When Sam Hinkie resigned as the Philadelphia 76ers General Manager April 2016, it was the end of an era and of one of the most fascinating rebuilds in professional sports history. Hinkie took the Philadelphia 76ers and the NBA and proceeded to flip them on their heads. He exploited the rules of the NBA draft to set the Sixers up for success and never wavered from his conviction that what he was doing was the best way to rebuild in Philadelphia. In fact, even after Hinkie resigned, the 76ers organization still seemed to appreciate what Hinkie’s ethos of team building was.
However, “The Process” as Philly fans dubbed it, reached its conclusion in June 2017. That was the draft where the Boston Celtics held the #1 overall pick and Philadelphia the #3 overall pick. Philadelphia was so set in their assessment of Markelle Fultz that they drastically overpaid the Celtics for the #1 selection; the Celtics received the 3rd overall pick as well as the better of Philly’s or Sacremento’s 2019 picks — top 1 protected. As of today, it looks as if that pick will be the Kings to lose and that it will be a fairly high selection.
Regardless of how that 2019 pick conveys to the Celtics, the move the Sixers made represents an organizational change. Hinkie was against trading; he preferred to acquire as many draft picks as possible to have as many shots as possible of landing a franchise-altering player. Hinkie also refused to draft for need and never limited the number of players he had at one position, most notably with his continuous selections of big men high in the draft. Joel Embiid was taken 3rd overall in 2014 and Jahlil Okafor was taken 3rd overall in 2015 along with Richaun Holmes (second-rounder) to join Nerlens Noel, an acquisition via trade.
Instead, the recently departed Bryan Colangelo traded up two spots to draft a point guard. Now (in hindsight of course), there are a couple of reasons why that move looked potentially foolish at the time and even more so now. First, there was already a very good chance Fultz was going to be available for the Sixers at 3. If he wasn’t though, Jayson Tatum would have likely been the next selection. Philly may not have been perfect for Tatum the way Boston was as a rookie, but it would have been close. Adding Tatum to a frontcourt of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid (and Robert Covington) would have given the Sixers one of the most switchable defenses in the entire NBA.
Second, point guards come a dime a dozen in the NBA. There are so many starting level point guards available through trades, free agency, or the draft that drafting one at #1 is a move you only make if you are certain he’s a transcendent guard. Unfortunately for the Sixers, Fultz wasn’t 2017’s transcendent guard (it was Donovan Mitchell). For example, among the crop of free agent guards, players like Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, Rajan Rondo, Shane Larkin, Fred VanVleet, JJ Redick, Zach LaVine, Marco Belinelli and Will Barton are all available. None of these guys are superstars (maybe IT if he gets healthy, but I doubt it) and that’s okay. Players like the ones mentioned will suffice as a secondary ball-handler behind Ben Simmons. Their skillset is much more replaceable and shareable than that of a 3-and-D forward who can defend and shoot and ball handle at the highest levels at just 20 years old like Tatum can.
Now, while the 2017 draft seemed to signal a retreat from Hinkie’s process, the Sixers’ GM at the time was Bryan Colangelo who recently resigned from his position as GM following investigations into five Twitter accounts that were allegedly run by his wife. Since his resignation, Coach Brett Brown has been managing basketball operations and was in-charge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ draft night.
Brown was hired by Hinkie in August 2013 and has remained Philadelphia’s head coach ever since. It looks as if Hinkie’s ideas rubbed off on him because on draft night, the Sixers traded Mikal Bridges, a plug-and-play type SF, for Zhaire Smith, more of a high-upside/developmental type player, and an unprotected first round pick. It’s a move that provides Philly with depth, talent, and future assets; three things that all NBA teams covet. In the wake of this move, Brown and the Sixers have been praised for a return to their former ideals to acquire more talent than ever.
While employed by Philadelphia, Hinkie rarely communicated his plan to the media at large and was often criticized for it. However, upon his resignation, ESPN obtained a copy of his resignation letter. For me, it was a letter that was eye-opening in a lot of ways. The ways that Hinkie talked about “The Process” and what he was trying to accomplish in Philadelphia struck me as significantly different from the average NBA team.
Most NBA teams define a successful or failed season by some sort of arbitrary method, whether it be a championship, making the playoffs, advancing to the second or third round, or winning X games. Hinkie wrote that you have to “divorce process from outcome. You can be right for the wrong reasons…You can be wrong for the right reasons.” That’s a thought process and ideology most people, not even just in sports, have trouble adhering to. Either we win or we lose. Either we succeed or we fail. There’s no consideration for the things that we are unable to control.
In sports or business, it is a little bit different because there are actual marks you need to hit to be successful. A team HAS to win games to win a championship because championships are the reason for sports. A business HAS to profit, otherwise that business isn’t in business for much longer. So sometimes it is better to be lucky, rather than right, but, in the long run, being right will lead to more success than being lucky.
What we can control, however, is our own actions and, in the case of GM/CEO/etc., those that work in our organization. To be truly successful in Philly, Hinkie believed that the needed to be “very often be willing to do something different from the herd.” And he’s right. That’s how Golden State spurred their run of 3 titles in 4 years (well, that and Kevin Durant). Given an NBA-altering talent in Steph Curry, the Warriors let him do what he does best, shoot, rather than try to force into an inside-out scheme. To do so, Golden State required a buy-in from the entire organization and had to find a coach (Steve Kerr) who was willing to adapt and experiment. As we’ve seen, it worked.
In this era of NBA ‘super-teams’, Stephen Curry wouldn’t have been able to shoot the Warriors to a title all on his own. Every superstar needs help. For the Warriors, that help comes from Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Thompson is the NBA’s second-best shooter and Draymond is unselfish and excels as a distributor and rebounder. Even so, Klay and Draymond were acquired three and two years before the Warriors won their first title.
Replicating exactly what the Warriors have done is nigh-impossible because of a few lucky breaks that came at the right time for them. But, as Hinkie exploited, there is a financially-responsible way to acquire multiple superstars.
With Hinkie in charge, the Philadelphia 76ers endured one of the worst 3 year stretches in NBA history. They traded away anyone who might bring back a decent return and proceeded to lose games at a prodigious rate. For Hinkie, given the Sixers’ status when he arrived (34–48 in 2012–2013 and getting worse), such tactics were a no-brainer because he was maximizing the odds of landing star players in all three avenues of player acquisition. Personally, I think that every team tries to do that; gather star players I mean, but so few actually go all in and do it to the extreme because they are fearful of the potential backlash from the media and their fans.
When you have a lot of draft picks and young, talented players on cheap contracts, you have “assets.” And, in the NBA, if you don’t have star players, you want to have assets because that’s how you get stars. Path 1: You draft the stars. Path 1 still requires a sound process of evaluating players and a strong player development group. Path 2: Trade a bundle of assets for an already proven superstar. Or Path 3: Entice a free agent to sign because of the favorable situation.
Paths 2 and 3, while frequently floated on Twitter (ahem, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George at the moment), have been pretty rare, but are becoming more frequent as George, Chris Paul, and Kyrie Irving have successfully forced trades and Kawhi is trying. And there is rarely a player of the caliber of Kevin Durant or LeBron James that hits free agency.
Which is where Path 1 comes in. I knew about the philosophy of acquiring assets. It’s not a foreign idea to sports; it’s just wasn’t a commonly used philosophy (it is now). What I didn’t realize was how valuable second-round draft picks can be when used in the right way.
For a time, Philly had so many draft picks, especially in the second round, that they couldn’t draft players to their 15 man roster because they didn’t have the roster space. To solve this issue, acquire more talent, and avoid throwing away chances at drafting a star, Philadelphia started drafting the rights to various European players. Hinkie stated that these kinds of players “can develop under our guidance while not counting against our roster.” In retrospect, it seems so simple. Dario Saric to the Sixers, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to the Spurs, Kristaps Porzingis to the Knicks, and Luka Doncic to the Mavericks. All players who succeeded at the world and international stages as young, college-aged players against far stiffer competition. There is value and talent there.
Of course, for the mainstream media and average fan, it’s impossible to keep up with European or Asian or African basketball. I think that’s why most fans don’t like foreign draftees; they just don’t know anything about them. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t any good. It just means that we don’t know how good they might be.
That’s the biggest lesson I learned from re-reading Hinkie’s letter of resignation and taking a look back at all the trades and moves he made as Philadelphia’s GM. Take as many shots as possible at acquiring a star and look in unconventional places for them.