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Spike Eskin: Why To Like The Sixers Hire Of Sam Hinkie, And Why To Question Those Who Don’t

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By Spike Eskin

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – A lot of people love the Sixers’ hire of Sam Hinkie to be their next general manager. A few people don’t. I understand why people love the hire, and I’m trying to understand the people who don’t.

None of us were in Sam Hinkie’s interviews with the Sixers. Very few of us are there when Hinkie is scouting players, or going over the two words that I’m sure we’ll beat to death for the next six months, ‘advanced analytics.’ Because he was second in charge to Daryl Morey in Houston, it’s difficult to even judge how much Hinkie had to do with every decision the Rockets made while he was there.

What we know about Sam Hinkie, by and large, is what other people tell us.

Sure, at the end of the day, time will tell whether the Sixers hire of former Houston exec Sam Hinkie was a good one. And if Hinkie chooses the “tear it down and build through the draft” method of rebuilding the team, it could be years before we figure out if the moves he makes are the proper ones. Even then, it’s an inexact science, and even if Hinkie makes all the right moves, there’s a real chance the Sixers may never compete for a title while he’s with the team.

One thing we can be sure of though, is that people around basketball think quite a bit of Sam Hinkie. In 2007, the Rockets made him the youngest VP in the history of the NBA. You’d be hard pressed to find a negative review of this hire that holds more water than “well analytics just don’t work in basketball!,” a statement that is patently false, and usually comes from a place of a misunderstanding or lack of understanding about advanced analytics in basketball rather than true belief that they don’t work or can’t be helpful.

The cry of “he’s not a basketball guy!” seems like a strange thing to say about a man who is VP of Basketball Operations for an NBA team, and now general manager of another. I’m going to guess he watches quite a bit of basketball and understands it just fine. You’ll find that most basketball people who excel at understanding and use of advanced analytics understand the “on the floor” aspect of basketball a lot more than traditional basketball observers understand advanced analytics. The idea that the two things, analytics and “on the floor” information are mutually exclusive doesn’t make much sense.

How advanced analytics can help build a basketball team, and how they can make the team play more efficiently is a different discussion for a different time, but I challenge you to find a compelling argument about how they do not.

Those people who are telling you that Sam Hinkie isn’t a basketball guy, I’d challenge you to ask them how they know that, and who told them that. I’m sure there is a fair criticism of Hinkie, but I’ve yet to read or hear one.

With that said, here are some things that have been said about the Sixers hire of Sam Hinkie:

Zach Lowe of Grantland, for my money the best basketball writer alive right now, said on Twitter, “Sam Hinkie is a fantastic hire by the Sixers. As smart a guy as I’ve encountered in the NBA.”

Haralabos Voulgaris, widely considered to be the most successful NBA gambler in history, said via Twitter, “big fan of this hire.”

Sam Amick, national basketball writer from USA Today said that the “Sixers [got] a good one,” in Hinkie.

Patrick Harrel of the Rockets blog The Dream Shake, said “the Rockets lose a tremendous asset in their front office. Hinkie was a pioneer of analytics in the statistically-minded Rockets front office and was a big reason why the Rockets were always on the cutting edge in analytics. He had a huge role in the Rockets’ use of SportVU technology to track the players at all times, and is extremely well-respected around the league for his skills in player evaluation.”

Henry Abbot, of ESPN’s True Hoop, had this to say about Hinkie:

Hinkie is a highly regarded behind-the-scenes NBA mind who has put in the work on every front, from mastering the nitty gritty of the CBA to traveling the backwaters of the globe scouting prospects. He has been a key figure in building Houston’s analyst-thick Moneyball-style front office that has cleverly created advantages for itself — figuring out how to win the James Harden sweepstakes is just one example. Using innovative contract structure trickery to haul in Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik through free-agency offers other teams couldn’t match is another.

Some teams shoot from the hip. Rest assured, under Hinkie, the Sixers will adhere to well-honed long-term strategy. Assuming Hinkie is empowered to follow his principled approach, it would make no sense to bet against them as they wrestle with big decisions like whom to hire as head coach, and whether or not to retain the injured Andrew Bynum.

Tom Ziller of SB Nation, had this to say about the hire:

The Sixers announced the hire of Sam Hinkie as the team’s new general manager on Friday. Hinkie has been No. 1 on the unofficial Ziller’s Assistant GMs Who Should Get GM Jobs Power Rankings for about three years now. (Ryan McDonough, recently hired by the Suns as GM, had vaulted to No. 2 after Paul Flannery’s longform feature on him. My list needs revisions, apparently. Spoiler alert: Troy Weaver is the new No. 1.)

Hinkie worked under Daryl Morey, the poster child for advanced analytics in the NBA. Hinkie’s background is the typical quant path: worked for an investment firm, has an MBA, loves basketball and applied data-crunching to the sport. The Sixers’ owner is an investment banker and last year hired away the Grizzlies’ advanced stats guru Aaron Barzilai. So the fit is there.

For those who believe (for one reason or another) that Hinkie only uses to numbers to make decisions, an article about Hinkie from Berry Trammel in 2008 seems to indicate quite the opposite:

But Hinkie doesn’t claim those stats are the gospel. They are just one more piece to a complicated puzzle, and when you’re dealing with players whose multi-million dollar contracts can make or break a franchise, every morsel of information helps.

“Every team is looking to beg, borrow or steal any ideas any chance they get,” Hinkie said.

And don’t think Hinkie studies only computer printouts. I met Hinkie last December at the All-College Classic. He was scouting, which could get him kicked out of the numbers-geek union.

While watching the likes of Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin and Gonzaga’s Jeremy Pargo, here’s what Hinkie looked for.

Does he talk to teammates? Does he talk to the crowd? Does he yell back at his coach? Does his coach baby him, and if so why? If he dunks off a lob, is it because the pass was perfect, or the play was a great setup, or did the defense go to sleep, or is the guy athletic enough to dunk without any of the above?

“What we try to do is draw a clearer picture,” Hinkie said. The data “trend will continue to be a part of our business, along with the judgment of experienced basketball evaluators and the unique chemistry building that coaches can create. This is yet another piece.”

I don’t know for sure that this is a great hire, I just know what people who would know are saying. They’re saying Sam Hinkie is a good choice for the job, and until he proves otherwise, I’ll give Josh Harris and the team a thumbs up on this one.

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