If you’ve spent more than a few minutes listening to Philadelphia sports talk radio, there’s a good chance you’ve heard one of the area’s know-it-all airwave bullies trying their best to discredit the 76ers former general manager Sam Hinkie, the only way bullies know how: with mockery.
When Hinkie took the job three years ago, he recognized the writing on the wall. The Sixers, much like Artax in the Swamp of Sadness, were stuck. Too bad to compete for the title and too good to be in position to draft elite talent that could take them to the next level, something drastic needed to be done. Enter Sam Hinkie, proclaiming that the answer would not be for the faint of heart. Essentially, the Sixers needed to be bad, very bad, historically bad, sour milk poured into your mouth while you’re sleeping bad. Hinkie knew what needed to be done, and like Atreyu, he had to watch the Sixers sink beneath the blackness of the swamp. It was the only way they could accumulate assets and have a shot at elite talent in the draft.
Somehow, it isn’t hard to imagine that the NBA did not approve of one of their franchises, in one of the nation’s largest media markets, trying to lose games. Attendance fell off a cliff. Philadelphia was a black mark on the schedule for every other team in the league. The Sixers stopped appearing on TV nationally, but miraculously, ownership was onboard. Hell, even the fans were on board, in the beginning. I mean, this type of statistical analysis has been effective in baseball for years, we can swallow a few bad seasons, and watching a young team gel will be the fun of it. Sticking with the team meant you’d be in the ground floor of a dynasty.
Cue the Philadelphia media, particularly sports radio. It wasn’t long before their need for ratings and over-the-top analysis had them find a soft target in that of a team that was trying to be bad. Hinkie, the Stanford business grad who so embraced the idea of analytics in basketball, offered the perfect fall guy. They often characterized Hinkie as an antisocial shut-in who lived in his mother’s basement. In their eyes, he was the kind of archetype that spent his formative years playing Dungeons and Dragons. They painted a picture for local sports fans of Hinkie in a dark office with the curtains drawn running, simulations on a computer. Despite Hinkie’s efforts to appear on almost every one of their programs and hold press conferences to defend decisions, he was still looked upon as a geek, a pencil-pusher, someone who didn’t understand the collaborative process of decision-making. Despite his fleecing of every GM he made a deal with, the Dungeons and Dragons stigma persisted.
Hinkie’s moves have been chronicled, I won’t belabor them here. From drafting the future rookie of the year in 2013, only to trade him away after he won the award, to selecting an injured potential superstar, to selecting a player overseas who wouldn’t be available for a minimum of two years, Hinkie’s moves were often seen as stall tactics. There was a belief that there was no plan. It was all just wheel spinning. Because the Sixers saw no real progress in three years, faith in the plan began to waiver. Fans, the NBA, and the ownership got impatient, but as every good dungeon crawler knows, you don’t just run to the boss as quickly as you can. Sam was grinding for experience points.
Hinkie knew you can’t just LEROY JENKINS into the NBA Finals. To build a team that was going to compete for years to come, good players weren’t good enough. If a team was willing to give the Sixers draft picks and a shot at a great player, Hinkie was willing to part ways with the good ones, always favoring what he called “optionality.” This infuriated much of the fan base. Sadly, the other three pro-sports teams in the city didn’t provide much cover. Eventually, everyone grew weary of “The Plan.” Athletes got tired of being treated like bricks, wheat and wool on a Settlers of Catan game board, agents didn’t want to deal with a GM that was so overtly shrewd, and the NBA essentially forced Sixers ownership to take action. Once Joshua Harris announced Jerry Colangelo as Chairman of Basketball Operations, the writing was on the wall. It was only a matter of time before Hinkie was either let go or resigned. He chose the latter in the form of a thirteen-page manifesto, outlining the state of the team when he arrived and his motivations throughout his tenure. The most compelling portion accurately states that many many teams in the NBA would love to trade places with the Sixers, including a good amount of playoff teams. Would you rather be at .500 year after year, or come off this historically bad season with three first round draft picks, Joel Imbiid finally able to play, and Croatia’s Dario Saric coming stateside?
The million dollar question is left unanswered. Is Hinkie simply Death, Destroyer of Franchises, or could he have actually found his way out of this dungeon full of Wizards, Magic, Leprechauns, Minotaurs, and Cavaliers? His critics do have a point when they say he didn’t account for team chemistry. He didn’t account for the creation of a losing culture. He didn’t plan on his young players not having veteran leadership, but hey, when you roll the D20, it simply comes down to odds.
In this writer’s mind, if the Sixers do ascend to greatness, it’ll be attributed to the fortitude of Hinkie and his commitment to a process whose end was always in question. If they fail and return to the vicious cycle of mediocrity, we’ll always wonder if Hinkie, left alone to tinker in his laboratory, could have put together a questing party strong enough to bring a parade to Broad Street. Maybe it’s Hinkie who’ll be laughing as his mom brings his salisbury steak downstairs to his dark basement lair, because he knows, it’s the 76ers who crit-missed.