Beware the Tank: a lesson from Sam Hinkie

Sam Hinkie resigned as 76ers GM yesterday.  In doing so, he fired off a glorious 13 page letter that quotes Abraham Lincoln, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos.  Other than being a lesson in how to sound like an arrogant ass, the letter is basically an argument for Hinkie’s strategy of tanking and tanking until you finally acquire enough top level talent to take over the league.  Not surprisingly, Hinkie is also the most criticized GM in the league, and after 4 years of continuous awfulness, the Sixers brought in Colangelo to “help” Hinkie.  Obviously, bringing in an old school guy to help with your new school approach was not going to go well, so Hinkie dropped his manifesto and left.  While sports-talk pundits are using Hinkie as a punching bag and new age analytics disciples view him as a sage master, the truth about Hinkie highlights all of the dangers of putting all your eggs in the tanking basket.  And it is something that teams like the Lakers need to be aware of.

First of all, let’s remember that Hinkie didn’t invent tanking, nor is the first person to use it.  The Hinkie Method is simply to keep tanking until he acquires enough top of line talent to compete for a title.  While other teams have tanked individual seasons to get a big player, Hinkie has tanked 4.  And when it comes to tanking, Hinkie is a genius.  The Sixers have so far won 10 games this year, 18 last year, 19 before that, and 34 the year before that.  The first half of Hinkie’s plan has gone swimmingly.  He has secured the 11th, 2nd, 3rd, and 3rd draft pick in his time there, and will probably get the first pick this year.  That’s fantastic, that’s the sort of drafting that helps build champion teams.  So why is Philly still a mess?

The reason is Hinkie was undone by the second part of his plan.  Tanking only works if you get the draft right and bring in the top level players to lead your team to the promised land.  Hinkie got MCW, Nerlens, Embiid, and Okafor.  That’s 2 Ls, a meh, and an incomplete.  MCW, admittedly the lowest pick of the bunch, was traded for the Lakers’ top 5 protected pick.  Embiid has played exactly 0 minutes of NBA basketball.  Nerlens looks OK.  And Okafor at times looks promising, but also has problems with maturity that frequently plague young guys on bad teams.  If you’re going to tank for 4 years, you’ve got to do better than that.  You can’t ask fans and the administration to back you to keep trying to get a top pick if that’s your draft record.  At some point, the players you bring in have to deliver.

But how much of that is Hinkie’s fault?  By far the biggest miss here is Embiid.  Hinkie rolled the dice on his health issues and it bit him in the ass.  Spending the 3rd overall pick on a big man who has back and foot issues is a big risk, but if those health issues had cleared up in the first year, and Embiid became a walking double double, then we’d all think a lot differently about Hinkie and the Sixers.  They also managed to snag a top pick and get what was absolutely one of the best players available in Nerlens, but that year was a horrific draft, highlighted by the fact that Nerlens was a top pick.  Even when Cleveland helped him out by taking Anthony Bennett for reasons no one understands, the best player he could get was Nerlens.  MCW at times looks ok, and at times looks bad, but it’s not like Steph Curry was sitting there at 11.  You can argue that Hinkie’s plan was undone by bad draft classes and 1 player’s health problems.  You can further argue that if the ping pong balls had fallen slightly differently, then Hinkie would now have a team of stars.  But if your entire plan hinges on a good draft class, ping pong balls, and perfect health, well, your plan has some holes.

Hinkie also ignored the human aspect of this plan.  He built a team around young kids without much veteran help and almost no emphasis on coaching.  This, more than anything else, really is kind of a crime.  While it’s easy to see the logic behind it (basically, if you aren’t going to be competitive, why spend money on older players and coaches?) it creates a ton of problems.  Okafor’s lack of maturity is to be expected, and Embiid doesn’t seem to be taking his rehab very seriously.  Young players need veteran leadership and they also need a good coaching staff to develop their skills.  Without those two things you get a talented team that plays dumb, sloppy basketball.  The tank-at-all-costs strategy also hurt him around the league, as veteran players have no desire to go Philly.

Also, Hinkie has bet big on front court players and traded away his one big PG prospect in MCW.  The result: The Sixers lead the league in turnovers.  This is why, I believe, the Sixers need to ignore players like Ben Simmons and go after a PG in this draft.  That sounds insane given how talented Simmons and Ingram are, but simply drafting the most talented player available hasn’t worked so far, it’s time to start actually building a team instead of a collection of assets.  Consider Boston, who tanked for 1 year, got Marcus Smart, and immediately began to use their assets to assemble a team.  They also invested in a top coach to build up those players and brought in guys like Isaiah Thomas to help.  They are built for the playoffs, the Sixers are still re-building.  You can’t just look at players as assets, you have to think about them as people and as a team.

People are going to point at Hinkie and laugh.  The league hates his strategy, and that letter isn’t helping.  Hinkie is going to continue to defend it, and he should, only using fewer quotes from historical figures.  The real issue I have with tanking is how much emphasis it places on chance and how much it ignores the human aspect.  High draft picks are great, but you have to nail them, and that is historically pretty hard to do.  You also have to invest in your team and build around the talent you have.  You have to support young players with coaching and veteran leadership.  The Lakers are going to have a top pick this year.  They need to do their homework, assess their needs, choose wisely, and hope that the kid develops.  But even then, they need to get a better coach and bring in vets who can help guide their new young core.  Tanking does not guarantee success.  OKC has 2 top players and no championships.  Cleveland got LeBron twice, no titles.  Anthony Davis is a stud, and New Orleans is still a disaster.  Getting a great draft pick is only phase 1, and if this is going to work, you need to need to get the other parts right.  Hinkie mastered the first part of his plan, but couldn’t get the second or third part going.  He can write all the 13 page letters wants, but as Thomas Jefferson said “Simply getting a top draft pick isn’t enough.”*


*Thomas Jefferson may not have said that.

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