In Defense of Sam Hinkie, the Ultimate Sports Power Nerd

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Photo: Mitchell Leff

Do you remember how you felt on Election Night 2008? Did you feel like it wasn’t stupid to believe that a better world was possible? Did you feel like having the right leader in charge really would make a difference? Did you feel like, just this once, hope wasn’t a mirage? If so, the past eight years have probably beaten those feelings out of you. But I’m here to tell you it’s possible to feel that way again, because it’s the way I felt on Tuesday night — and all I had to do was follow an absolutely terrible basketball team for three years.

That team is the Philadelphia 76ers, and for the last three years they have been the most fascinating and controversial team in all of sports. The team won 47 games over the past three seasons, which works out to a winning percentage just shy of 20 percent. This past year, they won only 10 games, narrowly avoiding a tie for the record for the worst NBA season ever. The team lost all those games by being, at various times, bad at shooting, bad at passing, bad at rebounding, and bad at defense. Under weaknesses, you might write everything.

However, the Sixers did all this deliberately – brazenly, even – under the auspices of their recently departed GM, Sam Hinkie. Hinkie is the fallen prophet of Sixers fans: the man who set the team up for its hypothetically glorious future and paid the price for it, only to see his strategy vindicated now. He was also the ultimate avatar of the data revolution in sports and thus a power nerd who was widely hated by old-fashioned NBA types.

Fans dubbed Hinkie’s vision “the Process” – a phrase that has become widespread in sports generally, symbolizing a faith in following a coherent long-term strategy regardless of short-term results, and often mocked by old-timers who believe in a thing called “winning.” It involved exploiting the NBA’s draft system – in which the worst teams each year have the best chance of drafting that rare superstar who, more so than any other sport, is essential to winning a championship – by trading any useful players for future draft picks and fielding the most terrible team possible for multiple years.

Of course, this is Philadelphia, where there’s nothing like misery to bond a fan base together, and so the team has managed to amass a rabid cult following, of which I am a devoted member. On Tuesday, we came together for a pilgrimage to Xfinity Live, a glowing neon event space in South Philly, to celebrate our holiest of holidays, the NBA Draft Lottery. The Lottery is not the draft, which takes place about a month later; it’s a TV special where teams find out at what spots they’re going to draft, which puts it about two degrees away from actual sports. Despite this, thousands of people from 17 different states showed up to this year’s party: a crowd that was probably 80 percent male, 90 percent white, and 10 percent in fake jerseys with Sixers in-jokes.

The air was ripe with nervousness. It was the third year in a row that Sixers fandom had gathered en masse to pray that the team’s failures would be rewarded with the top lottery pick. Both previous years the team had ended the night with the third pick, neither of which had yet produced the obvious franchise-changing superstar we desired. Sports lends itself to paranoia even more than politics does, and at least one of us feared, deep down, that the team was being punished for its sins. Another third-place finish would mean missing out on Australian point-forward Ben Simmons and long-limbed Duke freshman Brandon Ingram, who stood head and shoulders above all other prospects (not literally; it’s basketball, they’re all tall). If that happened, mass suicide might have seemed the only appropriate response.

Like the Kentucky Derby, the Lottery is over almost as soon as it begins. NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum sped through the low picks, ending at four, the lowest the Sixers could drop. The Suns got it. We exhaled. Never have I experienced a more suspenseful commercial break. Would we get third again? No — the hated Celtics got it. Second? Nope — the even-more-hated Lakers got it. Thousands of voices erupted in joy. Strangers hugged each other, jumping up and down. I bit into a cheesesteak. For the first time in recent memory, the Sixers had enjoyed an unqualified victory.

Any bad team would celebrate winning the lottery. But for us, winning the top pick was the symbolic end of an era in which the Sixers have been not only bad, but also roundly despised. To understand why, you have to go back three years to the day Hinkie arrived. In a city whose sports conversation is dominated by the constant emotional psychodrama of the Philadelphia Eagles, Hinkie was a god-nerd for a certain breed of fan. He was calm. He was rational. Most important, he didn’t do stupid shit.

When Hinkie was hired in the summer of 2013, the Sixers had been mired in their post-Iverson malaise for nearly a decade, occasionally making the playoffs, but never a real contender. Hinkie arrived on the scene with a simple vision: the Process. His C.V. included a stint at Bain Capital, and the Process called for treating the Sixers like any other distressed corporation, stripping it of overvalued assets and rebuilding it with a roster of young players on cheap rookie contracts.

Veterans were traded for draft picks, which created savings in cap space, which the team used to take on bad contracts and get more draft picks. Sometimes, the players taken with these picks gained reputations that outstripped Hinkie’s appraisal of their talent, so they were traded in for even more draft picks. Other times, Hinkie used the long leash provided by his owners’ patience to pick players who were injured, or playing in Europe. With their best prospects sitting, playing abroad, or suiting up for other teams, the Sixers lost more games, thus insuring them better odds at getting even more prospects the next year.

Such intentional losing is not unique in the history of the NBA. In 2012, teams like the Charlotte Bobcats and New Orleans Hornets tanked their seasons for a shot at drafting Anthony Davis. That same year, the Golden State Warriors traded for an injured Andrew Bogut and shut down Steph Curry and David Lee so they’d lose enough games to keep their draft pick. Debates over how to reform the draft in order to disincentivize losing have become a hot NBA topic. What set Hinkie apart was his commitment — other teams would tank a single season, sure, but Hinkie was adamant that he would tank until tanking got him a player who could anchor a championship squad.

Those outside the fandom looked at this in disgust. Deadspin called him “a moron and a fraud.” After Hinkie shipped off two young players for picks, ESPN’s Bomani Jones called the Process “cold” and “unfeeling,” the kind of thing that “doesn’t feel human.” But those of us on the inside? We loved him for it. At its heart, the Process meant not having to follow the same rules as everyone else, because those rules were dumb. Is it any wonder that losers and outcasts and dorks and dreamers flocked to it? After all, part of the fun of being a sports fan in the internet age is playing imaginary general manager, dreaming up amazing trades, free-agency signings, and draft selections — in other words, treating real human athletes like Pokemon. In the Hinkie era, the actual basketball may have been atrocious, but the basketball in our heads was good as hell. Every year there was a new bunch of awesome freshmen we could draft, a superstar we could trade for, an injured center who was going to be amazing. The team might not have had a present, but it always had a future.

But every perpetual-motion machine eventually breaks down. The uncertainties of the draft lottery, combined with Hinkie’s desire to pick the best player available, no matter the fit, meant that the team ended up picking three traditional big men in a row, at a time when the league is increasingly playing only one, or even zero. One of them has sat out his first two years with a foot injury. The other two couldn’t play together; lineups that featured the fruits of all that tanking were manhandled on defense and crowded on offense. There were personal fiascos that suggested maybe all these very young players would benefit from some older heads on the team. Agents purportedly hated the Sixers because they refused to sign veteran players to overpriced contracts. So did other teams, because the lower attendance at Sixers games cut into their profits.

Each season in the Hinkie era ended worse than the one before. Midway through last year, with the team setting the record for most consecutive losses to begin a season, the league pressured ownership to bring in 76-year-old basketball legend Jerry Colangelo as chairman of basketball operations. Colangelo’s first order of business was to trade two second-round picks for a journeyman point guard, as un-Process a move as ever there could be. His second, it seems, was to begin pushing Hinkie out the door in order to create an opening for the franchise to hire his son. It worked — after learning last month he would be effectively demoted in favor of Bryan Colangelo, Hinkie resigned, announcing his departure in a 13-page letter that referenced the investment strategies of Warren Buffett, an apocryphal Abraham Lincoln quote, and the moa, a flightless bird that once roamed New Zealand.

That Hinkie was gone hurt; that he had been pushed out in such a comically snakelike manner stung. The month after his departure saw the battle over his legacy begin: Local beat writers raised a hallelujah, while “smart sports fan” opinion solidified around Spike Friedman’s take, “Sam Hinkie was bad not because tanking is bad, but because he did it badly.”

And yet, almost immediately, the seeds that Hinkie had planted began to bear fruit. Joel Embiid, that injured center, weathered a Shirley Temple scandal, and is apparently in “fantastic” health. Daario Saric, who played his first two years in Turkey, has reportedly told his teammates he’s coming to the Sixers this summer. Besides the No. 1 pick, the Sixers also have two more first-round picks in this year’s draft; next year, they’ll have the Lakers’ pick (top-three protected) and the rights to swap with the Kings, in what everyone on the message boards says is a stacked draft. None of these players may lead the Sixers to a championship, just like Obama didn’t lead America to a paradise of social democracy. But the team is better positioned for the future than any other in the past decade. It’s just a shame that Hinkie won’t be around for the fun part of finally building a winner.

If you asked Hinkie if Tuesday’s news vindicated the Process, he’d probably say that the lottery is pure chance and thus incapable of vindicating anything. He’d say that, and we’d love him for it, and go back to feeling vindicated all the same.