By Bryan Toporek
Despite having resigned from the Philadelphia 76ers last April, former team president Sam Hinkie has become a frequent topic of conversation in recent weeks. A confluence of events—from the 2017 NBA trade deadline to Joel Embiid again being ruled out for the season—have inspired conflicting questions about his Sixers legacy.
Though Hinkie’s “Process” had clear shortcomings that led to his untimely professional demise, context is necessary when evaluating his tenure in Philadelphia.
In May 2013, the Sixers were reeling from an all-in gambit on Andrew Bynum that went belly up. They traded away Andre Iguodala (a future Finals MVP), Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless and a future first-round pick for a big man who would never play a single regular-season minute for them. The previous June, they shipped a lottery-protected 2014 first-round pick to the Miami Heat for Arnett Moultrie, a forward from Mississippi State who busted out of the NBA after only 59 games. Outside of Jrue Holiday, who was fresh off his first All-Star appearance, Philly’s best players were Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes—enough said.
In Hinkie’s 13-page opus announcing his resignation, he described the situation he inherited as a team whose “crops had been eaten.” With the previous regime having traded Harkless, Vucevic and two future first-round picks, the Sixers had little hope of internal development fueling a return to championship contention. To give the team a chance of challenging deep into May or June within the next decade, Hinkie had little choice but to strip the roster for parts and start replenishing the talent pipeline.
Over the next three years, Hinkie proceeded to trade Holiday, Young, Turner and Hawes (among others) for future draft considerations. That teardown led to him often getting typecast as a one-trick pony—an unrepentant tank commander with no interest in fielding a competitive NBA team. Critics repeatedly accused him of “kicking the can down the road” and running a Ponzi scheme that would never pan out, as the Sixers sputtered to a league-worst 47-199 record during his three-year tenure.
However, one need only look at the difference between what Hinkie and Colangelo inherited (via NBAAssets.com) to appreciate the scope of the former’s accomplishments.
There’s nothing innovative about the underlying strategy behind the Process. Teams have tanked like hell to increase their chances of landing high-upside rookies since the inception of the draft. What separated Hinkie from previous tankers was the dedication of the Sixers’ ownership group to his plan (at least for a while, anyway) and his attempt to exploit market inefficiencies whenever and wherever possible.
“We were fundamentally aiming for something different—disruption,” Hinkie wrote in his resignation letter. “We should concentrate our efforts in a few key areas in ways others had proven unwilling.”
Three such areas stand out from Hinkie’s tenure: spending lottery picks on players who wouldn’t immediately help the team, tapping heavily into second-round picks and undrafted free agents, and using cap space as a weapon in trades.
Only a month-and-a-half after taking over in Philadelphia, Hinkie made his first major imprint on the franchise, shipping Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for the No. 6 overall pick (Nerlens Noel) and a top-five-protected 2014 first-round pick. Noel, who had torn his right ACL the previous February at Kentucky, never saw the floor during his first year with the team, but wins and losses were of little concern to Hinkie at that point. Instead, Noel’s absence helped give the Sixers another crack at a top-tier talent in the following draft.\
In 2014, Hinkie doubled down on that strategy by grabbing Kansas big man Joel Embiid at No. 3 despite him having recently been diagnosed with a foot fracture. In Hinkie’s mind, Embiid’s talent—he looked like the presumptive No. 1 overall pick prior to said injury—outweighed the health concerns. Embiid proceeded to miss each of his first two NBA seasons, but he quickly emerged as a runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year during the 2016-17 campaign before a bone bruise and meniscus tear in late January prematurely ended his de facto rookie campaign. The Sixers must now weigh whether they can commit long-term to a player who has missed 215 of a possible 246 games but showed flashes of transcendence during his 31 appearances this season.
Embiid wasn’t the only long-term play Hinkie made on the night of the 2014 draft. After selecting point guard Elfrid Payton 10th overall, he promptly shipped him to Orlando for the No. 12 pick (Dario Saric), Philly’s lottery-protected 2017 first-rounder from the Bynum deal and a 2015 second-rounder. Much like with Noel, choosing Embiid and Saric ensured the Sixers would not considerably improve right away, as neither player would suit up for the team during the 2014-15 campaign. In turn, that would again only improve their lottery positioning in 2015, theoretically giving them yet another chance to land a star-caliber player in the draft.
While loading up on lottery picks who wouldn’t make an immediate impact, Hinkie went all-in on unearthing gems with second-rounders or undrafted free agents.
During the 2013 draft, he turned the No. 35 overall pick (Glen Rice Jr.) into the rights to Arsalan Kazemi and two 2014 second-round picks. At the 2014 trade deadline, Hinkie sent out Turner, Hawes, Lavoy Allen and two heavily protected 2014 second-round picks (which did not convey) for six second-rounders and roster flotsam. Through the rest of the calendar year, he proceeded to net seven additional second-rounders and two second-round pick swaps. At the 2015 trade deadline, he flipped K.J. McDaniels to the Houston Rockets for Isaiah Canaan and yet another second-rounder (which would later become Richaun Holmes).
Of the 12 second-round picks Hinkie spent during his three seasons in Philadelphia, just one (Holmes) remains on the roster, and only four of the 12—Holmes, McDaniels, Jerami Grant and Willy Hernangomez—have emerged as rotation-caliber NBA players. Critics may use that low hit rate as evidence that Hinkie’s reliance on second-round picks was foolish, but his strategy tacitly acknowledged just that. He knew most of his second-rounders wouldn’t amount to much, but by accumulating as many picks as possible, he increased the odds of one hitting.
While first-round picks are tied to rookie-scale contracts, second-rounders and undrafted free agents have no such restrictions on the deals they’re allowed to sign. Hinkie exploited that system to ink such players to four-year, team-friendly deals with team options in the third and fourth years. Though some (namely McDaniels) refused to accept that type of contract, others—Grant, Holmes and undrafted free agents such as Robert Covington, T.J. McConnell and Hollis Thompson—agreed.
That strategy continues to pay dividends for Philadelphia, as Covington, McConnell and Holmes are all drastically outperforming their paltry contracts. Though each of that trio will be due for a massive raise once their respective deals expire, having them signed at a bargain-basement rate gave the Sixers financial freedom to pursue major free-agent splashes or absorb bloated salaries in trades in the meantime.
The latter was Hinkie’s preferred route. Rather than spend valuable cap space on veterans who wouldn’t drastically move the needle on the Sixers’ win-loss ledger (and would adversely affect their lottery positioning), he instead preserved it to exploit teams desperate to unload a contract. At the 2015 trade deadline, he agreed to take on JaVale McGee’s contract from the Denver Nuggets in exchange for a top-18-protected first-round pick. That wound up becoming the No. 26 pick in the 2016 draft, which the Sixers used on draft-and-stash wing Furkan Korkmaz.
Hinkie’s biggest trade coup came five months later, when the Sacramento Kings were desperate to unload the contracts of Jason Thompson and Carl Landry to free up cap space. For taking those two deals on, the Kings also sent Nik Stauskas, two first-round pick swaps and a top-10-protected 2018 first-round pick (which would ultimately become a completely unprotected 2019 first-rounder) to Philly, while the Sixers only had to give up the rights to Arturas Gudaitis and Luka Mitrovic in exchange. With DeMarcus Cousins no longer plying his trade in Sacramento, that unprotected 2019 first-round pick is suddenly worth its weight in gold.
Given what he inherited, Hinkie inarguably left the franchise in better shape than it was in when he arrived. After the Bynum trade depleted Philadelphia’s talent pipeline, embarking upon a massive rebuild was the prudent strategy.
His execution of the Process wasn’t flawless, however.
Hinkie’s biggest misstep came on the night of the 2015 draft. After the Los Angeles Lakers selected Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell with the No. 2 overall pick, conventional wisdom suggested Duke center Jahlil Okafor was the best player available. Rather than select a prospect who would mesh better with Noel and Embiid—the latter of whom was about to undergo his second foot surgery—Hinkie further clogged Philadelphia’s frontcourt by picking Okafor.
“I think what’s been clear over time, not just in today’s NBA but really over history, is having the best players wherever you can find them,” he told reporters the day after the 2015 draft. “Whether that’s at shooting guard, whether that’s at center, whether that’s at the point guard, having the best players is what’s the most critical thing.”
It didn’t take long for that decision to backfire. Kristaps Porzingis, who the New York Knicks selected one pick after Okafor, quickly emerged as an All-Star-caliber player who would have been an ideal frontcourt complement to Embiid and Noel. Okafor, meanwhile, proved incompatible with both, leading Noel to publicly voice his frustration with the front office heading into the 2016-17 season.
The Okafor selection also left Hinkie’s successor, Bryan Colangelo, in a no-win situation when it came to resolving Philadelphia’s frontcourt logjam. With Noel set to become a restricted free agent this July, opposing teams had leverage over Colangelo in trade negotiations for either Noel or Okafor, as the big man glut was clearly unsustainable moving forward. At the 2017 trade deadline, Colangelo ultimately opted to flip Noel for the less-than-inspiring return of Justin Anderson and two second-round picks, sending the Process faithful into a frenzy.
Between the Okafor pick and Hinkie’s reportedly chilly relationship with agents, he was by no means perfect during his time at the helm in Philadelphia. He failed to abide by basketball’s version of the Hippocratic Oath, as the Okafor selection in particular inflicted a great deal of harm upon the Sixers’ long-term ceiling. Compared to where the franchise was four years ago, though, Philadelphians have far more reason for optimism now than they did in April 2013.
Whether Hinkie’s Process ever bears the fruit of a championship mostly hinges on the health of Embiid and No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons, who will miss the entire 2016-17 season after suffering a foot fracture during training camp. If those two can avoid serious injuries moving forward and Colangelo avoids the temptation to burn through the Sixers’ mountain of cap space on quick-fix, win-now moves, few teams have a long-term outlook more promising than Philadelphia.