It’s about an hour before sunset in early August, and I’m ecstatic. The Sixers, a team I’ve was born, bled, and died for have just made a move to shake the foundations of the NBA to their core. In the moment, I’m convinced that this will live on as one of the most important decisions in Franchise history. Feverish with excitement, I tell anyone who’ll listen that this bold, table-flipping move will change the fate of a team long trapped in the swamps of mediocrity.
In the end, I was right, but for all the wrong reasons. The day way August 10th, 2012, and the move in question was the infamous trade that brought Dwight Howard to the Lakers, Andre Iguodala to the Nuggets, and the one and only Andrew Bynum to the Philadelphia 76ers. Bynum would never play a single game for Philadelphia, and today the trade is mostly remembered for almost single-handily obliterating two of the league’s most historic franchises in Philly and LA.
But at the epicenter of basketball’s Chicxulub Crater, something began to grow. Something new and revolutionary, unprecedented and incorrigible. The kind of shocking upheaval that requires the tremendous energy of an unmitigated disaster in order to kickstart it, and whose roots can only take hold in its immediate fallout. In the offices of the Wells Fargo Center, an idea was presented to a still fresh-faced ownership group, convincing them that, rather than sit and lick their wounds, the Sixers should burn the ships and plunge unfazed past the edge of the known world and into the uncharted lands of mist and dragons.
The man behind this idea, of course, was Sam Hinkie, the now former General Manager of the Sixers. At 2 years, 10 months, and 24 days, his tenure as the head of the Sixers Front Office seems shockingly brief compared to the impact it had on the league; usually, that’s the sort of tenure that becomes a footnote in a franchise’s history books. Instead, it will be forever remembered as one of the most talked about, polarizing, and hotly contested periods since the dawn of the NBA, thanks to the new paradigm Hinkie brought to the table with him. It was the genesis of more think pieces and op-eds than could be read in a dozen lifetimes; it dragged an existential debate over the nature of the NBA and “tanking” in sports to a national forefront; it inspired feverish, near cult-like levels of worship to an ideology now referred to almost mythically as “The Process”. The ramifications of this one simple idea crash over the league like aftershocks from an earthquake, and in truth years may pass before we truly feel the full impact they had on the NBA and sports as a whole.
And the idea behind it all can be summed up in one word: Honesty. That may sound paradoxical if you’ve only followed the media’s account of him as a “secretive” or “shady” GM. His feud of silence with the local sports media will be the stuff of legends for years to come, and it gave rise to a narrative that Hinkie was running a shell game while keeping Sixers fans in the dark. But I contend that, from his first day on the job to the second he tendered his resignation, no figure has ever been as blatantly, brutally, and unrelentingly as honest as Sam Hinkie. Honesty was the core of every decision he made. Honesty was the motor behind his entire philosophy as a General Manager. And, in the end, unabashed and uncompromising Honesty is what undid him.
The truth is, for all the joy it brings us, the NBA is intrinsically and undeniably broken. It’s a game that requires you to have already won to have a chance of winning; to be successful, you need to have already succeeded. We’ve reached the point in the NBA where, to contend, you need starting five stacked with at least two, preferably three “Star” players. Fee Agency won’t help you much either; a salary cap filled with a myriad of exceptions and allowances gives the home team the upper-hand in every bidding war. The only guaranteed way to level the playing field, in fact, is to already have a star player in your locker room to help with your sales pitch. And so the fact is, the only way to the top is through the bottom, either through the draft or the accumulation of assets for a trade. The reality is that there can never be a celebration in the NBA that isn’t paid with the excruciating pain of failure.
The NBA has spent decades concocting ways to keep this truth hidden. Words like “heart”, “hustle”, and “grit”, phrases like “playing the right way” and “winning culture”, the idolization of doomed campaigns, moderate successes, and small victories; all these things and more were thrown up in neon lights to keep eyes drawn away from the cracks in the foundation. Attempts to subvert this truth by taking the most direct path to success were demonized, and their proponents vilified. “Tanking” became monster under the bed, the boogeyman in the NBA’s closet, the strawman that was the true source of all the league’s problems. Sooner or later, every would-be agitator was browbeaten into playing along with the league’s charade.
But no matter what they did, they never broke Sam Hinkie. Again, more than any other figure in the history of modern sports, Hinkie was honest. He was honest to the fans about the hopeless position their hollowed out team was in when he joining the franchise. He was honest with the players about their place in the NBA and the obstacles that were in front of them. He was honest to the owners about the painful, seemingly impossible climb to the top that laid before the Sixers. And most of all, he was honest with himself about what needed to be done. From the minute he sat down as Philadelphia’s GM, Sam Hinkie stripped away every comforting platitude, every half-hearted reassurance, and every league-approved falsehood until only the cold, brash, abrasive truth remained, and rather than hide from it, he put it on display at the Wells Fargo Center for Philadelphia and the entire world to see.
And he was uncompromising. His respect for the game and its players and the countless people who live and breathe this sport was too encompassing to indulge in the easy lies that the rest of the NBA partook in. There were no side steps to greatness; no lateral moves, no “feel-good”, no attempts to promote hollow victories in the form of mid-level free agent signings or settling for good when greatness lingered on the horizon. He knew what needed to be done in order to truly thrive in this league, and he would accept absolutely nothing less. Hinkie put more trust in the fans than any other GM in the history of the league, and I for one had never felt more involved with the decision making of a sports team than I did during his tenure. In the end, it turned out to be his downfall; the majority of the basketball world, it seemed, wasn’t ready to give up the charade just yet. But those of us in who were, it was nothing short of liberating.
Look, despite what the tone of this writing may have you believe, Sam Hinkie isn’t dead. He still woke up this morning with one of the best basketball minds in nation, and I have no doubts he’ll find a job somewhere in the league far sooner rather than later. But at the same time, something did seem to slip away in South Philly on the evening of April 6th. Watching Joshua Harris stumble through prepared talking points and blatant lies, you could almost feel the destruction of everything Hinkie stood for. Gone was a belief that sports should exist without the need for positive spin or plastered smiles. “The Process”, in the end, was nothing more than stripping the shiny, candy-coated veneer off wheat thresher that is the modern NBA and finally being honest with fans, players, the media, and everyone else about what it takes to make a champion. But as Bryan Colangelo took the reins of the Sixers Front Office and his father Jerry uninstalled Skype from his laptop, that soulless cover of false assurances was slipped right back on.
Again, I’m thinking of that night in August, and all the unfulfilled hope it held. In a way, the arrival of Sam Hinkie was akin to that of Andrew Bynum. Both will now be remembered as the harbingers of broken faith and unrealized promises, but in this case, it is again for all the wrong reasons. While the promises of the Bynum trade ended up being nothing but shadows on the wall, the promises Hinkie were real and concrete. There was a true path forward, and true route to the promise land, if only we had the strength of character to accept it. Sam Hinkie was an honest man, but he made the mistake of trying to win a dishonest game.
Matt Hopkins can be followed on Twitter at @Mopkins15