Sam Hinkie was a visionary whose tanking plan hit the barriers of conventional wisdom. What would he do with a stalled-out 76ers squad now?
Across the vast plains of internet and print, millions of words were poured over his reign as Philadelphia 76ers general manager. From the onset of his contrarian blueprint to the league-mandated coup that ousted him, he captivated the masses.
Hinkie proclaimed the 76ers would embark on a years-long venture that spat in the face of tradition and competition. Of course, tanking wasn’t a new phenomenon. Teams enter unspoken agreements of going into the bag during lost seasons, purposefully stretch out injuries to star players and give an extended run to end-of-bench types in the name of ping-pong ball jockeying.
His counterintuitive model didn’t break ground, but the breadth and brazenness with which he did it pulled back the curtain on the charade and gave full transparency. Like any other visionary, rocking the boat was met with apprehension. To make matters harder for himself, Hinkie surfed the crest of the intelligentsia wave that began infiltrating front offices with esoteric analytics. The old-school coalition did not get on board.
“I don’t think he recognized how the NBA was a different business in terms of being a small world where relationships matter,” Yaron Weitzman, author of Tanking to the Top, said in an interview. “He didn’t put enough emphasis on the requirement of keeping himself in the job. It’s kind of like a politician, part of the job is to make sure you get elected. Hinkie put all his marbles into the work and didn’t play the politics of it all.”
The extreme tanking in itself wasn’t the mistake. But the way he carried it out was. Hinkie could have afforded to dot the roster with a few more positive-locker-room-presence veterans who wouldn’t add to the win total but would help guide and develop an unseasoned team. Brett Brown was a nascent head coach and his staff was mostly young and inexperienced at the NBA level.
“He didn’t have enough different perspectives. They were all brilliant people but I’m surprised he didn’t have an Elton Brand-type also,” Weitzman said. “Just a guy who had a firm relationship with the NBA, has on-court experience and could speak from a different perspective. I think that would have made a huge difference. If you listen to Hinkie, he’s big on different points of view. It’s the Silicon Valley thing they all preach and I’m surprised he didn’t do that in terms of how he built out his team.”
Hinkie’s greatest strength of hyper-focus on his plan also led to his undoing. In the rapidly evolving NBA, you need to pivot when the landscape changes — or know when the walls of convention close in on you.
In December 2015, the 76ers brought in Jerry Colangelo as a special advisor, a decision pushed by the team’s co-managing owner, Josh Harris and NBA commissioner, Adam Silver.
In the end, ownership and fan patience ran thin and pulled the rug out from under him despite a cult-like following. Colangelo put a co-GM system in place to counterbalance Hinkie’s extreme vision. Once that person turned out to be his son, Bryan, Hinkie saw the writing on the wall and resigned.
“If you ask Jerry, he’ll tell you it was not him, ownership wanted Bryan,” said Weitzman. “So Bryan comes in and Sam was allowed to stay on as co-GM. I think Sam knew being in a co-GMship with two people who were brought in after you is one thing. But if the person you’re sharing it with is the son of the team chairman, then it’s obvious who will be in charge.”
We’ll always associate Hinkie with tanking, but his plan was really about finding the quickest path to championship contention. He made the decision to tank based on Philadelphia’s team at the time. That meant hopping off the mediocrity treadmill and getting as many shots at transcendent talent as possible.
This year’s 76ers replaced 40 percent of its starting lineup, assembling a non-orthodox title contender that hadn’t yet jelled and underachieved before the season was put on coronavirus suspension. If the playoffs end up happening, Philly projects as a first-round underdog. The tenability of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as a star duo looms as the 800-pound gorilla in the room. It all begs the question: What would Hinkie do?
“We never saw what it would look like when he would have to bet on players. That’s the harder part of the rebuild, right? Tearing down is almost easy in a way. Drafting is a little harder, but then what happens is at some point you have to start placing your bets on guys. Whether it be trading them or paying them, you need to find the right fit. There are more things along the margins that matter. That’s where some of your old-school stuff like scouting and chemistry and schemes play more,” Weitzman said. “I feel like he would certainly look at trading Simmons or Embiid, doesn’t mean he would do it. The fit issues are there and they’ve used all their resources, maybe they’re capped out in terms of assets. Maybe they’d take one step back to go two steps forward.”
These days, Hinkie is living the Silicon Valley life of investing, creating innovative ideas and meeting with smart people. He spends minimal time on his phone since it hampers his agenda. His wife knows to call twice if she needs him because otherwise, he won’t answer it.
Hinkie resurfacing with another team down the road is anyone’s guess. What’s clear is in order for it to happen, they’d need to meet his conditions to even make him consider it.
“Imagine the Venn diagram; one circle of teams who would be willing to hire Hinkie, then the other one of teams or ownership groups he’d be willing to work for,” Weitzman said. “If you look at the middle, I’m not even sure that list exists. He wants to be able to do things his way, and that’s not egocentric, but the way to properly build a team by having a plan and sticking to it. It’ll take a Mark Cuban-type who respects that kind of thinking, but a Mark Cuban-type who will also let you be in charge. Cuban wouldn’t let Hinkie run the thing without his input.”
Even if you think Hinkie’s strategy was a bad one, he stuck to it and put Philadelphia in a position to succeed. Most teams today waffle every season on their plan of attack and would trade places with the 76ers in a heartbeat. All that is due to the foundational building blocks Hinkie laid out in The Process.
Tanking to the Top tells the story of how the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers trusted The Process — a bold plan to get to first by becoming the worst. It is available for purchase now.