The Misunderstood Legacy of Sam Hinkie

Sam Hinkie messed up. You can't be the architect of a 10-win team and expect to keep your job in the NBA. Not when your 19-year-old top draft pick is running around punching people in the streets. Not when your roster is so devoid of veteran leadership you have to sign a player out of retirement mid-season. Not when you forget to bring in a legitimate point guard and wind up trading for a guy who literally just left your club. Not when agents are so afraid their clients might end up in your organization they won't even schedule a workout.

Any of those missteps alone would've been enough to cast doubt on Hinkie's vision, or at the very least his ability to oversee the day-to-day management of an entire program. Taken all together, and you can't blame the league for feeling a bit embarrassed or the Sixers for losing patience and so many, many people conspiring to run the man out of town. 

But rather remarkably, Hinkie may not be best remembered for his lacking talent evaluations, an insane 13-page resignation letter, nor even assembling one of the worst professional basketball teams ever. His legacy with the Sixers is tied almost entirely to "The Process," or "tanking" if you prefer, and the notion that the blueprint he used to attempt to rebuild this storied franchise was in some way innovative or revolutionary. Hell, there's still a feeling that in spite of his departure, if and when the Sixers become contenders with the pieces and assets Hinkie put into place, his grand plan will be vindicated.

In reality Hinkie's process and the Sixers' tanking was nothing more than bad branding, misperceptions that grew out of control and before too long took on a life of their own. The truth is the most important decisions during his tenure weren't very difficult to make — and probably shouldn't have been considered controversial at all.

June 27, 2014. That's the day it became clear the Sixers had a perception problem, one Hinkie never came close to overcoming.

It shouldn't be that hard for a general manager or organization to dispel the laughable theory that they are purposely and exclusively taking injured players in the hopes of prolonging their rebuild. It's not only absurd, but completely illogical. And sure enough, that was a narrative the day after the Sixers selected Joel Embiid with the third pick in the NBA draft.

The angst was understandable to a degree. The Sixers were coming off a 19-win season and missed the playoffs for the second year in a row. The previous offseason, Hinkie traded Jrue Holiday to New Orleans for Nerlens Noel and a first-round pick, neither of whom had played for the team yet. Now there was Embiid, who not only would be on the shelf for the entirety of his first season, but whose foot injury was considered career threatening. (They also traded down then selected Dario Saric No. 12, knowing it would take at least two years for him to join the club as well.)

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To suggest this was by design is to ignore the circumstances surrounding the Embiid selection. First and foremost, the Sixers were known to covet Andrew Wiggins in the draft, and might've landed him in a parallel universe. Embiid likely would've been the top pick were it not for his injury, and the Bucks were said to like Jabari Parker, the combination of which would've caused Wiggins to fall. Or even assuming Embiid's injury, had the Sixers not been screwed by the very lottery system they've been accused of trying to game and awarded the Cavaliers the first pick, the Bucks would've chosen No. 1 by virtue of having the worst record and presumably taken Parker, and then the Sixers, now going second, get Wiggins.

Instead, the Sixers wound up with Embiid, a decision that wasn't as bold as it might seem in retrospect. Again, this was the consensus top prospect in the draft prior to the foot issue, a 20-year-old kid drawing comparisons to 12-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion Hakeem Olajuwon. This was a potential generational athlete, and everybody after him was just a guy. The stupid thing, arguably, would've been for Hinkie to pass when the Dante Exums and Julius Randles of the world probably weren't going to make the Sixers significantly better anyway — certainly not in the short-term, perhaps never without that one prize piece.

Even if Embiid never played, being exceptional was well worth the risk.

Who knows how the rebuilding process would've changed if the Sixers wound up with Wiggins or even Parker, although it's probably safe to assume Hinkie's process would've been different. There might've been a greater effort or urgency toward surrounding an actual blue-chipper with even the slightest bit of help. Regardless of what may or may not have been, it takes quite a leap to conclude Hinkie preferred things fall this way.

Keep in mind, this was the level of criticism just one year into the vaunted process, when expectations should've been at their lowest.

Sometimes it helps to remind people exactly what Hinkie inherited when he took over the Sixers in 2013. Coming off a 34-48 season, they were not a playoff team — a shockingly common misconception. The only starters under contract were Holiday and Thaddeus Young, with Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes being the players of note who were headed for free agency in one year. The franchise also owed teams a pair of first-round picks from the previous regime's trades, not to mention way past the point of using money to lure veteran talent that might be worth a damn.

In other words, the Sixers were on the way down and heading toward possible first-pick territory before Hinkie ever arrived. Oh, it might've taken a few years, but armed with only Holiday, Young and the 11th pick in '13, they didn't need to hire somebody to "blow it up." They were already on the brink.

Hinkie simply accelerated things by trading Holiday, a good-not-great point guard in a league where Ish Smith recently proved there's always somebody available to play that position. And once again, the decision in question is so stunningly obvious, it's bewildering anybody would question the GM's motives in making it: Holiday for Noel and a first (which Hinkie turned into the rights to Saric and an additional first simply by moving down two whole spots in the 2014 draft.)

Given the Sixers' state, were they really in any position to turn down Noel — the consensus top prospect prior to tearing his ACL — and a future lottery pick? In fact, remove Hinkie and the Sixers from the equation completely. Unless Holiday is the starting point guard on a contender, is that a deal anybody turns down? Absolutely not.

Trades dumping Turner, Hawes and Young followed, creating the appearance of a full-on fire sale, but with a 15-40 record, the Sixers were well into free-fall mode by then. Turner and Hawes were gone regardless, while Young was swapped almost as a favor. Based on the club's record and return on exchange, all were inconsequential. They would go on to win one fewer game the following season without that so-called "core."

Was there a way to turn the Sixers into not just a playoff team, but a legitimate contender by holding on to Holiday and Young and building through free agency in the draft? Maybe. But would the Sixers be significantly better today than the 34-win team they started as when Hinkie took over by going down that route? Highly unlikely.

So then why such sharp criticism the first two years?

It was a perception problem.

Not the part about Hinkie putting a joke of a product on the court three seasons into rebuilding. At some point, it falls on the general manager to keep the organization from going backwards. It's Hinkie's fault the Sixers drafted redundant centers with three straight first-round picks. It's Hinkie's fault the team went into last season without a legitimate guard. It's Hinkie's fault the losing and a lack of leadership bred culture issues. It's Hinkie's fault the Sixers still don't know what they have with many of their prospects because they haven't been playing alongside true NBA talent.

Hinkie didn't just lose. He didn't just tank. 18- and 19-win seasons aren't fun, but can be explained away. When you start hovering around single digits, however, your credibility tends to vanish pretty quickly.

To blame that on tanking or claim it was all a part of some process is to ignore the fact that Hinkie didn't take a special or unique path to get there. In fact, that's giving him too much credit.

The Sixers were on their way to being major players in the lottery before Holiday was traded — it was inevitable. And when they got their first crack at a top-three pick and it turned out to be Embiid versus the field, the call was a no-brainer. Neither was a stage in some grand scheme to eventually land at the top of the draft and select Ben Simmons in the distant future of 2016. That end was merely a symptom of  the mess Hinkie inherited, a little bad luck in the 2014 draft and some bad management along the way.

Yes, Hinkie stockpiled assets and pulled off a stunning trade or two along the way. To his credit, the Sixers are better positioned for future success than when he took over. That's not the result of some special process or tanking though. Strangely enough, the decisions he's often both the most lauded and derided for were the easiest. It's the rest of Hinkie's moves that should define his legacy.

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