He Won’t Say It, But Sam Hinkie’s Rebuild Is Going Just Fine

Posted: 07/22/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

Over the last few years, the Philadelphia 76ers have been one of the most talked-about teams in the NBA. That has nothing to do with their record, which is 37-127 in the last two seasons. They’ve generated so much buzz because they have a GM, Sam Hinkie, who’s been willing to do what few leaders in sports do; try something different. We always hear about how “X” sports league is a copycat league, and that generally holds true across all of the major sports leagues. The Chicago Blackhawks started winning, and the emphasis shifted from big players to skilled players (that’s a little oversimplified, but that’s not the point). The Golden State Warriors had one of the most successful seasons of all time, and already we’ve heard about how teams are trying to get smaller and make their lineups more flexible. That’s why Hinkie’s plan, which has been to lose as many games as possible, is notable. It’s fair to say that, especially outside of the Philadelphia market, the general consensus has been that Hinkie is failing. People taunt and make fun of Sixers fans and write off the team’s hope of contending at any point. I know this from experience, and I often get tired of defending Hinkie. It’s pretty hard to defend something that’s borne no fruit (at least in terms of wins), right? Well, yes, but I’m attempting to do just that here.

The cynical and negative views of Hinkie’s rebuild is manyfold and was even before Joel Embiid’s re-injury. The main reason is probably that, in intentionally making his team worse, Hinkie’s going against the very fabric of professional sports. This isn’t to say that teams haven’t tanked before, because they have; it’s just that this tanking is much more obvious and seems set to go on for much longer. Since the very goal in sports is to win games, people don’t take kindly to the intentional losing, and they blame Hinkie personally, nevermind the fact that he’s not doing anything against the rules. This argument, though, only holds true if the real goal is to win any specific game. I don’t think that’s the case, and I think most sports fans would agree with me. The main goal for a GM is not to win as many games as possible in any given season but rather to give his team as much of a chance of winning a championship as possible. And there’s no reasonable way you could argue that the Sixers would have more of a chance of winning a championship in the future with a perennial eight seed than with a tanking team. Sure, what Hinkie’s doing isn’t ideal from the NBA’s standpoint, but he is doing what’s best for the team he inherited.

Another common sentiment among NBA fans is that, in convincing ownership that a long-term tank is necessary, Hinkie’s just buying time for himself. How can ownership fire a guy for losing when they hired him with the knowledge that he would be trying to lose? It’s undeniable that, at this moment, Hinkie has more job security than just about any other GM in basketball. But do you really think Hinkie’s trying to pull a fast one over the owners, thus buying him at least four years of good pay? He doesn’t seem like that kind of a guy to me. This dude works extremely hard, and it feels undeniable that he thinks he’s doing what’s right for the franchise. I don’t think the argument that he’s just trying to buy himself time holds much weight.

You know what happens when you have a really, really crappy team? Ratings go down. But the extent of the decline in Philadelphia viewers is pretty shocking. The team’s average TV viewership has dropped 72% since 2011 and is now at just 23,000 a game. Pair that with the worst attendance in basketball and you have a real problem and something that doubters can point to when they criticize the strategy. If even the hometown fans are losing hope, there’s no reason to “Trust the Process,” right? Well, no. As soon as the Sixers get good again, the ratings will go back up. The poor viewership numbers indicate that the team isn’t playing well, but we already knew that. I don’t think the bad ratings indicate that Hinkie’s strategy is a poor one, especially since the Sixers have been a profitable team even with the decreased attendance.

And then there’s Joel Embiid. This is the most common anti-Hinkie argument right now, for good reason. The Sixers drafted Embiid with the third pick in the 2014 draft with the knowledge that he’d probably have to sit out his first season with a broken foot. I doubt they anticipated that he’d re-break the foot and miss his second season, too. What are the chances that Embiid never plays? 35%? And even if he does play, how likely is it that he ever can play at full strength for an entire season, let alone multiple seasons? Getting a top-three pick wrong can set a franchise back years, and it could be that Hinkie got this pick wrong. Sixers fans hoping to see a Jahlil Okafor-Embiid combination should probably put those hopes on the back burner. It’s fine to criticize Hinkie for the Embiid pick, and I have done just that. I’m not one of the Hinkie lovers who supports every decision he makes. But the GM never said he’d be perfect, and his strategy specifically enables him to make a few mistakes like the Embiid one and still succeed in the end. Most teams only have one or two shots at a game-changing player; the Sixers are going to have many.

Let’s take a look at the Sixers’ major assets right now. Putting Embiid aside, they have Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, two very talented big men. They have Robert Covington and Tony Wroten, young, cheap players who have shown they can score points in bunches. They have Dario Saric, perhaps the best prospect currently playing in Europe. They have Nik Stauskas, the #8 pick in the draft a season ago. They don’t have any great guards, which is why many people were upset with the Okafor pick, but the guards will come. As for the pick situation? Well, Philly has its own picks as well as the Lakers’ top-three protected pick (a great pick), Miami’s first round pick, OKC’s first round pick, a future Sacramento first round pick, and the rights to swap picks with the Kings in one or both of the next two seasons. Pretty solid, especially since the team Hinkie inherited consisted of Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes, no extra picks, and a bunch of veterans. You’d rather have these assets than those, right?

Hinkie’s also proven himself as a great trader. The Stauskas trade, which netted the shooting guard, the Sacramento picks, and two overpaid big men in Carl Landry and Jason Thompson, was absolutely incredible since the Sixers traded nothing of value for the four assets (Stauskas, two pick swaps, one first round pick). That trade was universally lauded around the league. So to was the trade of Young and the trade for JaVale McGee, each of which netted a first round pick. And while fans hated it at first, the trade of Holiday for Noel and Saric was fantastic. The only move Hinkie’s made that is still at all controversial was the Michael Carter-Williams deal. The GM dealt MCW, one of his supposed cornerstones and the reigning ROY at the time, for a future first round pick. People hated the trade, because Hinkie dealt a known quantity (a decent player whose numbers were aided heavily by playing on a bad team) and fan favorite for an unknown asset. What if the Lakers win it all and the Sixers end up getting just the 30th pick for MCW? It was definitely a risky trade, but it’s also looking pretty darn good right now. Los Angeles whiffed on all the big free agents and could now finish with a pick in the 4-6 range. Every team in the NBA would trade MCW for a pick in the 4-6 range, and most would do it for a 7-10 overall pick. Hinkie makes risky moves, but that’s part of what makes him such a good GM.

The 76ers are going to be bad against this year. They might crack 20 wins for the first time in the Hinkie era, but they won’t win many more than that. The team doesn’t have a real point guard, and their supposed cornerstone will have missed the first two seasons of his career. Free agents won’t want to come to such a bad team, and the poor play will continue. But the Sixers have the current and future assets to make any trade they want within reason. The very second the next superstar becomes available in a trade (Kevin Durant, anyone?), the Sixers will become the favorites to get that star if they want him. And once they trade for that superstar, they’ll have plenty of cap room to sign one or two more and will supplement them with any combination of the guys they’ve already picked or will pick in the next few years. So stay hopeful, Sixers fans, and keep arguing with the doubters. The team is going to be fun to watch this year and good in not too long, and Sam Hinkie’s going to be the guy who brings success back to the 76ers after a long period in purgatory.

  1. dpcathena says:

    here’s hoping you and sam are right! not very pretty, but neither is getting knocked out in the first round of the playoffs every year.

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