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The man who just can't win: Sam Hinkie (finally) speaks

Andrew Hetherington for ESPN

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 18 Body Issue. Subscribe today!

As Ben Simmons rose from his seat to begin his ceremonial march to the NBA, he tugged on a flat-brimmed 76ers cap. How Philadelphia ended up drafting Simmons on June 23 is a story three years in the making -- but one that's perhaps lost on the No. 1 pick. Two days earlier, the 6-foot-10 forward had posted an Instagram photo of his workout with the 76ers with the caption: "Trust the process." When later asked by a reporter if he understood the phrase's significance, he replied: "A little bit. I know it's been said around a lot of the Sixers community."

The scores of Sixers fans who made the trek to Barclays Center on draft night fully understood the phrase's meaning, though. And as they cheered Simmons' selection, one fan thrust a homemade poster into the air. It read: Hinkie died for your sins.


THREE MONTHS BEFORE the draft, and three weeks before he ended the NBA's most controversial experiment in team-building through corporate hara-kiri, Sam Hinkie sat in the food court of a Providence mall and plowed his way through a chalupa. It was the opening day of the NCAA tournament, and spectators had rushed straight from watching Yale upend Baylor to seek something resembling nourishment. On the street below, St. Patrick's Day revelers crawled from one pub to the next, clad in all manner of green. And there, just beyond the growing line at Taco Bell, sat the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, inconspicuous as ever.

Hinkie had just begun working to change that image. In three years at the helm of the Sixers, he'd been only slightly less secretive than SEAL Team 6, closing himself off to such a degree that most reporters had stopped bothering to ask for interviews. But in early March, after weeks of discussions, Hinkie had agreed to allow ESPN The Magazine to join him on a scouting trip. It was the first of two on-the-record, hourslong conversations designed to shed light on the player evaluations behind his rebuilding plan. It was time, he sensed, to open up.

The time, it turns out, was too late.

Hinkie resigned as the Sixers' GM on April 6, penning a 13-page letter to the team's investors that inspired intense, contrasting reactions. The note, which was quickly leaked, became fodder for a last round of jokes from his detractors while also reading as a final salvo for the true believers in the three-year teardown now widely known as Hinkie's "Process." But if Hinkie knew he was on his way out in March, he had an odd way of showing it. His words from those interviews now read as blindly prophetic, like those of a man pondering his own death without knowing that it was imminent.

"So many of my friends will tell me, 'Don't do that. Don't try that. It's going to end poorly. They'll run you out,'" Hinkie would later say. "And that's the reason to do it, because fear has been the motivating factor for way too many people for way too long. There's a huge agency problem in the whole business, particularly in my role: Keep the job."

A week after the second interview, the architect of the boldest rebuilding project in NBA history would be gone -- undone by the very realities he hoped would never apply in Philadelphia. But it's how he was undone that's most telling of all and suggests how leagues are prone to respond when forced to face truths about themselves.


ON THE NIGHT of the 2016 NBA draft lottery, six weeks after Hinkie's resignation, there was no question how some Sixers fans still felt about Hinkie.

In Philly's Xfinity Live, a massive sports bar/venue not 500 yards from Wells Fargo Center, hundreds of fans celebrated the announcement of the team's first No. 1 pick since 1996. Search for the YouTube video and you'll see it, a throng of partisans, gleefully chanting: THANK you, HINkie-clap, clap, clap-clap-clap ... THANK you, HINkie-clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.

What they were celebrating was Hinkie's parting gift to Philadelphia, three seasons in the wrapping.

He'd bet much of his future on an endless pursuit of star-level talent, a pipeline that runs almost exclusively through the top of the NBA draft. Over the past five seasons, more than 60 percent of the players who made an All-NBA team were top-five picks (and 76 percent came from the top 10).

To get a shot at one of these premium players, then, a team must lose a lot of games. And the Sixers succeeded in that with ruthless efficiency: Their 47 wins in Hinkie's three seasons was the second-worst three-year stretch in NBA history. All part of the process, which is why he was a hero to those fans on draft night.

In the minds of his critics, though, he failed on every level, and it was getting harder to ignore them. During his tenure in Philly, Hinkie had frequently confessed that he didn't mind being misunderstood and even embraced it. "I think to perfectly understand somebody is to predict their next move," he said.

But in the final months of his tenure, Hinkie had begun to see the danger in allowing others to control the narrative of the franchise he ran. (There was also the little matter of the Sixers' having hired Jerry Colangelo in December as chairman of basketball operations. The barbarians were at the gate.)

Hinkie, the story went, was impersonal and aloof -- high school valedictorian, Stanford Arjay Miller Scholar, Bain consultant, a nerd glued to a laptop, an MBA who treated players as commodities. Definitely not a "basketball guy."

The perception of Hinkie had arguably reached a point where it was damaging the Sixers brand. During his time in Philly, he'd developed, for example, a reputation as a dogged negotiator. Knowing that he had unusual leverage -- Philly's unused cap space -- he would aim to extract as much blood as possible in deals. But an industry with only 29 other businesses necessitates dealing with the same people over and over again.

"There has to be a level of understanding, a level of trust between teams," one former GM says. "I think Sam had a hard time opening up in that process. If you are trying to win the deal each time, that's fine, as long as the other side gets a win too. But if you are trying to kill them, then it makes it harder to work with them in the future."

Adds one Western Conference executive: "Sam's a hard-nosed negotiator, which is intimidating to some people. There's a bit of 'what's behind the curtain?' with Sam. People don't know what his factors are. It's not as straightforward as 'I like that guy.'"

Agents had their own concerns. Hinkie became known for drafting players in the second round and signing them to four-year partially guaranteed contracts. Without any leverage, agents were forced to accept those team-friendly terms, but they didn't have to like it.

Those decisions had consequences: Agents and rival GMs were happy to turn Hinkie into the embodiment of every negative stereotype of the analytics movement.

"I think Sam is a pure analytics guy," says David Falk, who gained fame in the late 1980s as Michael Jordan's agent and still represents a small list of clients. "I don't think they had enough pure basketball people. While there's a lot more utilization of analytics, it's like painting by the numbers. And you can't paint a masterpiece by the numbers."

On this point, Hinkie is adamant: More than anything else, he loathes the idea that he was representing a movement. And so it was that a week before he would step down as GM, Hinkie found a seat at La Colombe, a spacious coffeehouse in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia, booted up his laptop and spent three hours breaking down even the most minor, subtle actions on the court, eager to demonstrate his basketball chops.

His single goal, he said time and again, was to build a championship contender, not to prove to the world that a particular kind of thinking was superior: "It's the caricature everybody wants to talk about -- that all we have is a screen and we don't treat people like people. It is ridiculous. And the more we talk about it, the more others talk about it." 
And talk about it they did.

"We're in a competitive business," says one Western Conference exec. "I think a lot of people feared what Sam was doing: 'What if it works? It will become the new model.'"

Adds the former GM, "There was a perception that Sam thought he was smarter than everyone else."


IT'S HARD TO defend a man whose team is coming off a 10-win season. Philly actually won more games during each of the first two years of Hinkie's tenure.

But progress is rarely linear. The 76ers now have Simmons as a potential franchise cornerstone. Joel Embiid, whom Hinkie drafted No. 3 in 2014, might finally be healthy; players who competed against him in open gyms prior to his second foot surgery last summer gushed over his talent. Forward Dario Saric is scheduled to arrive from Europe two seasons after being drafted in the first round. Add those players to recent top picks Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, plus an abundance of salary cap space, and it's not hard to see how much better next year's Sixers should be.

Says one Western Conference GM: "I really believe what Hinkie did was break something down masterfully. People say you can just tank and get picks. Sam did so much more. His deals brought multiple picks back every time. I never saw someone do more deals with more moving parts in such a short amount of time."

To wit: Hinkie pillaged Sacramento last July by taking on the contracts of Carl Landry and Jason Thompson to acquire Nik Stauskas along with a 2018 first-round pick and the right to swap first-rounders in 2016 or 2017.

In 2015, he flipped former rookie of the year (and current marginal starter) Michael Carter-Williams for the rights to a future Lakers first-round pick. During the 2014 draft, Hinkie picked Elfrid Payton 10th, getting a player Orlando wanted, then negotiated a trade with the Magic that netted the Sixers No. 12 pick Saric, a second-rounder and a conditional future first -- all to move back just two spots.

A multitude of moves, all part of The Process. And back at the coffeehouse on that bright March afternoon in Fishtown, Hinkie couldn't hide his enthusiasm. "I think things are going to feel very different very soon for our fans, our players, our coaches, our staff," he said. "I think people haven't fully realized what different level of talent is about to hit our team in a variety of ways -- draft, free agency, trade. I think you'll see a real change in how we approach things going forward. We'll be increasingly focused on fit."

Now that job belongs to Bryan Colangelo, son of Jerry Colangelo and former GM of the Raptors and Suns. Why Sixers ownership picked this moment to make that move, with the franchise so close to the end of its tunnel of foulness, is complicated. In some ways, it is evidence that The Process worked.

Adam Silver admitted to reaching out to Jerry Colangelo on behalf of the Sixers' owners in December. But interviews with more than a dozen league sources -- including GMs, other executives and agents -- suggest that the commissioner's involvement in that regime change may have been greater than he has let on.

Some sources claim Philly's ownership group had grown impatient with Hinkie's lack of a clear timetable to be competitive and had been worn down by constant criticism. Others suggest Silver pressured the 76ers into making a change.

The league has never hidden its distaste for tanking, and sources around the NBA say Silver grew more irritated after the Sixers lost their first 18 games last fall and Okafor was involved in multiple off-court incidents. Ultimately, those sources say, it is likely that a combination of all those factors led to Jerry Colangelo's hiring. (The NBA declined to comment for this story.)

"I think to perfectly understand somebody is to predict their next move."

Sam Hinkie

The 76ers are hardly the first team to build through the draft; The Process was once known as The OKC Thing. But the Sixers' plan to openly exploit the lottery system by amassing high picks threatened to expose the draft's flaws and make the NBA look ridiculous.

So it was, league sources say, that the glorification of The Process (by those who actually thought it would work) scared the commissioner, perhaps even more than the condemnation. Silver has made no secret of his desire to reform the lottery, a system in place for 32 years. And it's doubtful that 17 owners would have voted to reduce the odds that the worst team got the top pick, as they did in 2014, had there not been sound logic behind the Sixers' plan (23 votes were required to pass the measure).

Says Rockets GM Daryl Morey, Hinkie's former boss in Houston: "The common refrain I've heard is that [Hinkie] is taking the easy way out and taking advantage of the rules. The league chooses to give the most valuable asset in the game -- a high draft pick -- to the worst team. So if people want to be upset about how well Philly has set themselves up, they should get upset with the league office and the collective owners who wouldn't pass even the modest reforms that were put forward."

Now consider this: The Lakers won 17 games this season, and their prized rookie, D'Angelo Russell, secretly filmed a conversation in which he asked teammate Nick Young about being with women other than his then-fiancée, Iggy Azalea. Yet no one blamed that incident on the organization's culture the way Okafor's troubles were linked to The Process.

Consider too: The Kings haven't finished with a .500 record since 2005-06 and just hired their sixth coach in five years. In neither case did the NBA force a regime change.

By stepping in and facilitating the Jerry Colangelo move in Philadelphia, then, Silver sent a message: Gross incompetence is acceptable; strategic gaming of a flawed system is not.


IT WOULD NOT have required much effort for Hinkie to dispel the notion that he didn't know basketball. In Providence, it took five minutes.

As he settled into his seat, Hinkie reached into his bag. He didn't pull out a laptop with Excel files listing players' effective field goal percentages or turnover rates but rather a stack of booklets, each dedicated to a different player in one of the day's four NCAA tournament games and filled with scouting reports and interviews.

"So many of my friends will tell me, 'Don't do that. Don't try that. It's going to end poorly. They'll run you out,' And that's the reason to do it ... There's a huge agency problem in the whole business, particularly in my role: Keep the job."

Sam Hinkie

During nearly nine hours of live hoops on this chilly Thursday in Dunkin' Donuts Center, the conversation focused on basketball minutiae. From a few rows behind the scorer's table, Hinkie demonstrated the way one player's thumb disrupted the rotation on his shot. He noted how another cupped the ball in traffic and finished by spinning it from tough angles, an indicator that he could convert around the rim in the NBA. Bad body language, separation gained on dribble moves, the size of players' hands -- these were what got Hinkie excited on that day, not actuarial tables.

He talked culture and psychology -- two qualities, conventional wisdom held, that he ignored in favor of metrics. He noted that the Sixers were so heavily invested in player development that they taught players how to communicate with referees (among the lessons: Don't call them "ref"; address them by name), going so far as to fasten posters displaying every official's name and photo on the doors of the bathroom stalls at their practice facility. "What else are you doing in there?" Hinkie jokes now.

In early January, the 76ers signed Elton Brand, one of the first moves Jerry Colangelo recommended after he joined the front office. A frequent criticism of Hinkie's rebuilding effort was that he didn't have veterans in place to guide his young prospects, and the then-36-year-old Brand was clearly meant to counter that notion.

Before Brand arrived, he had heard the chatter about what was happening in Philly. "I just thought everything about the organization was low-grade and terrible, that they weren't even trying," Brand says. "I get there and I'm blown away. The new practice facility, the training staff, the doctors they had on staff, the scientific people they brought in -- I was like, 'Whoa, this certainly isn't what I thought it was.' This is a high-quality, top-notch organization. They had every advantage conceivable for the players. I was surprised."

Others might also have been surprised if they'd been allowed to see what Brand did. But, fatally, that's not how The Process worked.

Over coffee in Fishtown, Hinkie clicked on a slide that he has often referenced as a way to explain his thinking. He used it in a meeting with Sixers owners when interviewing for the GM job.

It shows a series of concentric circles, each representing a move that eventually helped the Rockets acquire James Harden in 2012, back when Hinkie was Houston's executive VP of basketball operations. "I learned that Yao Ming broke his navicular bone like five days before the 2009 draft," Hinkie said. "From that moment on, all I thought about was going from zero stars to one star. How do you do it?

"We paid a record price to Sam Presti for the 31st pick to draft Carl Landry in 2007. He's the best offensive rebounder and the best rim finisher in the league as a rookie. And then over time, he ends up in a deal for Kevin Martin. And over time, Kevin Martin ends up in a deal for James Harden. You start with a set of chips, given to you by the league. How do you make it bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, such that you can win?"

It took three years to land Harden in Houston, the end point in a series of deals that, at the time, had many observers scratching their heads over what, exactly, the Rockets were up to. Hinkie would resign a month before his three-year anniversary in Philly -- just prior to an offseason in which he would have held more assets and more payroll flexibility than any other team in basketball.


IF HINKIE THOUGHT he could get by without addressing criticisms about him, it's the same way, sources confirm, that he never anticipated his resignation letter becoming public. (Rumors continue to swirl over which member of a small group of recipients leaked the document.)

The note was one of dozens he penned in his time with Philadelphia. The language was standard for an investor letter and typical of communication on Wall Street, the home turf of several Sixers owners, but also deeply idiosyncratic.

It was 7,168 words of Hinkie being Hinkie: A league with 30 intense competitors requires a culture of finding new, better ways to solve repeating problems. In the short term, investing in that sort of innovation often doesn't look like much progress, if any. Abraham Lincoln said "give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." To the general public, though, the memo read as something else, be that a desperate attempt to defend his record or yet another case of Hinkie's viewing himself as the smartest guy in the room. In his words: You can be right for the wrong reasons. In our business, you're often lionized for it. You can be wrong for the right reasons.

How history will judge Hinkie depends, ironically, not on the process he drove but on whether the ultimate outcome is a Sixers turnaround; his validation depends on the very results his process rejects as being immaterial.

But in a way it is almost fitting that Hinkie's final message would be misconstrued -- and that he has once again closed himself off, refusing to talk to reporters to add clarity about his departure. He did agree to a photo shoot for this story but declined to comment on his exit or his future. One might be inclined to think that Hinkie just doesn't give a damn about messaging.

But back in Fishtown, Hinkie dropped a story that suggested something else. Between sips of La Colombe's signature latte, as Hinkie reminisced about his time in Houston, he recalled one of his first interactions with Morey.

Hinkie had actually predated Morey's arrival in Houston; he was the Rockets' first analytics specialist. And when the team hired Morey in 2006, the new assistant GM spent Easter weekend logging long hours in the office with Hinkie.

When the two broke for lunch on that Sunday, Hinkie and his wife deliberately took Morey to a nearby Mexican restaurant. "I knew he hadn't eaten enough Mexican food to live in Texas," Hinkie says. "I ordered queso so he could be introduced to it. And he loved it."

Two days later, Morey and Hinkie went out to another Mexican restaurant with a larger group of Rockets staff. "That was literally the reason I'd done it," Hinkie says, smiling at the memory. He'd tried to prep his new boss, to keep Morey from coming across as what he actually was: an Ohioan by way of Boston.

Hinkie understood the value of messaging. He knew how perception could undermine reality. It would be a shame, he thought, if Morey failed because he didn't fit in.

But when they took their seats, Morey turned to Hinkie and said, "Sam, let's order that KWAY-so dip we had the other day!"

Hinkie sighed. "We were so close."