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The Hinkie Project

Carter-Williams and Noel sit sidelined in the Hinkie Project
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

On May the 14th, 2013 the Philadelphia 76ers named Sam Hinkie to be their President of Basketball Operations and General Manager. Prior to coming over to the Sixers franchise Hinkie was the master mind behind the ground breaking analytical analysis of the NBA Draft and using numbers to determine which players to bring in and to ship out via free agency. Hinkie managed the Rockets entire salary cap as well; he is the ‘Money Ball’ of the NBA.

Hinkie is an original leading contributor to the MIT conference held annually that focuses on sports analytics and has even assisted NFL teams on their draft strategies based on the analytical approach. He was even named as one of the Top-60 undergraduates in the nation by USA TODAY when he graduated summa cum laude from the University of Oklahoma.

All that said he now has an entire city of basketball fans looking to him and to him alone to restore glory to their coveted Sixers franchise. His approach, much like his entire resume, is one that is seemingly carefully calculated yet will take time to develop. Many people have criticized the demand for the patients he has placed on his fan base with hopeful results to come.

"Sam is a proven innovator and holds values that align with those of our ownership group. Sam’s experience, his judgment, and his analytical approach make us confident that he is the right leader to build a foundation for long-term success” said Sixers Managing Owner Josh Harris when the team announced Hinkie as President and GM in 2013.

The long term success mentioned by Harris above will come with a long term rebuilding process that will rely heavily on the NBA Draft and gambling on trades and players with a history of injury. As we have mentioned Hinkie is a man that looks at the numbers and there are plenty of players that put up staggering numbers on the court, yet their medical bills and time off the court surpass what they can produce on paper.

Dumping his best player for salary and draft picks has been at the top of Hinkie’s to-do-list in the past three seasons. This strategy has given the front office salary cap flexibility and draft picks that look to shape the entire franchise going forth. The first of these trades came when Hinkie dealt Sixer staple and best player at the time Andre Iguodala to Denver in a blockbuster deal that included Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard and about 13 other players.

This was Hinkie’s first attempt at building his front-court when he received Andrew Bynum; whom had an injury history. Bynum being a long bodied center that can defend and score with an injury history is also a precursor for the moves ahead.Bynum is out of the NBA and was of no help to the Sixers franchise, this was a bust for Hinkie yet he would make the same type of gamble with his next trade.

Hinkie sent Jrue Holiday; their best player and All-Star point guard to New Orleans for the rights to Nerlens Noel and a top 5 protected 2014 first round draft pick. This move also allowed Hinkie to get long and quick at the point guard position by drafting Syracuse lead guard Michael Carter-Williams who earned the Rookie of the Year honor while playing on a Sixer team that won only 19 games all season.

Noel at the time was rehabbing a torn ACL and with the way the franchise outlook is for the Sixers they decided to stash him all season, allow the team to “tank” for the upcoming draft in hopes to land Andrew Wiggins. Well, Noel dominated the NBA Summer League after being allowed to fully recover and is looking like he could be a true force in the paint for the Sixers and if he can remain healthy will be an extremely valuable player in the NBA. The Sixers tanked their way into the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, however their obvious target in Andrew Wiggins had already been selected.

Hinkie true to his form decided to draft Joel Embiid whom is talked about as being the best overall prospect even with Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins in the entire draft. However, much like Bynum and Noel, Embiid is injury prone and reports are that he will likely sit for the entire 2014-15 NBA season.

With the Pelicans picks obtained from the Holiday trade the Sixers went with Elfrid Payton, an upside point guard with great court vision. In an awkward live draft day interview with current Sixers lead guard and rookie of the year, Michael Carter-Williams he said he trusts the system even though the team had just selected another point guard with their lottery pick minutes before the interview. Yet you could see the worry, confusion and frustration on his face.

Hinkie hit the reset button with his next deal; sending Elfrid Payton to Orlando for Dario Saric and a future draft pick. That future pick will inevitably due to the inner workings of dealing second round picks in the NBA be the pick they sent away for Andrew Bynum, essentially erasing the Bynum trade and starting over.

Saric is said to be one of the best stretch forwards in the draft, with court vision and shooting potential, yet he signed a two-year-contract with a Turkish club meaning he cannot play in the NBA for at least two more seasons. Another draft-and-stash move by Hinkie that allows him to acquire a long versatile player that has all the analytical qualities that Hinkie is looking for, yet gives him salary freedom for the short term.

Just recently Hinkie decided to again trade his best player, Thaddeus Young, which Hinkie stated “this is a move we think moves our program forward.” Sixers received from Cleveland the 2015 Miami Heat first-round pick and from Minnesota in the three-team-deal they received Alexey Shved and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. The move also dumped the $9M in salary owed to Young this season and the $10M player option that would likely be owed to him in the following year.

Adding Shved is a very ho-hum addition; he could blossom in the Sixers up-tempo offensive but likely makes the team worse than they were prior to the trade. The interesting part of the deal comes with Mbah a Moute, who has known Joel Embiid from Cameroon ever since Embiid decided to pick up a basketball. Mbah a Moute will play solid defense and will be a leader to the young talent they have acquired down low. With the 2015 first-round pick, Mbah a Moute is quietly an integral part of this deal and the formula that Hinkie has put in place going forward.

There are plenty of teams in the NBA that do not make the playoffs year after year, they make bad decisions on free agents, they are unwilling to spend money to better the franchise or just never hit on draft picks. There are also teams that constantly make the lower end of the playoffs yet never really actually contend for an NBA championship. Sam Hinkie and the Sixers have a vision in mind, sure they won’t make the playoffs any time soon, but they are not stuck with any bad contracts and have a plethora of draft picks and young talent to work with.
If you ask me the way Hinkie is pull the strings in Philadelphia and the long-term rebuild he has committed himself and the fans to is at least something that the fan can get behind and be excited about.

For example the Detroit Pistons have yet to make the post season in the past five seasons and it is due to poor decision making on the behalf of their front office. Or in Minnesota, they had one of the most talented players in the entire NBA yet were unable to hit on draft picks to build a winning atmosphere. Hinkie seems to be not only stock piling talent in the NBA Draft, he continues to acquire more picks and continues to lower his overall team salary.

The real question going forward is when will Hinkie be done acquiring picks and when will he focus on winning-now instead of the rebuild. The answer to that is likely after next season when he will have a healthy Joel Embiid, Noel will have a full season under his belt and Michael Carter-Williams will be entering his third season. Hinkie will have their own lottery pick as well as the Heat’s first round pick signed and will be a year away from adding Saric to their roster. When Saric comes over it will be as if they are adding another lottery pick to the roster who is a seasoned player overseas and not a gumshoe rookie that the league is used to.

Jerami Grant is a rookie forward who had a nice collegiate career under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and could end up being a good second round selection. In that same breath KJ McDaniels ranked as the top transition scorer in the draft, the third best finisher in the draft and will join the up-tempo Sixers offense; seemingly the perfect analytical pick from Hinkie for his franchise as a second round role player going forward. Jordan McRae; also a second round selection this season, was named to the All-NBA Summer League 2nd Team and will be a good back up to Tony Wroten and Shved yet is versatile enough to back up the swing forward as well.

Sam Hinikie continues to build a dominant group of young and talented analytically gifted players that also allow the Sixers to have a league-low salary to give flexibility for trades and also keep the bank open for when their young player’s rookie contracts end and they have to spend to keep the team and the formula alive. Hinkie may be taking this ‘tank for draft picks’ formula to the max, however he is not the first GM to take this approach to a brighter future.

Sam Presti is looked at as being one of the more gifted GMs in the NBA, with one glaring hiccup in not paying James Harden and keeping their ‘Big 3’ together. From 2007 to 2009 the Thunder (drafting as the Super Sonics in 2007 and 2008) were able to select Kevin Durant with the 2nd pick in 2007, Russell Westbrook with the 4th overall pick in 2008 and then James Harden with the 3rd overall pick in 2009. Ever since that 2008 season the Thunder have stood as one of the top NBA teams.

Who knows if Embiid or Noel or whoever they select next season with their lottery pick will turn out to be a Durant, Westbrook or even a Harden. This is a similar system that Hinkie is playing yet Hinkie is stock piling extra first round picks that have turned into a rookie of the year point guard in Carter-Williams and will be an early 20s projected pick next summer.

If this formula works and in three seasons the Sixers have a hoard of the most gifted young talent in the NBA on rookie contracts blossoming into contenders look for Adam Silver and the rest of the NBA to speed the process of evening out the odds in the NBA Draft Lottery to prevent tanking strategy.
If this experiment in the analytical realm of sports philosophy turns out to be a failure it will be due to Embiid and Noel not being able to stay healthy and their young players not blossoming into the players they had hoped and free agents not willing to come over to play for a team that is continuously bottoming out no matter how much they can offer in salary.

With all that in mind, it is part of the plan for the Sixers to be terrible this season and once again land in the top 5 of the NBA Lottery with hopes to land the top overall pick in the 2015 Draft. The concerning thing is that ticket prices have yet to come down, even with the idea that management is obviously not trying to contend and are banking on a young and fun type play to draw fans in. Their top overall pick, once again, will be sidelined for presumably the entire NBA season and the fans are just forced to sit and watch and hope it all pans out.

The clock is ticking in Philadelphia, they are an informed and fanatic fan base that will only sit and watch this type of formula for so long. Once Embiid, Noel, Carter-Williams and whoever is selected next season all hit the court at the same time Hinkie better hope they play at a contending level or their will be plenty of cabbage and tomatoes to be tossed at the owner’s box come the 2016 NBA season.

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