Sam Hinkie was under no illusions about what he was doing. He was going against the grain. It was going to make many people uncomfortable and ruffle plenty of feathers.
He didn’t care about all that. In fact, that was the point.
“The same 82 games are up for grabs every year for every team,” Hinkie wrote in his resignation later. “To get more wins, you’re going to have to take them from someone else. Wins are a zero-growth industry (how many of you regularly choose to invest in those?), and the only way up is to steal share from your competitors. You will have to do something different. You will have to be contrarian.”
There’s a cult-like community that views him as a deity and another sector of fans that believes he ran a Ponzi scheme.
We all heard the term “tanking” before, but he brought it to the mainstream. It was the dirty little secret in sports that we all knew about, but he warmly embraced. He became arguably the most polarizing figure in all of sports.
But what if the Sixers never hired Sam Hinkie?
Does the GM in his place have the guts to pull the trigger on trading away a freshly-minted All-Star in Jrue Holiday? Would they have the audacity to draft an injury-riddled big man named Joel Embiid? Would they stick to their guns — despite industry-wide scrutiny — for long enough to get the No. 1 overall pick in 2016?
It was May 16, 2016. Hinkie had resigned the month prior and Bryan Colangelo had taken over just four months after his father, Jerry, was hired as chairman of basketball operations. The Sixers were hosting a draft workout at PCOM which featured future first-round picks in Villanova’s Josh Hart and St. Joe’s DeAndre’ Bembry.
For as much as the assembled media were there to see the former Big 5 foes face off, something bigger was coming. After the players from that day were done working, Joel Embiid took the court.
To put this into context, Embiid was coming off his second missed season while dealing with a broken navicular bone in his right foot. He was almost mythical at that point. There were people that actually pondered if the charismatic Cameroonian would ever play an NBA game.
On that day, we got a glimpse of the player Hinkie had drafted.
Randomly skimming through old pictures on my phone. From May of 2016. At this point there were people who thought Joel Embiid might never play a game. pic.twitter.com/0n9YjydfyG— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) December 31, 2019
Embiid had developed the body of Dwight Howard with the skill of Hakeem Olajuwon. Watching him, you couldn’t help but think to yourself how special he had a chance to be. It made you think that maybe all of this was worth it.
Just a month later, with the No. 1 overall pick that Hinkie's strategy helped attain, the team selected Ben Simmons. The Sixers hadn’t had a truly special player since Allen Iverson. They now had two.
Some detractors of The Process said they didn’t have a problem with the tanking, just tanking for as long as the team did. In the grand scheme of things, they tanked for three years under Hinkie — and an additional year under Colangelo.
And that may be the most ironic part of all of this. Because they won 28 games after winning 10 the previous season, people forget that Colangelo adopted the same strategy. He wasn’t really trying to win in 2015-16. His big free-agent signings were Gerald Henderson, Jerryd Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez.
The reason they won 28 games is because Embiid finally played basketball. The reason they didn’t win more is that Simmons broke his foot.
Hinkie gambled with ping pong balls. In the cases of Embiid and Simmons — though not his draft pick but drafted because of his strategy — it paid off. In the cases of Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, it did not.
But, again, Hinkie knew it wasn’t a sure thing. Luck was required.
“The illusion of control is an opiate, though,” Hinkie wrote. “Nonetheless, it is annoyingly necessary to get comfortable with many grades of maybe. Sixers fans come up to me to say hello and many of them say the same thing (almost instinctively) as we part, ‘Good luck.’ My standard reply: ‘Thanks. We’ll need it.’”
There are those who argue that Hinkie never lost a trade. It’s a plausible argument. While Hinkie didn’t hit on every draft pick, he acquired more and increased his chances by creating a bit of his own luck.
Think back to the Sixers pre-Hinkie. In 2012-13, they just finished their third season under Doug Collins, who compiled a record of 110-120. Collins told Sixers fans to pray for Andrew Bynum’s knees while in actuality they were pleading for something better. Something different than the status quo.
The fact that it’s almost 2020 and people in Philadelphia can even mention the words “Sixers” and “NBA Finals” in the same sentence is proof The Process worked. If the Sixers don’t hire Hinkie, there’s a chance the status quo would’ve continued. Instead, the contrarian approach got them here.
Though he didn’t get to see it through, Hinkie played a huge part in delivering the most exciting era of Sixers basketball since Iverson.
It’s clear now that I won’t see the harvest of the seeds we planted. That’s OK. Life’s like that. Many of my NBA friends cautioned me against the kind of seed sowing that felt appropriate given the circumstances for exactly this reason. But this particular situation made it all the more necessary, though. Part of the reason to reject fear and plow on was exactly because fear had been the dominant motivator of the actions of too many for too long.
Not to say Hinkie was perfect. There were times when he went missing and Brett Brown was the one taking the heat from the press. Perhaps he could've been more front-facing, but was buried in his work instead.
When Jimmy Butler — a player acquired with assets Hinkie cultivated — was going through his saga in Minnesota, he quoted Harvey Dent, the character who would become the villain known as Two-Face in Christopher Nolan’s "The Dark Knight."
“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.”
In Hinkie’s case, both circumstances are kind of true. His strategy went on too long for some and he became the villain. To others, he’s a martyr who died for the sins of previous Sixers regimes.
Either way, Sam Hinkie laid the groundwork for where the Sixers are right now.
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