The Expectations Game

Everyone knows what Sam Hinkie's gambit is with the Philadelphia 76ers. No one knows if it's working, or ever will.
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The best thing about Sam Hinkie’s multi-year losing project isn’t what it has achieved, which is nothing, nor what it will achieve, which may well wind up being nothing, but is the fact that there are legions of sports fans who have managed to convince themselves that it has profound merit. This is wonderful.

Support for Hinkie’s plan—or, at least some of the vocal support for his plan—seems to hinge on the notion that there are two main ways to be bad, and only two credible ways to be good. A team can be bad in the way the Knicks or Lakers are bad—accidentally, expensively, and catastrophically—or they can lean into the badness, as Hinkie’s plan requires, and so strategically engineer badness. Conversely, a team can be good either by first becoming rich in fungible assets, which are then exchanged, in one manner or another, for a core of elite-level players, or they can leverage the prestige of their organization, the desirability of their home city, and all the cash they can muster, and then buy up a core of elite-level players in free agency.

The basketblogging community seems united in the belief that strategic badness is preferable to accidental badness, ignoring, for the most part, that those two options produce the same basketball result, which is, yes, badness, and therefore bad. Their preference for one over the other, for no tangible reason greater than that one reflects hope of self-determination while the other spectacularly illuminates its failures, points to a sort of post-human, generally too-cute-by-half over-thinking that is inherent to the analytics movement in sports. Not to analytics itself, necessarily, but certainly to those who have lately made of it a sort of successorized culture.

At the very least, there is an interesting parallel found in the growth of these two ways of thinking about the game. Analytics is a way of making sense of basketball without the knee-jerk narrative nonsense that comes too easily to spectators—who wants it more, the various over-tanged intangibles. But, in this still-hazy era in which newer and newer stats are challenging all the time our notions of what actually is good or bad in basketball, it can be easy to lose sight of the basic, right-there-in-front-of-your-eyes nature of badness, or to abstract and over-parse it until it looks like something else. There is a simple truth to it, though, that does not become less true after a dozen passes through some proprietary algorithm: when you are bad, you are bad. Sports have always had a pretty clear, definitive way of separating the good from the bad: winning is good, and losing is bad. The good team beats the less good team. The team that wins a lot is very good, the team that loses a lot is very bad.

The Sixers, by this fundamental definition, are bad. They’re wrapping up a second consecutive season of being really, seriously bad.

Because of the NBA’s built-in efforts toward establishing and maintaining parity, badness comes with some benefits, setting up an obvious and exploitable perverse incentive for achieving badness when it seems nearer than its opposite. Sam Hinkie, and some others before him, have decided that the rewards for badness are worth forsaking goodness—or success, if you want a less-loaded and maybe more accurate term—at least for the time being. So Hinkie’s job performance, in the meantime, will be evaluated not according to how his NBA team plays basketball, but whether his organization is sufficiently stocked up on assets. And, by this standard, he is doing great. Hinkie has proven himself a savant at converting losses into assets and, for that matter, assets into losses.

He’s also proven himself a savant at moving the target for appraising an NBA GM’s job performance. There was a time, however quaint it may seem now, when the job of an NBA General Manager was to give his team—which, by definition, competes nightly for supremacy in the game of basketball—a better chance of winning than losing. The fun thing about Hinkie’s ploy is that his lose-to-win gambit is a trick I’ve been trying to pull at various workplaces for virtually my entire adult life. Maybe you, too, have sought to shift the expectations from general success to a series of smaller technical triumphs that ultimately obscure the total lack of general success. It is doubtful that any of us have been as successful at this as Hinkie has.

That Sam Hinkie is so much better at sandbagging his responsibilities is frustrating, in a sense—there were all those times I successfully slashed the office expense budget and reduced payroll, and all anyone cared about was the fact that sales were in the fucking toilet; meanwhile, over here is a guy with a huge public job, getting everyone to forget that his first and most important responsibility is to construct a competitive basketball team, simply by excitedly waving a bunch of draft picks over to the side of the standings. Look! Look! Over here! Look at all these assets I’ve accrued! Pay no attention to that basketball team—which, and pay no attention to this either but according to my job description is my core responsibility, and, incidentally or not, is also a flaming disaster.

The sad, hilarious thing about this trick, and how totally blinkered all of his apologists are by it, is that prime assets accrue to teams who lose no matter how the hell they get there. Literally the only way to offload these assets—which, again, are granted without any criteria related to the cleverness with which they are pursued—is by dealing them for other assets. They cannot be smoked, eaten, gifted, lost, or accidentally dropped into a sink or sewer. Sam Hinkie’s multi-year losing plan, justification for which lies utterly in the accumulation of top draft picks, is literally the basketball equivalent of just repeatedly trying and failing to build a contender.

There is no way it could be any other way. If Hinkie dealt the picks for players and the moves didn’t pan out, guess where the Sixers would be? That’s right: losing. That Hinkie’s losing was achieved deliberately and with great obviousness, while other losing just sort of unfortunately happens, doesn’t reflect harshly upon the team who tries and fails. It reflects upon the astonishing wrongheadedness of doing it on purpose! The person who concocts and executes an intricate and comprehensively reasoned plan that achieves the same result that could be attained by someone simply falling asleep at the wheel is not a genius. The architect of that plan is, until he proves otherwise, quite probably a fucking moron.

This all goes back to the notion that there are two main ways to be bad in today’s NBA: there is choosing to be bad, and there is being a catastrophic mess. This hysterically false dichotomy ignores that some teams get bad through injury—the temporarily bad 2014-15 Indiana Pacers, for example—others get bad as a result of aging and attrition, some teams reach their ceiling and fall apart through trades and acquisitions that don’t work out. Some teams simply have the bad geographic luck of being in the incredibly strong Western Conference, where even getting into the playoff picture requires genuine excellence. All of these avenues lead to the same result: entry in the NBA draft lottery. That only one of them involves deliberately choosing to be bad, and that it’s that one that is most eagerly defended by the ostensible smartest guys in the room, is amazing and wonderful.

This season will mark the second consecutive one that Hinkie has utterly forfeited in the name of asset accumulation. Next season, by virtue of having no credible core of talented players ready to ascend meaningfully in the standings, will be a third. Unless Hinkie’s plan works—unless it delivers genuine title contention, its stated goal—it will have cost the Sixers organization and its fans at least three straight years of convincing themselves that being bad was actually a thing to feel good about. It will have given them more or less zero memorable basketball games during that period.

Whatever ceiling the Sixers eventually hit, short of a championship, will be tangibly indistinguishable from the ceiling reached by teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, who just tried and failed over and over again to rise through the standings honestly. And even a title, the elusive product of planning, timing, luck, and circumstances, will be tangibly indistinguishable from titles won by teams like the Pistons and Spurs, whose rosters were built without tanking, or the Heat, who simply bought theirs. Some future Sixers title, as a product of some combination of deliberate losing and outstanding good fortune, will be just another title, impossible to credit with any degree of certainty to the years spent eagerly engineering results that the ass-backwards Knicks and Lakers achieved without trying at all.

This must be an easy thing to over-think, because support for Hinkie’s hilariously relatable lowering of expectations is, after this last teardown and the news that he’d be willing to tear things down even further for the same old reasons, near its all-time high. Maybe we all see in him a glimmer of hope for our own performance reviews. Maybe, instead of boosting sales, we can all start buying staples in bulk and replacing experienced staff with minimum wage part-timers. Maybe we can tell our bosses it’s all in service of a plan for someday being the best damn business in the world, and neglect to mention that this plan’s success requires that other businesses don’t hire our experienced castoff staff, develop their own businesses, and have the same kind of luck and opportunity upon which our plan relies.

Maybe instead of a blueprint for basketball success, which Hinkie has absolutely not redrawn, he is offering a blueprint for miscast middle-managers everywhere. I suppose, in that respect, I should be rooting for its success.

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