Sam Hinkie’s 13-page resignation letter reads like the ramblings of cult leader. An erudite, persuasive cult leader who is a true believer in his personal brand of delusion, but a cult leader none the less.
He uses ridiculous phrases like “the illusion of control is an opiate,” “in this league, the long view picks at the lock of mediocrity,” and “she … now is a regular Slack wizard along with much of our staff [who] has seamlessly plugged into one productivity hack after another.”
He includes this quote, from physicist Max Plank, into a letter about basketball: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.”
He conjures up metaphors about IBM’s potentially world-changing artificial intelligence, Watson, as if that has any relation to his job hiring people to win basketball games. He compares himself to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, a man who saw the future of commerce before almost anyone and acted upon that in a scalable way better than anyone. He uses Silicon Valley buzzword jargon like “disruptive innovation,” a concept best summed up by how Uber blindsided the taxi industry or Napster upended the way music had been sold for generations.
He conflates these types of society-altering innovations with his horse-shit approach to win a title not by being a good basketball for a few years.
He is dressing up a dumb, counter-to-competition philosophy as some magical foresight. No. This isn’t innovative. It’s daring disregard for a league and a city with a long-standing tradition of playing good basketball.
Hinkie’s revelation on how to get good players was not some Moneyball-level insight that showed a deeper understanding of how points can be scored and games can be won. It was capitalizing on something that everybody knows — high draft picks tend to yield good players — and finding a loophole in the draft that would allow him to collect more of those players than his team deserves to obtain.
That’s it. It’s bullshit.
It might have the potential to work. That doesn’t make it any better.
Trying to win a title like the Sixers have been is like trying to take a girl home by being a “pickup artist.” It is gross even if it works — especially if it works.
There is no innovation here. This is an obvious-but-distasteful attempt at success by doing something others won’t. This is selling unscrupulous annuities to grandmothers. The only real accomplishment is convincing a group of rich billionaires that embarrassing themselves for years and years by being the owners of a team that is unwatchable garbage, just in order to game the draft system, would be worth a title.
This innovation that Hinkie talks about is so egregiously against the spirit of competition and so exploits the actual reason for the draft order that, even if Hinkie ever led the 76ers to a title, the NBA would end up altering the rules so that it couldn’t happen again.
The owners have already talked about draft lottery reform to avoid this once-unforeseen reality of a team willingly throwing away several seasons. The worst teams have historically been given the first pick (or the best chance to have the first pick) because they need assistance. That is the spirit of the order. And the expectation is that the team will try to win and be better once it gets a talent infusion.
All Hinkie has done is say, wait a minute, what if we buck that trend and just keep losing and losing and losing until we have so much talent that we never have to do anything else well? It’s hard to build a good team, so let’s just exploit the draft order for so long that we cannot not be good.
This is a late-night barstool thought that should reveal itself as stupid the minute you wake up with a hangover. But it didn’t. Somehow. And he convinced billionaires that a title, which was always unlikely even with the best results of the dumb strategy, would be worth it.
In fairness, Hinkie’s plan could have gone better. Nerlens Noel, and even Michael Carter-Williams, could have been better. Joel Embiid could have returned sooner and been a star. Jahlil Okafor could have been more mature, had some competent guards who could get him the ball, and not torn his meniscus. The team could have dipped into the abyss for a shorter time and came out stronger.
But it hasn’t. The team probably has no superstars. It has almost nothing to show for three years of nonsense.
And that is because Hinkie’s biggest failing is the lengths he was willing to go to extend the conveyor belt of top picks. Two top-11 picks weren’t enough. Neither was a top three pick. Then neither was another top three pick. Rather than draft healthy players whose talent would bolster the team’s win total in the following season, he chose to draft injured players he knew wouldn’t alter the short-term dedication to losing.
Hinkie will say — and he does in his 13-page letter — that he believed Joel Embiid was simply the best player on the draft board. He may have had similar thoughts about Nerlens Noel being the best player available. But I cannot believe that their injuries — and what their inability to play right away meant for maintaining the necessary losing — did not factor into his decision making to select them.
What could be better than securing the services of a player who might be a five- or 10-time All-Star? Securing such a talent who would join the team not now, and thus improve the short-term win total, but down the line.
The obsession to not compete in the near-term was so pervasive that it made thinking, “Let’s draft big men with known, high-risk leg injuries,” into what Hinkie might describe in his language of bullshit as “competitive advantage.”
That isn’t innovation. It’s delusion. It’s looking a huge risk in the face and ignoring it because you have too much faith in your plan.
Then came the human element. Joel Embiid reportedly has not taken his rehab work seriously. I cannot pretend to understand his motivations or reasoning for this. Rehab sucks. Plenty of people don’t like doing it, and there could be dozens of physical or psychological reasons for Embiid’s setbacks, which have prevented him from playing even one NBA minute. Regardless, I choose to think that watching what was happening around him played some role. Being forced into an organizational approach that is both hard to understand or respect is rarely motivating.
Hinkie broaches the necessity of sacrifice towards the organizational mission himself in his TL:DR letter. “There is so much about projecting players that we still capture best by seeing it in person and sharing (and debating) those observations with our colleagues,” he writes. “What kind of teammate is he? How does he play under pressure? How broken is his shot? Can he fight over a screen? Does he respond to coaching? How hard will he work to improve? And maybe the key one: will he sacrifice—his minutes, his touches, his shots, his energy, his body—for the ultimate team game that rewards sacrifice?”
Players sacrifice for something that seems worth sacrificing for. Nobody is going to compromise their body, pride, and on-court expectations for an organization that, really, does not deserve it. Players aren’t dumb. They know you are signing guys who don’t belong in the NBA, on the cheap, in order to not hand out long-term salaries. They know their teammates are not good. They are not going to sacrifice in this environment. So you are fostering a toxic culture that you cannot change overnight once the prodigal Hall of Famer you plan to draft shows up.
Tied into this misguided understanding of the human element of success within a team sport is also an incredibly cynical view of player development.
Hinkie’s is a view in which only top picks can become great players. It is a view that teams cannot be successful without number-one picks.
Counterpoint: Nearly half — 11 of 26 — of this year’s All-Stars were drafted with the 9th pick or later. Five players, or more than 20% of the All-Stars, came after the 23rd pick.
Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard will finish near the top of the MVP voting. These were not overwhelming talents in college. They were excellent players who joined top-rate organizations that include teaching, team-building, and winning as organizational ethics. There is no way to prove it, but I doubt either one would have developed into the great players they have become in an organization that is trying to lose basketball games.
I could go on.
But I won’t. You don’t need to read 13 pages of metaphors and business-book jargon explaining this perspective. This column isn’t particularly original or disruptive. It doesn’t have much to do with physics or innovation. I’m not working towards the next Watson here.
And neither was Sam Hinkie.
Power Rankings: Aint No Love in the Heart of the City
Some players don’t like some places. That shouldn’t come as a surprise in a league of more than 400 people with diverse upbringings and tastes. But the entertaining part is when players stop being polite and start getting real.
Kevin Durant recently let some steam off while discussing the, in his eyes, overly enthusiastic celebratory antics of his former teammate Reggie Jackson, who is now persona non grata in the Thunder locker room. Jackson felt under-appreciated in Oklahoma before getting traded to the Pistons, and was thrilled when his squad beat the Durant-led team last week.
The more-outspoken Russell Westbrook had been the one to throw more jabs in the press, but Durant tossed some grenades after the loss. And while it may have been unintentional, the whole city of Detroit took some shrapnel.
So it’s on the list. Which list? This one, of the top NBA city disses in recent memory.
Barkley vs. San Antonio
Charles Barkley went to war with San Antonio in 2014, which was interesting because the Spurs are generally his favorite team to watch in the NBA. This didn’t stop him from calling the city’s famed River Walk a “dirty little creek,” however. Things got the most heated when, with a typical misogynistic bent, he mocked the overweight women of San Antonio.
Who Cares About Detroit?
Kevin Durant is not nice. In responding to questions about why his coach sat him out against the Pistons, he said that “I wanted to play against Detroit, for sure, but you know, it’s Detroit. Who cares about Detroit?”
While the larger talk surrounded Durant’s comments on former teammate Reggie Jackson’s “bush league” celebrations, Stanley Johnson of the Pistons took offense to Durant’s comments about the team saying the remarks were “uncalled for.” Johnson also noted that “No one is scared of playing against him on this side of town. Next year we have two games scheduled, and I know, for me, it’s circled on my schedule from now on.”
What’s So Good About Cleveland?
Joakim Noah, former and still heavyweight city-hater champ, might never lose the crown.
Words With Friends
This week’s five must-read articles about the NBA. Excerpts here — click through to read the full piece.
1. How the Warriors discovered the cheat code to basketball in the 2015 NBA Finals
by Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN
“I’d been trapped all season,” Curry says. “But in the Finals, everything is amplified.” The pressure of two defenders feels like four, and a pass Curry has made a gazillion times feels like hurling a whiffle ball against a headwind across San Francisco Bay. All night, the Cavs’ assault persists, Dellavedova getting into him one-on-one, two Cavs defenders committing every time the Warriors send a pick for Curry. When the Warriors offer him a double screen up top, the Cavs commit three to Steph Patrol. This is what traffic geeks know as the Iron Law of Congestion — build more space for vehicles and traffic will actually increase. The more lanes the Dubs try to carve out for Steph, the more Cavaliers fill them.
2. The Portland Jail Blazers: An Appreciation
by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, Deadspin
This was the era of the Portland “Jail Blazers,” and to some, it was a despicable epoch. To me, though, that time was audacious, glorious. (Not least because I lived there at the time, and they eventually became so reviled that the Rose Garden was practically paying us to attend the games. You could get decent seats for, like, 10 bucks!) It was also a distillation of one of the worst parts of America, when an almost entirely white city (statistically the whitest city in America, it turns out) turned against a team almost the moment it fell off its winning streak, eventually reviling them as arrogant rule-breakers—which no doubt made them more defiant and prone to breaking the rules.
3. Behind the Lens with Boris Diaw: Filmmaker, Adventure Traveler and Future Space Explorer
by Jared Zwerling, NBPA
Boris Diaw has a future plan that goes way above and beyond, literally, anything a professional athlete has ever thought of doing in retirement. “I will go to space at some point,” the Spurs’ veteran forward tells the NBPA in his office at his Shavano Park home, located in northwest San Antonio. “I won’t say in the next 10 years, but maybe in 30.” … Since the end of his rookie season in 2004, Diaw has been on different safaris in Africa every summer, weaving through the wild nature of Botswana, Tanzania and South Africa (his favorite is Kruger National Park), and once to India. His favorite animals are the big cats and hippos, which he compares himself to on the court. “I play strong and I’m big,” he says. “[A hippo] looks nice, but it’s the most dangerous of the African animals and the one that kills the most people every year.”
4. Charles Barkley Wants NBA to Pull 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte
by Travis Durkee, The Sporting News
“As a black person, I’m against any form of discrimination, against whites, Hispanics, gays, lesbians, however you want to phrase it,” Barkley said during an interview with CNN. “It’s my job, with the position of power that I’m in and being able to be on television, I’m supposed to stand up for the people who can’t stand up for themselves. So I think the NBA should move the All-Star Game from Charlotte.”
5. No surprise: Portland Trail Blazers surge toward NBA playoffs in unexpected season
by Mike Richman, Oregon Live
“When I saw just our personnel … in pick up games (in September) I saw what guys could bring to the table when they were at their best or when they were comfortable,” Lillard said. “I said, ‘If it all comes together the right way, we could be fine. We could be pretty good.'” That’s why the newly minted franchise cornerstone said he thought the Blazers would be a playoff contender at media day. A claim which most dismissed as the type of bravado coming from every team entering training camp. “Now, I look like a genius,” said Lillard on Wednesday night with a laugh that had a tinge of I-told-you-so.
400 Is What to Watch
Steph Curry is on pace to make 402 shots from 3-point range this season. Barring injury, he will certainly break his own record of 286 triples by more than 100, but getting above that 400 number would have made everything a lot cleaner looking.
There is just something about round numbers and, as Ted Williams’ long-standing record in baseball has shown, 400 has a great ring to it.
Lost in all the chatter about whether or not Curry will get to 400 is how many his teammate, Klay Thompson has hit this year. If Klay makes 4 more triples over his next four games (and he averages 3.5 makes per night) he will overtake Ray Allen, who is currently the only non-current-Warrior to ever make more than 243 in a season (that had the line at its current distance)
Here is the full list of the players with the most 3-pointers ever made in a season (with the line at 23′ 9″, meaning that I’m not counting the 1995-96 and 1996-97 short-line years when lots of guys hit more than 200):
- 382 – Steph Curry, current season
- 286 – Steph Curry, 2014-15
- 272 – Steph Curry, 2012-13
- 269 – Ray Allen, 2005-06
- 266 – Klay Thompson, current season
- 261 – Steph Curry, 2013-14
It’s been said a lot, but what the Warriors are doing really is unprecedented and indefensible. Steph specifically, and Klay in a more low-key manner, are rewriting the record books when it comes to shooting.