The following article represents a fantasy meeting between our author and the former General Manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, Sam Hinkie. No actual meetings or conversations actually took place, though it would be cool if they did.
When I first set out to meet Sam Hinkie, I had no idea it would be as big of a challenge as it was. I had sent him an email (he has no PR people as a first line of defense) and received a polite, if terse, response.
I appreciate your interest, however the interest is only one-sided. I have no plans to talk about or revisit the past, I am simply enjoying myself and looking forward to the future. Thanks, SH.
I understood why he responded to my request for a sit down in that fashion. Hinkie was an NBA villain, an outcast on the periphery in a league of outcasts. Data streams, analytics, and mathematics in general had taken the NBA by storm. Hinkie seemed very much like the bumblebee in Blind Melon’s “No Rain” video, finding a home amongst other bumblebees of the same mind. Unfortunately for him however, not everyone trusted “The Process”.
What exactly was/is The Process?
Opinions seem to vary. To some, it is an almost fraudulent way of trying to build a team: Tank, sell off assets, gather chips (draft picks, low-salary players, cap room), to someday cash in those chips for a windfall not guaranteed to pay off.
To Hinkie, The Process was as much a philosophy as it was a list of directives. It was much like an accountant scanning tax codes, looking for and exploiting any holes that might present themselves. In a 2015 piece by ESPN’s Pablo Torre, The Process was explained thusly:
- A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but seven eggs are worth more.
- A penny stock saved is a penny stock earned.
- When the well is dry, we know the worth of the water.
Out of context, that sounds like a bunch of clichés and big words. But beneath the surface, there is a basic tenet:
Amass as many lottery tickets as possible. Win lottery.
The key to Hinkie’s genius was his inherent confidence in The Process. Philadelphia is an unforgiving sports town, and for a guy in his thirties to get his dream job (only to tank it) is amazing in it of itself. Hinkie could’ve tried to do what so many other GMs do- win now, get to the dance, flame out, rinse/repeat.
Hinkie took the long view. He knew he would get killed publicly. He knew he would be called a fraud, a charlatan. He knew the pillars of the league, the old guard if you will, would say he was ruining the game and a core fanbase of the league along with it.
Hinkie didn’t care.
He knew the lottery, at its core, involved a lot of luck. But unlike an actual lottery, there were a very finite amount of tickets available. First place didn’t always equal first prize. You could sway the odds a bit by being smarter than everyone else.
While many NBA front offices employ a skeleton crew of scouts and data heads, Hinkie had an army. He spent almost every week on the road, scouring gyms from Ankara to Aberdeen looking for talent. Age and experience weren’t what got you a job in Hinkie’s Army, it was all about what you brought to the table.
The way Hinkie saw it, people could ridicule him all they wanted, the better that opposing GMs might let their guard down when dealing with him. And in some cases, they did. Hinkie horse traded his way to Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric, Ben Simmons, and of course Joel Embiid. He built a surplus of draft picks to rival the Celtics’ Danny Ainge, if not exceeding him.
But before he was able to finally start cashing in his chips, before he was allowed to show the fans the fruits of his labor and their patience- ownership buckled. The years of barely-double digit wins had worn on season ticket sales, and fan confidence, and most importantly apathy had set in. Philadelphia fans are many things, but they are NOT apathetic.
The 2016-17 Sixers started the season 1-9, and it seemed like the new management was going to need some time to dig out from the hole that Hinkie’s Army had left. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Rocky Statue: Joel Embiid.
Embiid is a man whose talent is only eclipsed by his personality. Though on a minutes restriction due to his two year injury sabbatical, what fans saw from him when he was on the floor contained a boatload of talent and a pure joy for the game. Joel Embiid has morphed into the Pied Piper of The Process.
Here we sit in mid-January, and the Sixers have won 6 of 8. They stand a modest 14-26 in the Eastern Conference, 5 games out of the playoffs. The top pick in the draft, Ben Simmons, is on the verge of making his NBA debut, and Embiid continues to shine. Noel and Okafor are now perhaps trade pieces, to be moved for talent and/or future picks.
And oh those picks: The Sixers will have their own, likely lottery pick this year. They have the rights to swap with the Kings, who currently sit just 3 wins ahead of them. They own the Lakers’ pick next season, top three protected, and the Kings’ 2019 pick (unprotected). Their young core are all signed for next year, still on rookie deals.
They will have upwards of 60 million available under the cap next year, plus their core, plus their picks. There are no player options to worry about, only team options.
To say Hinkie rebuilt the Sixers is an understatement. They are now in one of the most enviable positions in the entire league. The future isn’t here, but you can see it coming.
Of course, this must all translate into wins, and as the Minnesota Timberwolves have shown- you can have all the “blue chip” talent you want, it doesn’t always show in the won-loss record.
Hinkie asked fans and ownership to trust The Process. They did for most of the journey, but just as they began to crest the mountain, everyone gave up on him. He deserved better. He deserves better. It’s quite possible in the coming year or two that public perception of Hinkie will do a full 180. He is on a non-compete with Philadelphia through the remainder of the season, a good bet would have him as a hot commodity come summertime.
At a local beanery in Palo Alto, I had finally cornered my quarry. White chocolate caramel macchiato was the order called, and a middle-aged man with short cropped hair went to grab the insulated to-go cup bearing his name, and as I stood at the door- Hinkie walked toward me.
“Sam! Its Dave, the guy who emailed you about an interview for an article I’m doing in Sacramento.”
Hinkie: “What are you, a stalker?”
Me: “Sort of. I have family down here, and I got a tip from a mutual friend of ours that sold you out. Said you have an unnatural addiction to this place.”
Hinkie: (laughs) “That’s very accurate. But listen, I can’t talk to you. There’s legal reasons. Not till this summer. Plus, I’m enjoying a little teaching on the side, and being around all this innovation. Getting me ready for the next chapter.”
Me: “Yeah, I was hoping you’d say that. I was wondering if that next chapter might be in Sacramento. Team spinning its wheels, limited assets, bleak future. Oh by the way, 90% of the ownership group are super-rich silicon valley computer freaks. Tell me that’s not attractive to you! Oh, and the California weather…”
Hinkie: “Can’t comment. I gotta go. Thank you for making the trip, and I’m sorry I couldn’t help you more. “
Me: “Can I get any sort of a quote? Would you even pick up if Vivek and Vlade called you?”
Hinkie: “My phone works. Phone rings, I pick up, I talk. They know how to reach me.”
And with that, he strolled down the street, his White Chocolate Caramel Macchiato in tow, heading to what I’m sure was a Very Important Meeting With Powerful Thinkers.
That’s when I knew. Hinkie could save my favorite team from itself. A perfect marriage just waiting to be consummated.
The ownership of the Kings are made up of, well, nerds. Rich nerds. Powerful nerds. Smart nerds. And nerds speak Nerd-ese.
Pete D’Alessandro was a nerd. But he was way too ambitious. The lawyer in him didn’t mesh with the open source vision the franchise espoused from the top.
Hinkie is the knight in shining armor this team has been waiting on. This isn’t a slight towards Divac, but he isn’t a nerd. He is a tremendous human being with the respect and admiration of his peers. He is a basketball operations president, someone who could oversee the players as a whole. Divac is a man better suited at speaking player language, getting talent to believe in Sacramento, to come here and trust The Process II. But Hinkie is the man to be the architect.
In the movie Jerry Maguire, Rod Tidwell told Tom Cruise’s Jerry “You are my ambassador of kwan…”
In Hinkie, Vivek Ranadive would finally have his ambassador of NBA 3.0. It’s all sitting there, waiting at a coffee shop in Palo Alto. Vivek could probably walk down the street from his house and run into him on any given weekday.
Hinkie and the Sacramento Kings were made for each other, and there’s just no other way to see it. It’s really only just a matter of time before it happens.