Processing the Process: A Sam Hinkie Retrospective

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading. - Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher

This was the logic behind the Philadelphia 76ers’ unorthodox rebuilding strategy when Sam Hinkie was hired as the GM and president back in 2013. The team was heading nowhere, out of the playoffs (where they’d most recently been an eighth seed) and needed to shake things up.

The conventional way to rebuild is through some subtle acquisitions via free agency or trade and hoping you get some luck in the draft.

Hinkie’s logic was that to gain an advantage over the rest of the pack, you need to find a point of differentiation; you need to do something different; you need “a contrarian mindset.”

“If you want to have real success you have to very often be willing to do something different from the herd,” Hinkie wrote in his 13-page resignation letter to the Sixers equity partners (owners) on April 6.

He took an unconventional approach to rebuilding and as the balance of power in the Sixers’ front office slowly shifted away from him and towards Jerry Colangelo, Hinkie walked away from what he started.

“He obviously felt like this was not something he wanted to be a part of,” head coach Brett Brown told ESPN last week. “He didn’t want to be a part of the collaborative effort.”

That statement is in strong contrast to what Hinkie told Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post podcast earlier that week when he was questioned about the additions to the Sixers’ front office.

“The thing I end up getting wed to is how you make decisions and a process by which you make decisions,” Hinkie said.

“So we’re always on the lookout for people that are collaborative by nature, that have a diverse set of information flows, that have a diverse set of experiences, that can plug into a larger system, that are happy to be a part of a larger decision-making operation,” he went on to say.

“That sort of stuff I’m in for and I’ve always been in for.”

Only he wasn’t.

Hinkie’s “process” is one of the more polarising topics of this decade in NBA circles.

There are those who believe what he’s done to that franchise is disgusting and makes a mockery of the current draft lottery incentives.

The other side of the argument understands his logic to zag when others all zig and those folks had extended him a long piece of rope to see exactly where he was taking this.

If you look at the bigger picture of all he’s done rather than each move in isolation, it’s easy to see why this is such a hotly debated topic, so let’s do exactly that.


When Sam Hinkie took over the Sixers in May 2013, they were a year removed from a surprising first-round playoff series win over Chicago and had regressed. They had just come off a disappointing 34-win season finishing fourth in the Atlantic Division, missed the playoffs for the first time in three years and owned the 11th pick in that year’s draft.

Yet it wasn’t all doom and gloom in Philly. Jrue Holiday had been an All-Star, Evan Turner had started to show some of the promise that made him the second-overall pick back in 2010 and Thad Young had become a fulltime starter and had his best overall season to that point.

However, lacking a true superstar, Hinkie started to put in motion the plan that got him hired by Josh Harris.

He shocked the world by trading Holiday to the Pelicans on draft night in exchange for Nerlens Noel and a future first-round pick (which became Elfrid Payton, who was traded for the rights to Dario Saric). The Holiday trade signalled a new era in the City of Brotherly Love, and with Michael Carter-Williams selected 11th overall that night, the Sixers rebuild was underway.

However, a lot of the criticism of Hinkie’s Tankadelphia strategy starts with moving Holiday—the team’s only All-Star. Had Hinkie held onto the talented young point guard and just made the pick at 11, he could have passed on Carter-Williams and drafted Steven Adams, Kelly Olynyk, Shabazz Muhammad or….gasp….Giannis Antetokounmpo to add to the Holiday, Turner and Young core.

It’s also possible that had C.J. McCollum been available (he went one pick earlier at number 10 to Portland), Hinkie may have grabbed him and kept Holiday.

But that’s pure speculation. We don’t know what went on in the Sixers draft room that night. What we do know is that Hinkie had the blessing of ownership to blow it up and start again, and netting Noel and a future first-rounder for a now injury-prone Holiday seems to have been a risk worth taking.

Of course all of that will depend on when Saric comes over from Europe and what kind of NBA player he becomes. Similarly, it will depend on what they end up getting out of Joel Embiid. It will depend on whether Nik Stauskas develops into a reliable starter-level shooting guard. It will depend on what they decide to do with their seemingly crowded front court. And, of course, it will depend on what happens in this year’s NBA draft lottery, which could provide them with two picks in the top four as a best-case scenario (the Lakers’ pick would have to fall to fourth).

It’s a theme that’s common with a lot of the moves Hinkie made. We just don’t know yet whether they will make the Sixers better in the long-run.

That long-term view is something Hinkie addressed in his letter. He wrote about the “longest view in the room” and that success comes from moves made three, four, five years ago, rather than moves made last month. He referenced the Warriors, who took a few years of Curry, Thompson, Bogut and Green before they had success.

“In this league, the long view picks at the lock of mediocrity,” Hinkie wrote. “More practically, to take the long view has an unintuitive advantage built in—fewer competitors,” he went on to say, citing examples such as Danny Ainge’s planned pursuit of Kevin Garnett three-to-four years before he executed it, Houston’s trading for James Harden, and the Spurs’ planning to sign LaMarcus Aldridge three years before he became a free agent.

Hinkie’s view was a long one. And it was a view that was unconventional and therefore difficult for many to stomach. Those other teams took that view without enduring the pain currently being suffered in Philadelphia, so why couldn’t he do the same?

That’s a tough question to ask, but what I took from the Lowe podcast was that he wanted to give the Sixers several chances to find success, rather than going after just one target. That way, if one move whiffs, you have others to fall back on.

It seems a drastic view, yet at the same time it makes sense.

Hinkie often spoke of collecting assets. The more assets of value you have, the more opportunities you have to succeed. One thing is for certain—the Sixers have a number of assets.

This year alone, they will have up to four first-round picks, depending on protection clauses. At this stage they will have their own pick plus that of Miami and Oklahoma City. If the Lakers’ pick falls outside the top three, then the Sixers will own that also.

That is in addition to the potential infusions of Embiid and Saric to the team next season and the myriad of trade possibilities they will be able to explore as they continue to shape their roster.

Whether you agree with the Sixers “process” or not, it is important to keep two things in mind when evaluating the job Hinkie did.

Firstly, this was not his strategy alone. He executed it, but he had the complete support of ownership these past few years. They signed off on it, they believed in it and they, along with him, bore the criticism of it.

Secondly, he has executed what he set out to do. He’s collected assets. He’s given the Sixers several chances at finding successful players to build a franchise around and there are several more ahead of them. Sure, it would have been nice to land a number one or even a number two pick along the way and grab a Towns or Wiggins, but they’ve done well given their draft position.


Realistically, the only risky pick Hinkie made was Embiid, who may still pan out, and the alternatives were Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum, Marcus Smart and Julius Randle—none of whom found immediate success. Most of them, like the Sixers, are too short into their careers to judge. The potential for success is there though, as it is with Embiid.

Given all that future potential the Sixers still possess, the timing of Hinkie’s resignation is curious to say the least. It has been reported that those inside the Sixers organisation not named Harris or Colangelo were surprised. Whether Brett Brown saw this coming is hard to say, but it appears he may have had an inkling. Others inside the organisation were shocked. They figured he’d stick around to see the fruits of his labour.

The hiring of Jerry Colangelo and then Mike D’Antoni was a signal, though, that the Sixers’ ownership was ready to start the next phase of the process. To me, that is natural. You’ve endured pain the past three years, invested a lot into acquiring these assets and are eager for them to start showing a return.

Hinkie knew that and he knew that this coming summer was the time to start setting that next phase in motion. He’s said as much in more than one interview.

However, whether ownership had the confidence in Hinkie to execute this summer is my biggest question.

It’s entirely plausible that ownership felt Hinkie’s approach had left other front offices around the league reluctant to interact with him lest they help him and validate his method (a.k.a. the “process”) amongst league GMs.

Put simply, ownership worried that other teams would not want to deal with Hinkie when the time came, and so much about what needs to be done this summer will involve potential trades; converting those assets they’ve stockpiled into more seasoned players.

Jerry Colangelo is viewed in an entirely different light. He’s extremely well respected around the league. I imagine he could contact nearly any NBA GM and have a sensible, pragmatic conversation about a potential deal.

Could Hinkie do the same?

With the talk of Bryan Colangelo likely being brought on board—he’s since been hired as the 76ers’ president of basketball operations—it’s only natural that Hinkie felt threatened. It’s likely he also felt somewhat disrespected given all he’d done.

However, from a Sixers’ ownership perspective, they needed to ensure they have the best possible chance of successfully taking those next steps.

The Colangelos can get deals done. Hinkie may not be able to.

Like him or hate him, Sam Hinkie has left the Sixers in a position to succeed. He achieved exactly what he set out to do, only he didn’t stick around to see it through.

Success in this context is hard to define.

Did he get his franchise back to the playoffs? Not yet.

Has he set them up to become a contender? Too early to tell.

But did he give them several chances to do both those things? I would answer that with a resounding yes.

The Sixers were headed nowhere when Hinkie took over.

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading…


Follow me on Twitter @tomhersz 

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Author of the article

When you’re introduced to the NBA as a 6 year old in 1984, staying up late to watch Bird, Magic and Dr. J, it’s pretty hard not to fall in love with the game. I became consumed with the Association, and as my own game was developing, I tried to emulate as much as I could at an early age and learn how to play “the right way”. I have memories as a teenager of being glued to Saturday Basketball on TV and spending every spare cent I had on basketball cards and replica jerseys and so began my obsession with NBA knowledge and stats. I played my first season of Fantasy Hoops in 2002, as my serious playing days were slowing down. I now play in 5 or 6 leagues every year. To say I’m obsessed with Fantasy Hoops would be an understatement. To say I love nothing more than sharing my opinion on a player’s value would be entirely accurate, and I guess, the reason why I’m here. Follow me on twitter: @tomhersz @downtownball