When the Philadelphia 76ers started the season on a stunning winning streak, the basketball world took notice. Philadelphia began with a remarkable come-from-behind victory over the defending champion Miami Heat, led by a performance from rookie Michael Carter-Williams, who looked like a seasoned veteran for much of the contest. Experts began talking about Philadelphia as a team to be reckoned with, despite their over reliance on mediocre or inexperienced players. This strong performance would have been a pleasant surprise for almost any other team, but for Philadelphia, the surprise became an absolute shock as an NBA team that appeared designed to fail defeated the most respected team in the league. Of everyone in the NBA intelligentsia eating crow over Philadelphia’s success, nobody was more surprised than Philadelphia’s general manager, Sam Hinkie.
Although Hinkie will never be willing to admit it, virtually everyone believed that the 76ers were not just bad as a consequence of the winning and losing cycles of the league. Instead, the general league consensus was that Sam Hinkie, a well respected practitioner of modern analytics, was actively sabotaging his team’s ability to compete. At the beginning of the season, the team had arguably no more than five or six competent NBA players. Hinkie’s perceived desire to demolish his team came from the fact that he traded Philadelphia’s lone all-star of the last few years, Jrue Holiday. In return, Hinkie received Nerlens Noel, one of the top prospects of 2013’s NBA draft, and a draft pick in the highly regarded 2014 NBA draft. Without Holiday, Philadelphia was expected to fail.
Unfortunately, this is not a story of a band of disrespected players coming together to win, despite the odds. Instead, this is a story of a team that performed competently for a few months, then proceeded to trade two of their starters for future draft picks. As a result, Philadelphia has gone on a 20 game losing streak that threatens to be one of the darkest moments for any franchise in NBA history. Yet for Sam Hinkie, it is all part of the plan. As a result of the NBA’s system of rewarding teams for being bad by giving them high draft picks, teams prioritize demolishing their rosters over fielding mediocre teams.
Yet despite the fact that the analytics community has praised Hinkie’s attitudes towards managing the 76ers, his brazen distaste for putting together a competent team on the court has raised eyebrows in the more traditional avenues of the NBA. However, these critics lose track of the fact that Sam Hinkie’s job is not to keep the dignity of the NBA in tact; his job is to win. In today’s NBA, so dominated by super teams in the nation’s largest markets, the only way a team like Philadelphia can stay competitive is to collect high draft picks through tanking. While the NBA’s old guard may moan about Philadelphia’s strategy, they had better ask themselves why Hinkie is being incentivized to lose, rather then condemning him for building a loser.Photo: Kevin Burkett / Flickr