Goodbye To Sam Hinkie, The Brownback Of The Boardroom

Sam Hinkie might well have been a visionary. He was definitely an ideologue. He was also terrible at his job, which is why he doesn't have it anymore.
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Sam Hinkie was a dreamer, a believer, an optimist, a maverick, a renaissance man, an innovator, and one of the brightest minds an NBA board room has ever seen.

He was also really fucking bad at his job, which was building a winning basketball team.

Sam Hinkie was to basketball what Sam Brownback has been to the state of Kansas. Like his gubernatorial namesake, who has plunged The Sunflower State into one of the greatest self-imposed economic disasters in recent history, Hinkie’s tenure as the GM of the 76ers was astronomically horrible; the team had gone 47-195 in the three years since he took over, and had improved so little in that time that a 76ers win the other night was only notable because it assured that they wouldn’t finish with the worst record in history. It’s a distinction they have flirted with every single year that Hinkie has been in charge.

And so when he resigned on Wednesday night, you’d think the entire city of Philadelphia would have rejoiced knowing that this incompetent buffoon was no longer running their professional basketball team. Some were, but many others were easy to find online, not just defending Hinkie but praising him for his gutsiness, referring to him as a genius whose brilliance will only be vindicated long after he’s gone. Like Einstein, or Van Gogh. Or something.

And that, and that alone, is what was brilliant about Sam Hinkie, who wasn’t brilliant enough to actually take the Sixers anywhere, but was savvy enough to pitch total ineptitude as integral to the game plan. Hinkie’s strategy was essentially an anti-strategy—in lieu of trying to win games, and improve gradually over a series of seasons, Hinkie’s plan was to break the system by tanking more blatantly than any franchise ever dreamed of, for as long as it would take for him to land a top-flight superstar through the draft. Hinkie was, in that sense, essentially a Tea Party general manager, a GM who didn’t actually believe that being a functional GM was worth it. His plan to win was to lose; to become good, you had to be bad…. really bad, unimaginably bad, and for a long time, with no end in sight, because to do otherwise would be a betrayal. There was even a mantra that went with this tactic: “trusting The Process.”

Like Brownback, who sold Kansas on the merits of trickle-down economics and kept on selling even after the local economy began to crater as a result of their implementation, Hinkie managed to convince people that even though the Sixers were as uncompetitive as any team on record, it was all going according to plan. “The Process,” like trickle-down economics, was a fairy tale, a hustle conjured by a salesman who had concocted the most unassailable defensive mechanism possible: that it would all be worth it some day, that in some distant year, in 2017 or 2020 or 2023, everything would suddenly come together and the strategy would be validated. For that reason, the 76ers’ performance could not and would not accurately be assessed for years. The pitch was this: “sure, the Sixers are horrible, and sure they’re not fun to watch and won’t be for a while, but won’t it be great when they become great some day?”

And people bought it, and they bought it for the same reason they bought Sam Brownback: out of frustration, and also out of belief. Philly fans were tired of seeing their teams languishing in mediocrity, of missing out on the latest can’t-miss superstar, of watching their Sixers be just good enough to lose quickly in the playoffs. They had seen GM after GM fail in the conventional method, in systems that inarguably favor at least a moderate amount of tanking. And then came Sam Hinkie, whose strategy embodied the antithesis of that inevitability; here was a man who guaranteed no more accidental losing. Yes, he said, the Sixers will suck, but it’s going to be on purpose this time. We’re going to fail, but when we fail, it’s going to mean something, and be for something.

For many fans, Hinkie represented a rejection of a status quo they had no faith was going to be overcome through traditional methods. When the team plummeted in the standings, many fans were fine with it, rationalizing that the Sixers were probably going to be bad anyway, so why not tank all-out and reap the greater potential benefits? There was some logic to it, even if it meant witnessing one of the most putrid and unwatchable basketball teams in the history of the NBA, not just for one year but for several. We can’t win now, so we’ll lose now and gain later. Sure, the economy sucks right now in Kansas, but soon we’ll be better off for it...

Except, later never happened. Kansas is an economic dumpster fire and the 76ers are so laughable that squeakers on Twitter can argue that Villanova would stand a puncher’s chance against them without anyone telling them to shut up. It had become clear, to outsiders and non-analytic wonks, that Hinkie’s strategy was failing, that his rebuilding strategy was perpetual, that they had been stuck in Stage 1 of his master plan for three years and weren’t yet any closer to reaching Stage 2, and that he had treated his players more as disposable commodities and less as human beings. It was also clear that, even if the team did manage to someday/somehow assemble a competitive core of future Hall of Famers, that it could unravel in the blink of an eye because of how little faith that roster would understandably have in its management.

To pick the example that inspired the Sixers Hinkiefied teardown: it’s hard enough to build a championship foundation with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in your starting lineup. Now imagine trying to convince lesser players than them to stick around for the next decade, when you’ve sold off every teammate they’ve ever had for future second round picks and forced them to lead the most embarrassing, joyless, pitiful team they’ve ever been on in their life. Even in a utopian fantasy world where Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel all become All-Stars and avoid injury issues… why in God’s name would any of them invest their careers in this organization the long term? Who in their right mind wouldn’t flee from this clusterfuck of an organization as quickly as possible? It’s one thing to ask fans to trust the process. It’s another to ask players to endure it. The former might stick around out of belief or loyalty or laziness, but the players can leave as soon as they get a better offer.

It’s hard to believe it took this long for this experiment to end, and that it wasn’t actually the Sixers who pulled the plug. But it’s even harder to believe that there are people bemoaning the loss of this guy, as though the three horrible seasons they’d witnessed were somehow meaningless. For all the optimism associated with The Process, the only thing Hinkie managed to accomplish was to transform an entire fanbase into nihilists, to teach them to simply not care about the product they were watching, and to believe that no amount of failure, no amount of embarrassment, and no amount of losing was a bad thing.

To trust The Process was to be in a cult, to see Hinkie as a miracle man peddling medicine that would one day cure all ailments, even though the snake oil he was pushing was not merely ineffective, but toxic; mourning the loss of The Process is pure Stockholm Syndrome, to have become so embittered with sports and so enamored with hope-trafficking that it’s no longer possible to sit back and go, “Wow, the Sixers were pathetic when this guy was in charge.”

Sam Hinkie was as bad as any GM in history, and his record bears that out. But he was smart enough to package himself and his strategy as something more, as something that transcended empirical data and results. If Sixers fans are really going to miss having that kind of leadership in their lives, I have three simple words for them, and no, they’re not “trust The Process.”

Move to Kansas.

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