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Apr 18 2016

Sam Hinkie Wasn’t Blameless In His Professional Demise

It’s no secret many Sixers fans are furious about the recent events that ultimately culminated in general manager Sam Hinkie stepping down from his post. (Many of us are very much included in that group.) On the surface, it appears as though the team’s owners simply lost patience with Hinkie’s multi-year rebuilding model and began acting impetuously, first by hiring Jerry Colangelo as chairman of basketball operations (aka shadow emperor) in December, and then by attempting to hire a “basketball person” to complement Hinkie in the front office.

Before placing too much blame on the team’s owners for their recent rash of impulsive moves, we must acknowledge how two philosophical flaws in Hinkie’s way of doing things contributed to his professional demise.

First, by virtue of eschewing free agency to instead chase minimum-salaried players who could perhaps grow into long-term rotation members—see: Covington, Robert—Hinkie rubbed a number of agents the wrong way, as ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe touched upon in December:

Some agent agita was an inevitable byproduct of The Process. The Sixers don’t pay money for real NBA players, which means agents who represent real NBA players have to work a little harder to find commissions. Being the last stop before the Chinese league means agents are constantly beseeching you to take a shot on their guy — and getting pissed when you go elsewhere.

Lowe’s report was hardly the first time we heard rumblings about Hinkie’s strained relationships with agents. In October, Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer cited one agent who “said he doesn’t want his max-level players in Philadelphia. He’s open to his mid-level players with the Sixers only if they overpay.”

According to Pompey, after the Sixers drafted Michael Carter-Williams in 2013, Hinkie had “35 voice messages from agents, stating that they had the perfect veteran backup/mentor for the rookie point guard.” All of those players “had one thing in common,” according to Pompey’s source: “They were all over 30 years old, unemployed, and were seeking over $1 million.” Rather than signing any of those players, Hinkie acquired Tony Wroten in a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies, which “disappointed agents looking for jobs for their clients.”

It’s difficult to get too up in arms about Hinkie’s refusal to play the game and give roster-spot handouts for agents’ less-appealing free-agent clients. After all, that roster churn did create opportunities for unheralded players such as Covington and T.J. McConnell to emerge as possible keepers off the bench. That wasn’t his only failure with regard to agent relationships, however.

In mid-December, Lowe wrote the following about Hinkie’s approach with agents:

Agents find Hinkie noncommunicative and stubborn. He has lost players, including K.J. McDaniels and Glenn Robinson III, over his insistence they sign four-year, nonguaranteed contracts, and he acknowledges he has probably waived players without first notifying their agents — a major irritant among player representatives.

That only echoed what he reported at the beginning of the season:

There are worries about Sam Hinkie’s reputation around the league. Agents whine that he doesn’t return calls and waives players without telling them first. People around Jorge Gutierrez complain that Philly promised Brooklyn it wouldn’t waive Gutierrez after demanding the Nets include him in the Andrei Kirilenko deal, only to waive him almost immediately; the Sixers deny making any such promises.

Hinkie’s decision to claim Thomas Robinson off waivers last February—after Robinson had reportedly agreed to sign a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets, provided he did clear waivers—likely didn’t do him any favors with T-Rob’s agent, either. In all fairness, we can’t definitively declare he made these decisions alone. It’s possible the Sixers’ owners established certain financial-related requirements, forcing Hinkie to get creative — claiming guys like Robinson and Sonny Weems — to follow them.

It was entirely within Hinkie’s rights to push the boundaries with regard to his handling of free agency and trades. The four-year, lightly guaranteed “Hinkie Special,” unexpectedly waiving traded players and claiming waived players are all allowed under the current collective bargaining agreement. However, continuing to run afoul of agents could have had calamitous effects once the Sixers did decide to take the plunge into free agency.

“We’ve tried to communicate clearly with agents, but that has been hard at times,” Hinkie himself admitted to Lowe in December. “We’ve had a lot of transactions. That’s hard. That has caused some angst. Things unfold quickly, and maybe too quickly in that sense.”

In January, Pompey reported Hinkie’s “reputation with agents is even starting to hurt him,” adding, “Sources say that [Jahlil] Okafor’s camp wasn’t in favor of him playing for the Sixers during the draft process.” Multiple sources told Pompey that “Hinkie wasn’t permitted to interview Kristaps Porzingis during his predraft workout in Las Vegas in June,” which Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed a month later with this telling anecdote:

Whatever happened, Miller didn’t make it easy for Philadelphia to draft Porzingis at No. 3. The Sixers wouldn’t be afforded Porzingis’ physical, nor get a private workout, nor even a face-to-face meeting. After most of the pro day executives cleared out of the gym in Vegas in mid-June, 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie lingered to meet with Miller. Hinkie stopped him in the lobby area and asked Miller about a chance to sit down and visit with Porzingis.

“You said that I would get a meeting with him here,” Hinkie told Miller.

“I said, ‘I’d try,’ and it’s not going to work out, Sam,” Miller responded.

An awkward silence lingered, the GM and agent, standing and staring. The Porzingis camp wanted no part of the Sixers’ situation at No 3. Miller couldn’t stop Philadelphia from drafting Porzingis, but he could limit the information they had to make a decision. And did. No physical. No meeting. No workout. The Sixers passed on Porzingis on draft night, clearing the way for the Knicks to select him.

The pro-Hinkie camp tended to gloss over reports about Hinkie’s strained relationships with agents, figuring that once the Sixers began willingly ponying up in free agency, all would be well. The team was going to have to overpay players regardless of Hinkie’s behind-the-scenes dealings with their agents because of how decidedly uncompetitive its on-court product was. No mid-level free agent would willingly take a discount to join a sub-20-win team, no matter how much larger his role would be. Lowe likewise expressed skepticism about agents’ tough talk, writing, “If offers for a B-level guy — some role player the Sixers think will fit its young core — are equal, then, sure, maybe some leftover hard feelings hurt. But if the Sixers offer a premium, are the agents really going to boycott? I’m dubious, and the Sixers’ strategy in many ways is designed to reduce their dependence on free agency.”

Thanks to Jerry Colangelo, we’ll never know how Hinkie’s relationship with agents would have affected the team’s ability to complement its growing collection of lottery picks this summer. The former general manager also didn’t do the Sixers any favors, however, by adamantly refusing to defend his series of maneuvers publicly, thus allowing a toxic perception of the organization to grow locally and nationally.

Hinkie’s “Process” — the shameless exploitation of the NBA’s twisted incentive structure regarding draft picks and teams’ abilities to retain their incumbent players — proved enormously divisive. Media members threw hissy fits just about every time Hinkie made a major move, accusing him of running a Ponzi scheme and kicking the can for job security (ha!), but the plan remained clear: accumulate assets that could help in the long term while disregarding wins and losses in the short term.

Throughout the first two-plus seasons of his tenure with the team, Hinkie intentionally remained behind the scenes, as he explained in the 13-page letter he wrote to the Sixers’ ownership group announcing his resignation (via ESPN.com):

There has been much criticism of our approach. There will be more. A competitive league like the NBA necessitates a zig while our competitors comfortably zag. We often chose not to defend ourselves against much of the criticism, largely in an effort to stay true to the ideal of having the longest view in the room. To attempt to convince others that our actions are just will serve to paint us in a different light among some of our competitors as progressives worth emulating, versus adversaries worthy of their disdain. Call me old-fashioned, but sometimes the optimal place for your light is hiding directly under a bushel.

In other words: Hinkie believed defending his incremental moves publicly would shine some light on the ultimate end game, giving competitors an advantage in their attempts to outfox him. Rather than explain why he was willing to part with an All-Star point guard in Jrue Holiday (who had undisclosed medical issues) or a reigning Rookie of the Year (who, as it turns out, was largely a byproduct of a pace-inflated system designed to make him look better than he actually is), Hinkie allowed media members to shape the local and national perception of him. Once the Sixers’ rebuild endured a few unexpected stumbles, from Embiid’s second foot surgery to Jahlil Okafor’s off-court troubles, that lack of communication contributed to his undoing.

Three ESPN.com writers—Kevin Arnovitz, Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne—cited Hinkie’s lack of communication as one of his biggest flaws when discussing his resignation. “The plan was always predicated on patience and an imperviousness to ridicule, and the Sixers let go of the rope,” Arnovitz wrote. “With better salesmanship, Hinkie might have been able to buy the plan a bit more time.” Stein added that “Hinkie hurt himself immeasurably through his reluctance to communicate,” while Shelburne noted, “He’s incredible intellectually, with bold ideas, but you have to translate those ideas to the people affected by them.”

As Hinkie’s rise to prominence and fall from grace was occurring at the Wells Fargo Center, a similar sports revolutionary, Chip Kelly, went through a nearly parallel timeline at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles’ hiring of the former University of Oregon head coach provided a jolt of excitement for the franchise, which had scuffled to 8-8 and 4-12 campaigns over the previous two seasons. That optimism proved prescient early on, as the 2013 Eagles exploded onto the scene with a scorching offensive performance on the opening-week edition of Monday Night Football and went from worst to first in the NFC East, culminating in a last-minute playoff defeat against the New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card Round.

That immediate success emboldened Kelly to his detriment, as he began flexing his muscle within the organization. According to a former front office executive who spoke with Matt Lombardo of NJ Advance Media, Kelly reportedly gave scouts “no say at all” in the 2014 draft process, creating no shortage of hard feelings among the scouting staff. Kelly’s staunch belief in his system overriding talent also led the Eagles to release Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who immediately latched on with the division-rival Washington Redskins and has provided them with a valuable big-play threat when healthy. Though off-field concerns reportedly led to Jackson’s release, players of that caliber simply don’t become available on the open market. Kelly’s burn-all-bridges approach with Jackson was hailed at the time as a coach unwilling to put up with nonsense, but in retrospect, it was a precursor to the type of arrogance he would exude over the next two years.

After Kelly’s second season with the Eagles, he wrested control of personnel decisions from then-GM Howie Roseman. From there, he made a number of controversial decisions—from abruptly shipping Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy to Buffalo in exchange for rising third-year linebacker Kiko Alonso, who played for him at Oregon, to acquiring quarterback Sam Bradford from the St. Louis Rams in exchange for incumbent starter Nick Foles and a future second-round pick—all of which he painted as moves that would help the team take strides toward being a Super Bowl contender. Instead, the team stumbled to a 1-3 start and a 7-9 overall record, earning Kelly the ax after an embarrassing Week 16 loss to the Redskins ensured the Eagles would miss the playoffs for the second straight season.

Though the teams Kelly and Hinkie inherited were in notably different states—the Eagles already had stars such as McCoy and Jackson in place, whereas the Sixers had depleted their talent pipeline with the disastrous Andrew Bynum trade—both men were undone by similar blind spots. Kelly’s faith in his offensive system and his ability to control personnel decisions, presumably based on his time in charge of Oregon’s program, proved to be a debacle at the NFL level. As he learned the hard way, establishing relationships with players at the professional level is an entirely different animal than reigning over players in their late teens and early 20s.

Hinkie’s “Process” could well wind up succeeding—readers of this blog certainly hope it does, despite how the past two weeks have unfolded—but his inability to connect with behind-the-scenes power brokers likewise created a disastrous national perception of the Sixers that had unintended consequences. With the team planning a significant foray into free agency this summer, Hinkie’s miserable reputation with agents directly contributed to Colangelo’s hiring, which ultimately led to the events that unfolded in recent days.

Both Hinkie and Kelly could well learn from their mistakes during their time in charge of their respective Philadelphia franchises. Each could go on to experience great professional success elsewhere if they shore up those blind spots. Given the parallel rise and fall of both men, however, each will go down as a cautionary tale in Philadelphia sports history. They’re both living proof that even revolutionaries can be foiled if they refuse to acquiesce to certain conventions, as the “smartest man in the room” routine only works when the whole organization buys in — and doesn’t fold halfway through.

  • Robby Bonfire

    Hard to fathom how it could get any more sleazy than Hinkie and agent machinations.

  • NoJNoProb

    Conspiracy theory: Hinkie agreed to this from the beginning.

    He knew that to be his most efficient would also cause him to sour relationships with agents and hurt them in free agency, so he and the Sixers agreed to have him resign after the deliberate tanking was done. They planned to phase him out slowly, ending with a seemingly acrimonious breakup, but in reality the end was exactly what they wanted; those “sleazy machinations” Robby referred to could continue for years, letting the Sixers do that which would help the franchise but hurt others perception, and then Colangelo (a man with excellent standing in the league) comes in and wipes clean the Sixers’ slate, going out of his way to differentiate himself from Hinkie.

    Many Hinkie acolytes within the front office have been retained; it’s possible (though not likely) that the free agency and draft is really still mostly driven by the analytics squads instead of by Colangelo, and perhaps he’s just the face of the operation (though i dont really believe that, I think he has control now just as Sam did once, and the Sixers are hoping based on his experience making the Suns and Raptors competitive that he can do it with us).

    I don’t necessarily believe this, but let me ask you this: is there a more Hinkie thing that Hinkie could have done???