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

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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.