TrueHoop: Sam Hinkie

Who broke the Philadelphia 76ers?

April, 3, 2014
Abbott By Henry Abbott
They're unwatchably bad, and yet also very well run. Who's to blame for this mess? Let's ask Kate Fagan.

The great blight hope

March, 27, 2014
By Tom Sunnergren
Special to
Henry SimsAP Photo/Eric GayBehind those 25 consecutive losses and that 15-56 record, there's still a ray of hope in Philadelphia.
On Dec. 15, 1968, during halftime of the final game of a 2-12 season, a group of Philadelphia Eagles fans threw snowballs at a 19-year-old kid who was dressed as Santa Claus. There’s a longer version of this story with some quasi-exonerating context, but that’s the upshot. A gang of angry men pelted a teenager with snow because they were frustrated with the local football team.

Sports media figures in Philadelphia hate to be asked about this incident. Partly because they maintain it’s a cartoonish and grotesque distortion of the values of the city’s fan base -- which it sort of is -- but largely because it forces them to confront a pathology that, although maybe on the wane, still survives and thrives in pockets of their constituency.

Which is to say: It hurts because it exposes an uncomfortable truth.

There’s an angst, a deep-seated dissatisfaction, that pervades Philadelphia sports culture. It’s so ambient and consuming, so normalized, that it’s difficult to really see or feel while you’re inside of it -- to cut to the punch line of an old joke, "What the hell is water?"

“Passion” is what some Delaware Valley partisans attribute this cantankerousness to -- “love” and “loyalty” are also frequently cited -- but it’s probably best understood as a highly developed palate for unhappiness.

All of which makes it strange and noteworthy that, with the 76ers poised to tie an NBA record for consecutive losses Thursday, the modal attitude in this angsty, angry city isn't frustration, despair or apathy, but something that, if you squint just a little, looks suspiciously like optimism. Maybe even hope.

Consider the Sixers’ March 19 loss to the Chicago Bulls -- Chapter 68 in the tragicomic novel Brett Brown & Co. have been authoring since October. (Working title: “The 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers.”) The fans, the 13,322 paying customers scattered throughout the Wells Fargo Center that night, weren’t so much entertained as riveted by the scrappy, hopeless bunch. They roared when Thaddeus Young buried a 3-point shot to cut the (relatively) mighty Bulls’ lead to 64-61. They cheered raucously on the next possession when Henry Sims scored off a Tony Wroten assist to narrow the Chicago advantage to a single point. The rafters shook when Byron Mullens hit consecutive trifectas to make it 81-80 Bulls with nine minutes remaining.

When the game ended with the Sixers’ 22nd consecutive loss, the crowd was buoyant, even affectionate. It was like an arena full of besotted parents had just finished watching their snotty, uncoordinated, beautiful infants take their first clumsy steps. A few stumbles and scrapes, sure, but what do you expect? The kid’s skull hasn’t even fused yet.

This is unusual, especially in the context of Philadelphia, but there’s some precedent for it. When academia first saw fit to make a serious inquiry into the nature and cause of human happiness a few years back -- further evidence that progress comes in fits and starts, we started rigorously studying happiness 30 years after inventing Pop Rocks -- researchers were struck by something: The Danes were really happy. Thirty years of survey data all pointed one way. The cold, tiny, dark, hard-drinking, deeply pessimistic nation of Denmark was the happiest on the planet.

What these bewildered researchers soon came to understand was that the Danes were satisfied not despite their pessimism but because of it. Every year the citizens of Denmark braced for disaster, and when it never came, they were pleasantly surprised. Recently, economists Rakesh Sarin and Manel Baucells added to the picture, distilling happiness to a tidy equation: Happiness = Reality – Expectations. The Danes simply enjoyed a reality surplus. Imagine the feeling when your dermatologist tells you that mole on your back is just a mole on your back. That’s Denmark, 24/7.

And now it’s Philadelphia. This is a city, a fan base, that was girded for calamity in 2013-14. The team was supposed to be historically bad, so the fact that it is has been a nonissue. Happiness = Reality – Expectations. With zero expectation of success, the mounting losses are nothing to mourn. And so they haven’t been.

But this isn’t the end of the story. Sixers fans aren’t merely not miserable. In the absence of dread, something else entirely has cropped up from the once-fallow imagination of Philly hoops boosters: faith. Tucked into every loss, present in every missed shot and sloppy live-ball turnover, is a good reason to think things will someday, maybe not too long from now, get better.

Consider Michael Carter-Williams, the 6-foot-6 point guard whose combination of potential and puerility makes him the quintessential 2013-14 Sixer. Carter-Williams leads all rookies in points, rebounds, assists, steals and double-doubles, but shoots 39.6 percent from the floor and is ninth in win shares on a 15-56 team.

Carter-Williams isn't a Philadelphia 76er, he is the Philadelphia 76ers: a fresh-faced, uncomplicated, blank canvas upon which a city can project its hopes and dreams. And with Nerlens Noel still recovering from a torn ACL, MCW might not be the most gifted rookie on the team. Help, too, is on the way. With each passing loss, the team brings itself closer, if only in degrees of probability, to a potential difference-maker like Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker.

Meanwhile, the painful reminders of past failures have been flensed from the franchise. Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner are in Indiana. Spencer Hawes in Cleveland. Doug Collins is in my living room, talking about something on TV.

In Philadelphia, even the losses themselves are encouraging, suggestive of an ability to build a thing that works the way it’s supposed to. The Sixers aren’t merely tanking -- half the league is -- they’re tanking better than anyone else. They’re the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls of deliberate losing. This thing is a work of art.

General manager Sam Hinkie traded his best player, Jrue Holiday, on draft night (and received, in return, Noel and a top-five-protected pick in the loaded 2014 draft), flipped every player on the roster with immediate value and questionable long-term appeal, and resisted the chorus urging him to use the team’s ample war chest to add a veteran or two (just to keep up appearances).

The machine Hinkie built is doing precisely the thing it was designed to do: teeter over and explode. If an organization can succeed at failure so spectacularly, imagine how wildly it can succeed at success.

This is the other side of tanking, what gets lost in the hand-wringing over the great moral failure the NBA is supposedly guilty of by incentivizing teams to lose: For many impoverished franchises and fan bases, purposeful losing doesn’t smite out hope but breathes life into it. Giving up is the only way to hang on.

Tom Sunnergren writes for Hoop76, part of the TrueHoop Network.
Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

The construction of an NBA Summer League roster follows a certain blueprint: Start with draft picks and most of the second-year guys under contract. Throw in an undrafted rookie or two, some D-Leaguers, then the journeymen who've been bouncing around or playing overseas.

But how do organizations actually choose among the hundreds -- maybe even thousands -- of players who exist in this talent pool?

We sat down with Sam Hinkie, the Rockets' vice president of basketball operations, to better understand how Houston's Summer League roster was put together.

"Gersson Rosas [the Rockets' director of player personnel] handles the heavy lifting in putting the team together," Hinkie said. "The rest of us weigh in heavily, but Gersson does most of the legwork."

The primary goal for a team?

"Figuring out who you want to learn about. Who can be an NBA player? That's the key," Hinkie said. "All of these players have some skill or something that's shown up somewhere that's caused us to say, 'There's a reason that guy can be in the NBA.'"

Winning is way down on the list of goals for the Rockets in Summer League play in Las Vegas.

"We want players who want to win," Hinkie said. "We want players who will lead to winning and they ought to impact winning on this level too, but winning here is the least of our concerns."

With that, we went through the Rockets' Summer League roster name by name, with Hinkie explaining the organization's rationale for each invitation:
Garrett Temple Garrett Temple: Will there be an NBA roster spot in his future? (Fernando Medina/NBA via Getty Images)
Garrett Temple
Hinkie: "He's a perfect example. He's a two-position, maybe three-position, defender. He's a massive winner. He's caught between positions."

For a big, combo guard like Temple who didn't work in the most generous system for his talents at LSU, Summer League offers the perfect laboratory to see what he can do at the point.

Hinkie: "It might take him a month. It might take him a few years in Europe. But if he can make that transition, he's an NBA player."

Wherever Temple ends us next year, the Rockets will continue to watch him.

Rod Benson
Hinkie: "He's killed in the D-League. That gets you a look. Guys who kill in the D-League end up on the Rockets' radar."

Jermaine Taylor

The Rockets drafted Taylor with the 32nd pick in this year's NBA draft out of Central Florida. The Rockets are curious to see what he can do against superior competition.

Brad Newley

The Rockets' drafted the Aussie swingman with the 54th overall pick in the 2007 draft. Newley has played in Greece each of the past two seasons.

Hinkie: "He's played well and is making big strides. He's one of our properties, so learning about him is important."

James White
Hinkie: "He's important to us. We invested in him last year, and he's got a chance to make our roster this year."

Aside from Tracy McGrady, the Rockets have only three wings at the moment -- Trevor Ariza, Shane Battier, and Brent Barry. Given the team's familiarity with White's game and, as Hinkie said, its previous investment in him, White will get a strong look.
Houston Rockets "Who can be an NBA player? That's the key," Sam Hinkie said. (Garrett Ellwood/NBA via Getty Images)
Mike Green
Hinkie: "A backup one who we've always been interested in. I think he'll be good for us here. Tough guy, winner, can rebound, can draw fouls, can create his own shots, but is also a pure point guard. He's a decent defender and can pressure the ball. Those are qualities we like and he's earned the right to be evaluated in an environment like this."

Chase Budinger
The Rockets drafted the Arizona forward with the 44th pick in this year's draft.

Will Conroy
Hinkie: "He killed in the D-League, and he was a legitimate one in college and is becoming more legitimate by the day. He's backup one ready and a guy who's a logical 10-day call-up."

To that end, Hinkie emphasized that it's important to be familiar with a player before you pick him up mid-season.

"When we put a guy on our roster, I don't want that to be our first look at him," Hinkie said. "Why not be in position where not only our staff weighs in, but our coaching staff can weigh in and say, 'He was good at this, or he struggled at this?' It gives us a chance to perform more due diligence."

Joey Dorsey
The Rockets selected Dorsey 33rd overall in the 2008 draft.

Maarty Leunen
Houston took Leunen with the 54th overall pick in the 2008 draft. He played last season in Turkey.

Charles Gaines
Hinkie had said that, as a general rule, the younger the player, the better in Summer League. Given that Gaines will be 28 before the year is up, I asked him why the team made an allowance in Gaines' case.

Hinkie: "He earned his way. He played really well in Europe. He came in a make-good Summer League situation. Even though we have a roster of guys with his sorts of skills, he's the kind of player we love -- rebounds his tail off, plays hard, is undersized and doesn't care."

Hinkie's answer sounded uncharacteristically sentimental for a Rockets' organization that bases every decision on empirical fact. I asked him if, in Gaines' case, the Rockets bowed to their love of his grit.

"The only sentimentality to Gaines is that he does the things we know are empirically valuable," Hinkie responded. "He just rolls hard. He just sets good screens. He just bodies guys at the elbow when they come down. He just tries to get every single rebound."

Hinkie draws a comparison between Chuck Hayes and Gaines. Like Hayes, Gaines knows his offensive limitations, so he resists shooting, making him a more efficient player.

"Gaines is a Houston Rocket," Hinkie concluded. " We might not have room for him, but he's earned his way."

Darryl Watkins
With Yao almost certain to miss the entire 2009-10 season, the Rockets are in need of size.

Hinkie: "He fits that need. He's young and getting better -- and we want to see how much better, and how quickly."