap. He could be traded this offseason. Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns has a contract guarantee of $130.8 million. The 25-year-old Wolves center will earn $31.6 million in the upcoming season.

Plus, Kings’ 2017 first-round pick De’Aaron Fox has a guaranteed contract of $171.1 million. Fox will earn $28.1 million next season. To add to that, Raptors’ Pascal Siakim has a contract guarantee of $131.4 million. Not to mention, reported by Yahoo Sports via trade rumors yesterday, the Golden State Warriors are a potential trade partner for Toronto. The Warriors could make a move on Siakim, clearing up space on the Raptors for Simmons. Per Spotrac, the 2021-22 season cap maximum is $112,414,000. In the coming weeks, one of these said five teams might make a substantial trade offer to the 76ers’ organization that they cannot refuse.

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