Sam Hinkie and the Paradigm Shift

“What is essential in war is victory, not prolonged operations.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The Sixers, and their unconventional methods, have ignited some strong conflicting feelings within my circle of basketball friends.

There is one very skeptical group that looks at what Hinkie is doing and scoffs at the idea of abandoning competing in the present for a possible future gain. That viewpoint was very clearly outlined by Andres Alvarez at my old haunts on Boxscore Geeks. I quote:

“….Winning a title is contingent on getting a star. While drafting such a player is a way to do this, it is not the only way, and certainly not the easiest way. Even for teams that do luck into drafting such stars, they’re usually years away from being in a spot to compete. If they don’t have a team built for their star by the time their rookie deal and restricted free agency runs out, they’ll lose them.

We are certainly not suggesting it’s impossible to find a star in the draft. We’re also not suggesting a team like the 76ers, who is stockpiling draft picks will be unable to compete. All we are saying is since the Draft Lottery has been in effect, the notion that a title team needs to win their star in the draft has not been true. Lucking into a lopsided trade or having cap, and an appealing team in the right free agency has been the clear victor so far. I don’t suspect we’ll stop fans and teams from hoping that the draft will answer their prayers. That said, for teams that try and learn from history, it might be worth looking into…..”

The argument, and it’s a fair one, is that history shows us a very clear path to success and that path is not the path that the Sixers are following. There is no empirical evidence to support the successful implementation of the scorched earth approach that Hinkie is employing in Philadelphia.

To that, I say of course, that’s entirely the point, the Sixers are hoping to exploit the system. To quote one of my favorite books, Hinkie is thinking like a freak.

There is a great story in the book “Think like a Freak” which applies here. It’s the story of how Ken Kobayashi  completely transformed the world of competitive eating. The podcast in that link summarizing the chapter of the book that covers that is great but I’m going to summarize what I consider the most relevant excerpt:

“…. Ken Kobayashi: There were players much bigger than I was physically even in Japan so I didn’t think it could be just a physical thing — it had to be total mental and physical.

Stephen Dubner: Kobi studied earlier contests like this one, with qualifying stages. He saw that most people went so hard in the early rounds that even if they did advance, they didn’t have the energy – or the stomach capacity – to finish strong. So he decided to eat just enough at each stage to qualify for the next. And when it came time for the final round, he blasted past the others, and won. …….

At home in Japan, Kobi began to train for Coney Island. American-style hot dogs weren’t available where he lived, so he used sausages made of minced fish. No hot-dog buns either, so he cut bread down to size. He took his training seriously. Very seriously. He began a long series of experiments………Kobi videotaped his training sessions. He charted all his data and analyzed it. He wanted to find out what worked and, just as important, what didn’t work. At one point, he thought he should chew each dog very vigorously – but he realized this not only took too long but was also bad for his jaw. He was tireless in his experimentation.
Stephen Dubner: Why do you think others before you hadn’t experimented so much?
Ken Kobayashi:  Maybe because they are not as serious as I am? Maybe that’s the only honest answer.
Stephen Dubner: How did you get so serious?
Ken Kobayashi:  Simply that I when I tried it I thought the physical action felt like – this is a sport.
Stephen Dubner: A sport, and nobody had treated it like a sport before.
Ken Kobayashi:  And I simply wanted to be number one in the world at this. …..”

The story of Kobayashi is the classic story of a paradigm shift. Everyone else thought of competitive eating as taking the simple act of eating to the extreme through simple grit and heart. Kobayashi saw it as a sport, as an art that could be refined thru technique and science. He moved the goalposts and completely destroyed the commonly held beliefs of his field by the simple act of trying something different.

I believe that is exactly what the Sixers are trying to do. They’re not trying to build a winning team right now, they’re trying to build a team that will continue to win for decades to come. If you view it thru that lens their actions are not only rational but sensible.

Let me hit you with a data point. The Spurs are the most successfully run franchise in the NBA. Here’s their top nine players by minute played last year:

Rk Player Age G GS MP Got to the Spurs thru
1 Tim Duncan 37 74 74 2158 Drafted by the Spurs
2 Marco Belinelli 27 80 25 2016 Signed to $5.5mill/2 year contract
3 Tony Parker 31 68 68 1997 Drafted by the Spurs
4 Boris Diaw 31 79 24 1974 Picked up off waivers by the Spurs
5 Kawhi Leonard 22 66 65 1923 Drafted by the Spurs
6 Danny Green 26 68 59 1651 Picked up off waivers by the Spurs
7 Manu Ginobili 36 68 3 1550 Drafted by the Spurs
8 Patrick Mills 25 81 2 1527 Signed to $2.2mill/2 year contract
9 Tiago Splitter 29 59 50 1271 Drafted by the Spurs

Notice anything missing? There are zero pricey free agents on this roster. The Spurs have built their roster entirely thru draft picks (Duncan, Manu, Tony, Kawhi and Splitter their big five), players that were discarded by other teams (Diaw and Green were both waived) and dirt cheap free agents (two years of Marco Bellinini and Patty Mills cost about 25% of one season of Kobe or Melo). The Spurs do this by continually churning players thru their D-League team , by emphasizing the system over the players,  by signing all sorts of low cost gambles to their roster and seeing if they take and more when they take rewarding  actual performance with a roster spot.

If you were looking to build a truly successful franchise for the long term that’s the model to follow.

Let’s take a stab at guessing their approach (credit here goes to Ari Caroline for synthesizing it):

“…..Whether or not you agree with tanking philosophically or morally, that is the approach that Hinkie is clearly following. All of his moves have been logically consistent with that approach. He’s not taking on any long-term bad contracts, leaving himself maximum cap flexibility. Simultaneously, he’s loading up on high-probability (though certainly not guaranteed), low-rent, young talent (much of it with deferred contracts in European leagues).

Imagine it this way. Hinkie has an optimization model where the objective function is the team’s five-year win% starting with the 2016-17 season. Wins prior to 16-17 have zero or even negative value in the model since they compromise the later value that can be had via high draft picks. So the only wins that he will acquire in the meantime are those that are necessary for the longer term build. In fact, it may even make sense to purposely acquire a few bad players to support the short-term tanking. In the meantime, he drafts as well as can be expected once you acknowledge the inherent uncertainty of the draft and puts strong emphasis on deferred talent that won’t hurt the team in terms of short-term wins and can be held under cheap contracts for much of the five-year period that he is actually seeking to optimize.

Now, any of you might legitimately claim that this may work, but it is unnecessary. It’s possible to build a team that will win 50-55 games per season starting in 16-17 while still attempting to field a competitive team in the short term. To this, Hinkie would respond “I don’t give a fart”. If I can increase my expected wins in the years that I care about, even by a little, I’ll lose as much as I need to now in order to accomplish that…….”


Step one then is to get a franchise cornerstone in place thru the draft. How are they doing there? Let’s examine their draft record:

2013 Draft: (See my live thoughts )

Sixers trade Jrue Holiday (.099 WP48 career) for our top rated prospect (Noels) and a pick in 2014

They draft MCW who exceeds expectations as a rookie (.049 WP48) then has a bad year and they cash in on him for multiple chances at Okafor

We liked their other two picks (Wolters and Kazemi)

2014 Draft:

They drafted the best player in the draft again by our numbers (Embid) then they draft the best non big man available (Saric) by our numbers.

Then they pick KJ McDaniels who’s exceeded expectations (.075 WP48)

Basically, they have drafted two players who should have been the #1 pick in the draft (Noels and Embid) and are lining up for a good shot at the best rated prospect I’ve seen since Anthony Davis in Okafor. If there’s a 60% chance of each of these guys being a bust, there’s only a 20% chance of all three being bust. Throw in their other picks and the odds of them not finding a franchise player get smaller and smaller. Step 1 looks to be well underway.

Look, I get the skepticism. Trying something radically different is always going to be unpopular. However, I completely understand what they’re trying to achieve and I’m willing to wait this out before making any further judgements. I’m also willing to cut them a huge amount of slack since I’ve completely agreed with everything they’ve done in terms of the draft, trades and coach hires. Even gaming the pace to maximize the trade value of players like Evan Turner has been inspired.

Were I a Sixers fans, I’d be more than happy to wait a few years. As I said on twitter last night, If I had to set the odds on a win totals bet between the Sixers and Knicks over the next for years, I’d set it at Sixers -20 and feel completely confident taking Philly.






One Comment

  1. Andrew Sutton
    March 3

    Philly needs to put a competent team together for the FREE AGENCY period of 16-17 not the draft period. This consistent losing lowers the odds of them becoming a contender much less a competitive team. I much rather be Milwaukee( I didn’t like them trading Brandon Knight, who was finally adapting to the league). Hinkie loves wingspan , athleticism, and three pointing shooting. If there wasn’t a cap, Philly could throw the checkbook at Durant. FREE FURKAN ALDEMIR

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