Sam Hinkie Didn’t Go Far Enough
Sam Hinkie’s ruthless execution of a diabolical strategy to exploit the NBA’s welfare state has netted the team perhaps the most exciting collection of young talent since the 2010 era Oklahoma City Thunder. Some would say Hinkie went too far, breaking every unwritten rule of NBA management, even while following the rules to the letter. After all, the man got fired! But this is wrong. In fact, Sam Hinkie didn’t go far enough.
Hinkie was notorious for drafting injured prospects. First it was Nerlens Noel with the #6 pick in the 2013 draft, who, injury aside, was widely regarded as the best prospect in a weak draft. The next year, it was Joel Embiid at #3, a supernova talent who would have gone first had it not been for injury concerns. Both missed their entire rookie season with injuries. Hinkie was correct to realize both that first year NBA players tend to be useless, and that the Sixers wanted to lose anyway. So why not scoop up elite talents who other teams avoided out of injury concerns? But there’s one question Hinkie forgot to ask. Why draft anyone at all?
Nerlens Noel is an illustrative case. After sitting out his rookie season, Noel seemed like a somewhat promising prospect in his next two seasons, especially on the defensive end. In his first healthy NBA season, 2014–2015, he was top ten in the NBA in both steals and blocks. But this past season, with a big payday in restricted free agency looming, his playing time dropped because of the presence of Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. The Sixers traded him during the season to the Dallas Mavericks for a pittance. Noel is probably a better player than what you’d expect out of the average sixth pick in the draft. And yet the Mavericks got him for far less than the trade value of a number six pick.
There are two types of players that are highly valuable in the NBA trade market. There are the solid or better players whose salaries are artificially limited by their rookie contract and there are the superstars whose salaries are artificially limited by the individual maximum salary rule. Draft picks are valuable because you have a decent shot at converting the pick into the former and a small chance of converting the pick into the latter when it comes time for restricted free agency. Besides the fact that they drafted three centers in the top six in the space of three years, the Sixers’ real Noel problem was that they wasted all his surplus value while they were trying to lose. Noel was never going to be good enough to be significantly better than a max contract and so all his value was wrapped up in his rookie contract. Imagine instead, if the Sixers could draft a Noel level player in 2021, coming off 55 wins and a conference finals appearance.
So here’s what Hinkie missed. He missed tanking hard and then trading away your draft pick for future picks. He missed trading Robert Covington and his ridiculously favorable contract for a 2022 first rounder as soon as it was clear that he was a decent player. He missed waiting to cash in any of his chips until he could get an absolute stud at the top of the draft like Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, or Karl-Anthony Towns. Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz are a cut below those guys, but are probably all worth starting the process with. Once you have your future superstar, then you can start using your other picks as they are available.
It seems like the Sixers have been tanking for forever now, but it was only four years ago that Sam Hinkie kicked off The Process by trading Jrue Holiday to the Pelicans for the draft picks that became Nerlens Noel and Elfrid Payton (who himself was traded for Dario Saric and a future first rounder the previous Sixers regime had surrendered). Just four years of sucking for this ridiculous young core that could be together for 15 years. Imagine tanking your way to the top of the draft for seven straight seasons instead of four. Imagine trading the first three or four years of picks for multiple distant unprotected first rounders from perpetually poorly managed teams like the Kings and Knicks. Seven years of sucking is not that bad for a potential 15 year dominant rampage through the league. At worst, you’re a solid title contender for a decade. On average you’d probably win a title or two. At best, you could challenge for the greatest team of all time and roll off a half-dozen titles.
Hinkie was ousted because the Process was so blatant. In the NBA, it was fine to be terrible year after year, as long as you were also terrible at your job. Hinkie found an exploit and he abused it. But he could have abused it way more than he did. The NBA did not patch the exploit by applying pressure on the Sixers to fire Hinkie. Adam Silver cannot wish away the fact that the NBA Draft is completely broken.
Fools are never a problem for a poorly designed system. Blundering along, doing and saying obviously stupid and wrong things isn’t a threat. It’s the visionaries, those who find and mock the flaws in the status quo, who are the problem. It’s why dictators always kill off all the intellectuals, but spare the idiots. It’s why Vlade Divac still has his job. And it’s why Sam Hinkie had to go.
But Sam Hinkie will be back. If not in body, then in spirit. And next time, he will be all the more audacious, all the more patient, and all the more emboldened. The Sixers are only the First Process. The true Welfare Queen is yet to come.