Sam Hinkie’s a half-ironic folk hero these days. Christian Clemenson as Che, Steve Jobs bracketed by six inches of scare quotes. Jerry and Bryan Colangelo running your show will make anyone nostalgic for their predecessors—imagine hiring for a difficult job in a highly competitive field and thinking the most qualified candidate... is my son—but a 7,000-word Lincoln-misquoting burst of eccentricity does not make an eccentric, and Hinkie’s approach to team construction wasn’t postmodern so much as it was cribbed from the mind of a 2K-addicted teen. Any hack with a third grader’s grasp of probability can enact a radical teardown: strip a team for parts and ride a bunch of fringe-professional twentysomethings to the top of the lottery. That Hinkie coated this approach in the veneer of next-level, data-driven strategery didn’t make it any more sophisticated. (Creating cap space can be a synonym for not signing good players.) He wasn’t the first person to think of it; he was just the first to get such a doozy of a mandate from ownership.
Even as a blunt polemic, Hinkie’s approach failed. He biffed most of those lotto selections, taking Michael Carter-Williams over Steven Adams and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jahlil Okafor over Kristaps Porzingis. (His 2014 draft is still tagged with a TBA because Joel Embiid and Dario Sarić have yet to play an NBA game.) Drafting is tricky and even the league’s best executives embarrass themselves from time to time, but more disconcerting than Hinkie’s blunders was the fact that most of his picks didn’t jibe with his purported philosophy. If the central tenet of The Process was the acquisition of young stars, why did Hinkie take polished prospects with defined ceilings instead of boom-or-bust freaks? No one knew for sure in 2013 if Giannis was going to become anything more than a ludicrous athlete who wasn’t quite a basketball player, but the Sixers had nothing to lose. Instead they took Carter-Williams, who turned 22 before the season started. Porzingis had moderate Dirk Nowitzki buzz, and Hinkie chose a back-to-the-basket sieve in Okafor.
It doesn’t take much, in sportsworld, to receive more credit than you deserve. Shane Battier has gotten a lot of mileage out of a senator’s smile and liking The Big Lebowski. Joe Maddon is treated like the Allen Ginsberg of baseball management because he’s a whit less crustily authoritarian than Buck Showalter. Connor Barwin’s interest in bands Pitchfork was lauding a decade ago—late-era Animal Collective is apparently “experimental psychedelia”—is met with delighted bafflement.
There’s some the dog can talk! condescension in this. The tone we take when discussing sports-folk who aren’t rock-dumb or don’t traffic exclusively in cliché is similar to the one we use to describe pornstars who read books and actors who namedrop Gloria Steinem. It’s a combination of surprise and overenthusiastic congratulation. It betrays that we expect them to be idiots with bad taste in the first place.
I guess we expect general managers and team presidents to be smarter than players and coaches—they are vaguely bookish men who deal with money, after all—but most of them are Bill Lumbergh-Norman Dale hybrids, alternating between bromide salad and ass-covering executive-ese. Half of them are incompetents, making mistakes not just at a granular level, but in terms of their overall approach. They overpay veterans, reach in the draft, hire mediocre retread coaches, and misunderstand basic team construction. They talk about how much the franchise will improve this year, its bright future, and we don’t believe them. What they’ve done definitely isn’t going to work. We’ve seen it not work tens of times before.
So when someone arrives announcing they’re going to take a novel approach that flatters the sensibilities of the NBA Reddit crowd and assemble an analytics team that includes literal neuroscientists and Navy SEALs—it floors some and at least piques the interest of others who have watched decades of Ernie Grunfeld and Billy King not switching their styles up despite repeated failure. There were skeptics when the Sixers hired Sam Hinkie, but most everyone agreed that he was—the lack of specificity is pointed here—up to stuff.
As it turned out, seeming like he was up to stuff was about all Hinkie was good at. He didn’t talk to the press, entrusting Brett Brown with articulating the organization’s vision. This was ostensibly because Brown is the superior communicator, but it also created a mystique. Hinkie was a distant figure throughout his Sixers tenure, frequently discussed but never spoken to. It wasn’t difficult to imagine him strung out in some NORAD base setup with garbled Matrix text dripping down hundreds of screens. He didn’t discourage the impression, anyway. That old chestnut about opening your mouth and removing all doubt that you’re a fool applies to geniuses too: if people think you might be one, don’t contradict them by talking. Hinkie made some decent trades, but the moves that burnished his legend were the inscrutable ones: what the hell was he planning to do with all those second-round picks?
The mystique evaporated as it became clear that Hinkie didn’t know what he was doing. It turns out it’s hard to develop young big men when you don’t sign anyone to get them the ball, and that building through the draft is, no matter how many MIT and Stanford grads you put on the task, not a science. As Hinkie’s errors piled up, he became more legible as a guy who was making himself seem important by making his job more complicated than it needed to be. He was, finally, just terrible at choosing which basketball players to hire. The league grew impatient with his hapless long game, pushed the Sixers to hire Jerry Colangelo, and Hinkie left the organization a few months later.
Bryan Colangelo has never been an impressive personnel man. He’s a known quantity with an extensive track record as one of those unexciting Lumbergh-Dales. He has Ben Simmons and a bunch of cap space and the consensus is he’ll probably, somewhere along the line, screw this project up in a way that’s familiar. He’ll trade lottery picks for some past-it star or spend too much on a Tyreke Evans type. If and when this happens, we’ll feel as if we’ve seen it coming, which will make it doubly aggravating.
What do we want from the people who run our sports teams? We want them to be great at everything, obviously—the aspects of the gig we understand and the unseen stuff we don’t—but beyond that, we want our anxieties assuaged. We want to know that things are being handled, that there’s a plan and several contingency plans, that there’s a capable group of advisers in place and they’re crunching numbers and watching tape and scouting Europe. But we want to be fooled, too. We want to think that if everyone involved makes the right decisions, their championship contention scheme will work. We want to believe all the chaos and luck that contributes to a title run can somehow be rendered irrelevant by competence. This isn’t possible, but we’re open to the illusion of it. Don’t R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich seem slightly supernatural?
In other words, Sam Hinkie got one thing right. He seemed, for a little while, like he might be able to control what’s beyond control. He sold Philadelphia an absurd promise, which is what they asked for. Now that we know who he is, he can never get that thing right again. And the Sixers have to reckon with reality, as if waking from a dream.
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