In risking his career and reputation, the former Philadelphia GM remade the Sixers on his own terms.
If nothing else, former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie was earnest. Sure, his rebuilding strategy was cynical, but he was hardly the first person to recognize that the NBA rewards bad teams with a shot at the best incoming rookies. Exploiting this loophole by making the Sixers as bad as possible for as long as possible was a rational, numbers-driven experiment. But there was also a strong dose of mysticism involved. “Trust the Process” didn’t mean “Hinkie got this.” It was a leap of faith, a belief in the way history moves that, one day, would pay off in eschatological fashion.
This weekend, Hinkie pulled of his biggest coup yet, albeit from beyond the grave. When the Sixers acquired the number one overall pick from the Celtics (the Sixers were able to acquire the number one pick because they had the number three pick, acquired from the Kings in a particularly byzantine Hinkie trade), it set them up to draft Markelle Fultz, arguably the draft’s strongest prospect and exactly the kind of dynamic, multi-faceted point guard that’s proven absolutely necessary in today’s game. Coupling Fultz with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Robert Covington, and Dario Saric would give Philadelphia the most exciting, elastic young core in the league—provided of course, that Embiid and Simmons can stay healthy. The photo of Fultz with Embiid, Simmons, and Robert Covington was instantly iconic—not only for Sixers fans, but for anyone eager to look past the league’s Warriors-dominated present.
Given everything that the Sixers have been through, there was an element of relief and of course, irony, to this response. After years of Hinkie-induced purgatory, the franchise was now on the verge of a breakthrough. Those had been dark days indeed. He strip-mined the roster and stocked it with no-names, has-beens, and fly-by-night aspirants on 10-day contracts. The crown jewels of the Sam Hinkie era were three big men: Embiid, who wouldn’t suit up until Hinkie’s departure; Jahlil Okafor, whose greatest asset is his touch around the basket; and defensive force Nerlens Noel. Okafor and Noel were incapable of playing together and at one point, it looked like Embiid might never take the floor. The Process, for the moment, was nothing but a false idol.
It’s hard to say if Hinkie jumped himself or if he was pushed out of the boat. Certainly, the Sixers were no longer interested in letting him single-handedly run the show. Frustrations were mounting in Philadelphia and he’d become a running joke in the world of basketball. But his lengthy exit letter—a document that, when it was leaked to the public, was taken as a laughable manifesto—casts him as a purist and maybe even an ideologue. Rebuilding had always been more art than science, a case-by-case exercise that’s both highly circumstantial and sorely contextual. What made Hinkie both appealing and maddening is that he presumed to have cracked the code. Had he not been so invested in The Process as an article of faith, the whole thing would’ve smacked of hubris and Hinkie would’ve been dismissed outright an egomaniac. Instead, over time he went from a running joke, and maybe a bit of a charlatan, to a tongue-in-cheek cult figure. (Embiid’s ardent devotion to The Process certainly helped.)
The summer after Hinkie left, the Sixers drafted Ben Simmons. This past season we were treated to 31 tantalizing games of Joel Embiid and the emergence of Dario Saric. There was even a brief stretch of winning basketball. The Sixers were, yet again, extremely bad, which—along with picks Hinkie stockpiled along the way—allowed them to move up to number one. Sam Hinkie may not have made all the right moves while in power and the delayed careers of Embiid and Simmons have certainly helped them stay bad longer than they had any right to be. But if we view The Process as neither predictable nor replicable—as a course to be stayed rather than a set plan of attack—then Sam Hinkie has been vindicated.
“Hinkie becomes a prophetic figure, one who saw on the horizon a brave new era of the Sixers that, at least in the short-term, would involve him sacrificing his career and reputation.”
Sam Hinkie took a team and ran it into the ground on the assumption that a rigged system would allow for it to rebound in grand fashion. It looks like his gamble has paid off, even if he’s not around to enjoy it. But maybe that’s the dark side of the process: It makes martyrs of those brave enough to fully give themselves over to it. Hinkie becomes a prophetic figure, one who saw on the horizon a brave new era of the Sixers that, at least in the short-term, would involve him sacrificing his career and reputation. Who knows if he’ll be given another shot; one can only assume it would be less rocky going the next time around. But with dreamers and visionaries in short supplies, especially in sports, it’s high time we give Sam Hinkie his due.
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, Danny Ainge is sitting pretty in ways that are almost unimaginable. Never mind that Boston got summarily run out of the playoffs by Cleveland and is a distant second in the East. The Celtics have an impeccably constructed, brilliantly coached team that in any other era would contend for a title. They may have given up Fultz but when you’ve already got Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley as backcourt, and there’s hardly a gaping need to be addressed there. What’s more, not only will they still pick third, they also gathered up even more additional draft picks to use down the road. Ainge’s stash of assets borders on absurd. This version of the Celtics may be perpetual bridesmaids. But Ainge can work to rebuild on the fly, to the point where the transition to a post-LeBron team will be seamless and gradual in all the best ways.
That said, Ainge is in the truly enviable position of being able to build for the future while taking a valiant shot in the here and now. Boston has the cap space open to both resign Thomas and go after another All-Star, presumably Gordon Hayward. And if Ainge is really feeling ballsy, he could cut bait with some picks and acquire the disgruntled Paul George from Indiana. George made it clear over the weekend that he wants out and has the Lakers in mind as his ultimate destination. He could very well be a one-year rental for the Celtics. But Ainge is practically playing with house money here. Maybe a year in Boston could convince George to change his plans. If it didn’t, Ainge would still have a ridiculously good team, a decent number of future picks, and tons of cap space to make a run at another big name. Hinkie may be the dark horse man of the hour. But that’s probably only because we’re all in collective denial about just how masterful Danny Ainge has been—all without a gimmick or a higher power to believe in.
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