By Spike Eskin
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – It’s 7:30am at a South Philadelphia diner, and Sam Hinkie is sitting at a table for six, drinking coffee. It’s the day before the start of the Sixers’ first season of a rebuilding process, and there are probably a few other things the general manager of an NBA team could be doing than what Hinkie is doing.
Hinkie is having a breakfast with bloggers, and would answer questions for two hours, about everything he was permitted by the NBA to answer. Sometimes he’d give vague responses, admittedly to retain any sort of competitive advantage you can have in today’s analytic heavy, fast media, basketball world, but he’d answer none the less.
This is the same Hinkie who has been said to be impossible to find. The same Sam Hinkie that is supposedly invisible, supposedly unwilling to keep fans up to speed on the Sixers moves and progress. He is sitting in the middle of a diner, drinking coffee, eating egg whites, and talking to basketball bloggers. He is affable and patient with the group, more patient and affable than most would be.
There is one thing that is clear about Hinkie, he is persistent in his belief about the importance of “the process.” Whether it comes to player evaluation, or hiring a coach, the devil is in the detail.
Making the right decision is more important than making the quick one.
“[Hiring a coach] took some time, it took some time,” Hinkie said. “I went out to Vegas, I interviewed a lot of candidates, like one after another after another. That took a few weeks or so, and then we whittled it down, I brought a smaller group in and talked a second time, and then we took Brett Brown.”
Hinkie was criticized for the length of time it took him to hire a head coach, after rumors of an imminent Brett Brown hire happened on draft night.
“It was an interesting period. ‘It’s so important, it’s so important… do it tonight!’ It’s like, it can’t be both,” he said. “I like to give one of the guys that works for us a speech about being married, and how important it is to find the right person. Probably the biggest decision of your whole life, and it’s like ‘make it by noon!’”
As well, making the right choice doesn’t always mean you’re going to get the outcome you want. Especially in the NBA, there are no guarantees. So the team will be in a state of constant evaluation, without an attachment to any decision, only to the process of making them.
“Any decision you make, is just a decision you make at that time with the best info you have. Like, an hour later, you get new, better info. Every day you get better info all the time, so you’re adjusting your estimates all the time,” he said. “So in the same way that you’re already trying to strip out all of the emotion early, ‘aw, you know, he had this big dunk to win that game,’ you’re trying to strip that out, you should do the same when he’s actually playing for your team. Really how has he been over the totality of it? Maybe not as good as we’d hoped. Maybe our estimates were wrong. A lot of places, here or there, estimates are wrong, or things turn out differently than you thought. Sometimes there are things you could have known, and you didn’t, and sometimes there are things you couldn’t have known. Like maybe he’s uninterested in working on his individual game in a way that will help him improve. That’s one that I think you should have known, you kick yourself if you didn’t. The coach tells him ‘we want you to come in and work on this,’ and a hundred straight days he leaves right after practice. Now you think, ok, odds of him ever getting better at that are low. So now what?”
Hinkie isn’t the only guy in Philadelphia who is running a sports team whose had his share of criticism in the media. Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, who Hinkie says he’s long been a fan of, has fallen on some hard times recently. Hinkie said while in Houston, they sent members of the organization to watch Kelly’s practices to see if there was anything they could learn. They ended up adapting Kelly’s play calling signs for the Rockets’ D-League affiliate.
Hinkie often times does not live up to the billing of someone who cares more about numbers than people. Who cares more about statistics than the mental makeup of a player.
“‘[Does he] care about winning?,” Hinkie mentioned as crucial part of any player. “Circumstances overwhelm all of us sometimes, but do you care about winning in a big way? Do you care about winning on Tuesday in Milwaukee or on a Sunday game in the Lakers whites. That, I think is pretty close to independent [of the factors surrounding a player]. And the people that struggle in the environments when it “doesn’t matter as much,” just didn’t reveal themselves as struggling when it did matter.”
“People are always callous about trades,” Hinkie said, after spending some time talking about how mentally crushing an injury can be to a player. “Like, that sucks, if you’re a player. Money helps, sure, our players make a lot of money, it’s not like where their happiness comes from. They make a lot of money, which relieves some stress, and creates a lot of stress as well, but happy day to day, your job and what you do, the co-workers you work with, the city you live in, the company you work for, and then we say ‘hey, all that’s different.’
When asked about how many years it will take to build a winner in Philadelphia, he was convincing in his assertion that it’s not something he can predict.
“It would be like, you sit down at a blackjack table, and you say, ‘forget how you play, how many hands do you have to win to know you’re doing what you should be doing?’ Did you win seven hands? Is that enough? Or do you have to win eight hands? Actually, all we should focus on is what we know will lead to winning hands in blackjack over time,” he says. “We should try to deal ourselves as many tens as we can. If you can somehow deal yourself tens, you should try to do that. Because you know, over the long term, that will work. If you’re lucky, it will work quick. If you’re unlucky, it will work slow. And if you’re in the middle, it will work in the middle. Wouldn’t it be great if you could somehow choose a blackjack table to sit at that only had tens in front of you. Every time you sat down.”
“At the end of the day, some day, all that matters is whether you won or lost. You’ve got to have some kind of sub-component to that, otherwise we’re just counting “we won this many blackjack hands.’ Maybe you were counting cards. Maybe you were lucky. Maybe you were playing great, and unlucky,” he said. “So you’ve got to be able to go lower than ‘hey, I won.’ If we all said, ‘what’s the most you’ve ever won at blackjack.’ And he says $1,000, and I say $10,000, and he says $10,000,000, that doesn’t mean he’s the best player necessarily. Maybe it means it took the most risk. Maybe it means he was the luckiest. What we should be saying is ‘how do you play?’ And what decisions do you make while you play.”
It makes sense. As much as you’d like to be the guy who makes the ten million dollars, knowing the best path to become that guy is the real trick.
Hinkie will not predict how many years it will take to build the Sixers into a winner.
“It’s a function of how things go. I think you should be up front about, it’s not clear,” Hinkie said. “We have to really invest in player development, and our staff is doing that already, we’ll continue to. We have to really be focused on the change in culture, an extra punch in the clock for an extra ten minutes. Or an extra hundred shots matters, because you can add up that advantage over time. Where the players that come here say they want to be a part of our culture, and they want to get better at their craft, and they want a stage to show it on. Those things are all true this year, and will all be true in the future. This year will sort of be like bedrock, for who we’ll need to be. And of course we’ll need to keep bringing better, and better, and better players into the pipeline.”
Sam Hinkie is playing blackjack with the Philadelphia 76ers. He knows the house has the advantage, but will not let it shake his belief in the process it takes to give himself the best chance at winning each hand. Let’s hope he gets a little bit of luck as well.