Prior to Parks and Recreation’s Ben Wyatt becoming a state auditor and later marrying Leslie Knope, Wyatt was the 18-year-old mayor of Partridge, Minnesota. Eventually, he was impeached from office after his winter sports complex, known as Ice-Town, bankrupted the entire town.
Philadelphia 76ers’ General Manager Sam Hinkie is the NBA’s equivalent of Ben Wyatt, except for the fact that Hinkie is still left to run the franchise in the midst of one of the most obvious tanking campaigns the NBA has ever seen.
The 36-year-old Hinkie is widely lauded as one of the brighter minds in the NBA. For eight years, he served as assistant GM under Houston’s Darryl Morey, spearheading scouting efforts, assisting in the orchestration of the James Harden trade, and utilizing all the salary cap loopholes to sign Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to similar contracts back in 2012.
From the beginning of his tenure in Philadelphia, Hinkie has acknowledged his strategy is a long-term rebuild of the 76ers’ franchise. It’s not the “quick fix” strategy, or the “remaining good while rebuilding” strategy so common in the NBA. In just one season, Hinkie has completely decimated this Philadelphia roster, while stockpiling draft picks and young talent. In Hinkie’s first season as GM, the 76ers finished 19-63 and featured a 26-game losing streak.
One could argue Hinkie is simply playing within the parameters of what the NBA allows and even incentivizes to a certain extent. To me, it feels like an easy way out. It’s much more embarrassing to try to stay competitive and fail (David Kahn) than it is to tank for a chance to be competitive in the future and never succeed. It’s a slap in the face to those in charge of the NBA, its players, and, most importantly, its fans.
Obviously, my opinion is directly derived from my belief that “tanking,” or deliberately being bad for the sake of having better draft picks for the future, is terrible for the NBA. There should be no place for losing on purpose in the NBA.
When I use the phrase “losing on purpose,” obviously I don’t mean the players are throwing the games or the coaches are intentionally trying to lose. I’m sure that’s happened before, but I’m referring to the front office strategy of “losing on purpose” by gutting the team completely and trotting out a lineup that has no chance of winning the game. That’s exactly what Hinkie and the 76ers have been doing since he took over.
Major trades Hinkie has made:
- June 27, 2013: Jrue Holiday and Pierre Jackson to the New Orleans Hornets for Nerlens Noel and 2014 first-round pick (Elfrid Payton)
This is the only trade Hinkie has made for the immediate improvement of the 76ers in mind. By immediate, I mean within a year or two. Noel has always been a stud, and the only reason he dropped to the sixth pick in the draft was because he had an injured knee. Holiday was a middle-of-the-pack point guard who was always going to be a middle-of-the-pack point guard. Hinkie worked the Hornets’ GM Dell Demps on this deal. The trade should have been blocked by the NBA because of Demps’ pure stupidity.
- February 20, 2014: Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen to the Indiana Pacers for Danny Granger and a 2015 second-round pick.
Because Granger was an expiring contract, Hinkie bought out Granger’s contract, which basically meant Granger got paid, didn’t have to play for the terrible 76ers, and was free to sign with the team of his choice. At the time, Turner was going to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season with an $8.7 million qualifying offer, something Hinkie would not pay. Basically, they were able to give up Turner and Allen to clear cap space and add a second-round pick.
- February 20, 2014: Spencer Hawes to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Earl Clark and two second-round picks
Like Turner, Hawes was also in the final year of his contract, so Hinkie was trying to get something of value in return for Hawes’ departure at the end of the season. Hinkie waived Clark one day after the trade. Starting to see a trend yet?
- June 27, 2014: No.10 pick Elfrid Payton to the Orlando Magic for No. 12 pick Dario Saric, 2015 second-round pick, a protected 2017 first-round pick
The 2017 first-round pick was Philadelphia’s protected pick from the Dwight Howard trade, and it held no real value anyway, according to this piece from the Orlando Sentinel.
- August 23, 2014: Thaddeus Young and $6.3 million trade exception to the Minnesota Timberwolves for a 2015 first-round pick (from Cleveland), Alexey Shved, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (Kevin Love also went to Cleveland in this three-team trade)
Overall, Young was not part of the 76ers’ future, and he was their biggest piece of the salary cap pie with a $9.4 million contract this season and a player option next season. This trade was all about the 2015 first-round pick, which likely end up at the backend of the draft, as it came from Cleveland. Shved and Mbah a Moute are also expiring contracts at the end of next season, so Philadelphia is also clearing cap space in this deal.
- August 26, 2014: Trade exception and protected 2015 second-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Hasheem Thabeet and cash
Thabeet was waived immediately after the trade, which is sad because he’s apparently a really good dude, and the 76ers could have used him to lose a few more games in 2015. The NBA is a money game, and Hinkie knows it’s all about the salary cap. This move was just a cap move for both teams.
For those keeping track at home, Hinkie has traded established NBA players (Holiday, Turner, Allen, Hawes, and Young) for Mbah a Moute, Shved, Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric (an international who won’t play in the NBA for at least two seasons), and other young players and future draft picks. It’s completely possible none of these young players and draft picks will ever be as good as the players Hinkie traded away. That might be a little bit of a stretch simply because all those players aren’t that good, but Hawes, Young, and Holiday are at least average or slightly above average at their position. Who knows if any of these young players ever will be? That’s the tragedy in Hinkie’s strategy.
Of course, Hinkie should get some credit. He was able to get draft picks and some role players in return for his own expiring contracts. Instead of letting the contracts run out, Hinkie flipped those players for draft picks and role players. It’s a smart play.
There’s no doubt Hinkie is a really smart, as his work in Houston has proven. I simply have a problem with his strategy for building this team.
In the lowly Eastern Conference, a lineup of Holiday, Turner, Young, Hawes, and a couple decent, cheap role players would not be a bad team. In fact, it’s probably a fringe playoff team. Hinkie’s old team, the Houston Rockets, have proven there’s a way to rebuild in the NBA without completely deconstructing a roster and putting a new own together. The Atlanta Hawks are another example. In most cases, though, based on how the NBA draft is set up right now, there’s no reward for being an average team in the NBA, and Hinkie knows that.
With Hinkie, Philadelphia has been a garbage dump for teams looking to get rid of players. Hinkie is always looking for draft picks and cap space to give himself and the 76ers cap space in the future, so he’s always willing to take expiring contracts or low paid guys to buy out their contract or waive them. My question for Hinkie is when does this cycle stop?
In recent memory, even the best players don’t dominate as rookies, or sometimes not even second or third seasons. Want proof?
Kobe Bryant’s first three years in the league:
LeBron James’ first three years in the league:
Kevin Durant’s first three years in the league:
It takes time to be good in the NBA. How long does Hinkie wait with Noel, Embiid, Michael Carter-Williams, or other young players? There have already been trade rumors about Carter-Williams. He was the NBA’s 2013 Rookie of the Year. What more does he have to do to prove his worth to the team?
By all indications, though, Hinkie is a great guy and in for the long haul in Philadelphia. Maybe, it’s just coincidence that the strategy he’s using is the exact strategy everyone would use if they were trying to increase the longevity of the GM’s job:
Make the job last as long as possible by calling it “rebuilding.” Then, destroy the roster so the team hits rock bottom and it can’t possibly get any worse. At that point, start trying to build a team from scratch.
At a minimum, Hinkie will be in Philadelphia four, five, even six seasons before the 76ers’ ownership group could even considering firing him. That’s how long it will take the young players and draft picks to develop.
There is no such thing as a coincidence in these circumstances, especially with a guy that’s always calculating, always looking to get ahead like Hinkie. People don’t get as far as Hinkie has this early in life without calculating every decision along the way. I’m sure Hinkie has a vision for what the team is going to be, but it might take a really long time to get there. We’ll see if they ever get there. Isn’t that right, Coolio?
I’m far from the first person to make this observation. Everyone around the league, players, executives, writers, bloggers, and fans, know what Hinkie is doing, and it just sucks for the NBA. Tanking sucks for all parties involved. There’s no other way to put it.
I feel like I’m coming off very privileged in my analysis, so let me put it in perspective:
Hinkie running Philadelphia into the ground for the possibility of being good later is not the end of the world. Hinkie isn’t giving Sauron the ring of power here. He’s not killing Harry Potter for Lord Voldemort. Hinkie is not Dr. Evil, trying to destroy the world with a giant laser.
Plain and simple, Hinkie’s strategy is diluting the NBA product as a whole. No one wants to watch the Philadelphia 76ers play next season, and that hurts the NBA and its fans.
What’s the real goal in all of this tanking anyway? Is it to win a championship?
In closing, I’d like you to think about this question:
Would you rather have your favorite team be competitive for ten years trying to win a championship, but not win a championship in the end,
Would you rather have your favorite team be terrible for five years, decent for two years, and possibly compete for a championship for three years?
I think the answer is obvious.