The 5: Sam Hinkie’s legacy, the Milwaukee Bucks and going your own way

Feb 10, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie prior to a game against the Sacramento Kings at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 10, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie prior to a game against the Sacramento Kings at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

The top teams in the league right now—the Warriors, Clippers, Cavaliers and Spurs—all went about getting to the top in their own way. The Warriors embraced three-point shooting and small ball in an almost-experimental way (perhaps only surpassed by the Rockets in sheer Let’s See if This Works-edness) and hired a former broadcaster who once got punched in the face by Michael Jordan to coach the team.

The Clippers hired a proven, championship-winning coach and gave him general manager say-so, jumped on a blunder by the ex-commissioner to land its star and then have patiently allowed its best players to develop into a group with great chemistry. San Antonio personifies that lesson more than any team, but as the Warriors and others go small, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs zag by doubling down on bigs while allowing the versatile Kawhi Leonard to stay in the lane he so quietly mastered.

Then there is the Cavaliers, who drafted LeBron James 13 years ago, watched him walk away, used three top draft picks to select Kyrie Irving, draft a bust and to trade for Kevin Love, get lucky that James got homesick and wanted to come back, hired an international sensation of a coach, fired him after he led the team to the Finals and replaced him with his assistant, which is all to say they have LeBron James and LeBron James is really freaking good.

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Not to mix metaphors but, in a copycat league, there is no Simon. Beauty is in the eye of the one who lusts. Maybe a team wants to be the next Golden State while the other wants to be the next San Antonio. There is no perfect formula for becoming a good basketball team. Look at any title team and you’ll find a different road of what got them there, each leaving its own bread crumbs for its followers to pick up and learn from.

With the top of the league pulling away and a trilogy of Cavaliers vs. Warriors Finals seemingly hitting box offices soon, what’s been truly entertaining has been some of the up-and-coming teams figuring out how they want to get there. The Milwaukee Bucks are super long and super weird, the Utah Jazz have all the ingredients of a championship team minus the necessary dash of transcendence, the Oklahoma City Thunder have the latter but not the former. A team can look for the road less traveled—like the Warriors—or look to exploit a market inefficiency—like the Spurs—or wait around for a star and ride him for better or worse—like the Cavaliers. (Or you can be the Hawks and just blatantly copy another organization and achieve wonderfully torturous mediocrity.)

Bubbling underneath those dominating at the top are the others using this time to experiment and to incubate. To embrace their weirdness and maybe one day translate that into real success and become a new example.

Sam Hinkie
Dec 7, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie speaks to the media during a press conference to introduce Jerry Colangelo (not pictured) as special advisor before a game against the San Antonio Spurs at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

Sam Hinkie

And then there is Sam Hinkie, who is unlike the Basketball Folk who populate the higher rings of league offices. In his wonderful Sports Illustrated profile, Chris Ballard provided a look into Hinkie’s usually private, private life.

Here are some anecdotes:

“He owned 25 blue blazers, all size 40 regular. The goal: reduce decision fatigue, the psychological phenomenon in which the more choices we make in any given day, the worse we are at making them. So, like Steve Jobs (black turtleneck, jeans) and Barack Obama (blue or gray suit), Hinkie settled on a uniform and ran with it. Boom! Decades of choices, eliminated in one fell swoop.”

“Every hour between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., his Fitbit watch vibrates. Not to remind him to exercise; as Hinkie says, “I do not feel compelled to impress it.” Rather, it’s a cue to consider the previous hour. Was he productive? Did he achieve his goals? He then spends the following 60 seconds considering the hour to come.”

“When he and Ali flew out to Palo Alto this summer to house-hunt, Sam used the Wi-Fi on the plane to rent route optimization software from a trucking company. His logic: a percentage of the 24 houses they’d targeted from afar could be eliminated just by driving by them, because sometimes you just know. So Sam designed an optimal driving route, and the next morning, before meeting with the real estate agent, he and Ali cut their list from 24 to 12 in two hours. This in turn spared a second day of house-hunting, which they used for a rare, kid-free date.”

A lot of people debate whether or not Hinkie’s time running the Philadelphia 76ers was a success, but to know that answer is to know what Hinkie’s objective was. Clearly, it was not to win a title in two or three or even six years. That goal was too nebulous. Hinkie wanted to draft a star player and his goal was to increase his odds every season to do so. Draft lottery be damned, in that respect he accomplished exactly what he set out to do.

Whether or not Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons develops into a player who can carry a team to a championship is yet to be seen, but the 76ers are in a position where they have two players with that kind of ceiling and a bunch of other assets. They’ve got better odds than a lot of other teams.

big man
NEW YORK, NY – DECEMBER 16: Kristaps Porzingis /

Dumb luck

Where Hinkie was deliberate in trying to improve his odds of getting lucky, teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Knicks blindly walked into treasure troves. The Knicks have been a mess basically forever, but selected Kristaps Porzingis in the draft last year and have what could be one of those players Hinkie was looking for. Now, they are doing their best to muck it up, but that transcendent ingredient is there.

The Wolves couldn’t get anything right for years and Kevin Love felt compelled to demand a trade. They did, became an even worse team and lucked into the first pick in the draft and took Karl-Anthony Towns.

The Timberwolves, under Tom Thibodeau’s direction, may be headed for winning ways. The Knicks, under James Dolan–who may be the only person left in American who thinks Derrick Rose is still a good basketball player–may stumble as always. But if we’ve learned anything from the Cavaliers, sometimes you can try your hardest to screw things up and still not stop a super star from getting what he wants.

Towns and PORZINGOD played in the Battle of the Unicorns this week and while Towns finished with 47 points and 18 rebounds, the Knicks still won because Carmelo Anthony still plays for the Knicks (see: super star getting what he wants, aka Anthony just wants to play in New York City). Porzingis racked up 29 points and eight rebounds.

The rematch happens tonight, Friday night. Watching these teams is fascinating because you can see who the future is, but have no idea what the future holds. Are they Sacramento? Are they Cleveland? Do they figure it out like the Warriors? Or do they write a new story around players unlike we’ve ever seen before?

Nov 23, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) throws a pass in the fourth quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports /

Cleveland or nowhere

LeBron James was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year and in Lee Jenkins’ profile of him he wrote:

The cruise, which he takes about every six months, ends back at the mansion gates before sunrise. “Blessings on top of blessings,” James says. “It makes you appreciate them all.” Among professional athletes, and particularly NBA players, James’s childhood journey is not unique. But he clings to it as a subject of reflection and a source of inspiration.

Almost everything about James is unique. The way he plays. The way he dominates. The way he’s dominated for so long. The way he was a celebrity since middle school. The way he left Cleveland and returned to Cleveland. The way he talks about politics. The way he handles his business. The way he thinks about Home.

Well, more accurately, the way he makes us think about his home. Cleveland for James is like New Jersey is for Bruce Springsteen. It’s part of his public persona and brand, and the two are linked. People of those communities treat them as sources of pride. Even Michael Jordan—from North Carolina—didn’t have this level of effect on Chicago.

James’ decision and success thereon forces professional athletes to answer questions they weren’t asked before, like if they want to play where they grew up. Kevin Durant, who grew up in the D.C. area, didn’t even take a meeting with the Washington Wizards. Stephen Curry, because he’ll be a free agent, is being asked to answer those questions. “Home” has become a driving narrative, though it seems to be unique to James in the way he’s embraced and used his community for motivation.

It’s because of James’ journey (him leaving for Miami allowed the Cavaliers to get Irving and Love) that led the Cavaliers to win a title. It’s a wildly novel way to win a championship, but it worked for them. Other teams, like the Wizards may have just learned, shouldn’t count on a similar approach.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) is in my DraftKings daily picks for today. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) is in my DraftKings daily picks for today. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports /

Freaks and Greeks

Not relying on any previous approach is the Milwaukee Bucks. More of a meld of the Durant and Westbrook Thunder, Show Time Lakers and Big Three Heat, but still very much an original. They are long, they are young, they are athletic and they are versatile.

In 2013, the Bucks drafted a foreign 7-footer based on Big Foot footage. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been a favorite of basketball hipsters since then, and those flashes of dominance via euro-steps or passes or blocks or whatever that led us to ooh and ah have evolved into consistent production. Which is to say Antetokounmpo is really, really good.

That was on full display when Antetokounmpo took it to LeBron James, scoring 34 points (on a positively LeBronian 13-of-19 shooting) to go with 12 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and five steals to lead the Bucks to a 118-101 route over the Cavaliers Tuesday.

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The Greek Freak has the Bucks in the playoff hunt despite the early loss of Khris Middleton. He’s doing everything from playing point forward to protecting the rim. He’s 17th in the NBA in Real Plus-Minus. The mystery of Antetokounmpo has been solved. He’s a super star, and the Bucks with him are on their own path to promise. And they’re doing it their own way.