The ballad of Sam Hinkie
An important new book elucidates The Process
|Feb 21, 2020||5|
TrueHoop TV Live: 76ers with Yaron Weitzman
TrueHoop subscribers, joined Henry Abbott and David Thorpe in a live video chat with award-winning, Bleacher Report NBA writer Yaron Weitzman. We discussed Yaron’s new book, “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the most audacious process in the history of professional sports.”
BY HENRY ABBOTT
“So I’m basically at a Chick-Fil-A … waiting. I’m like staking out a Chick-Fil-A, trying to find Landry Shamet’s car. I forget which car it is. A fancy car. He’s going to drive through. I’m literally in my car, I’m on a stakeout.”
Yaron Weitzman, an award-winning NBA writer for Bleacher Report, recently completed a book on the 76ers called “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the most audacious process in the history of professional sports.” It’s due out in March from Hachette Book Group. Now Weitzman’s sitting at a tall table in a Manhattan coffee shop, telling stories.
Covering the NBA is hard, harder still if you want insight that’s not spoonfed in locker rooms and press conferences. That’s why a couple of years ago, Weitzman landed outside that Chick-Fil-A. He had spent a day coordinating with the 76ers to allow him to follow then-rookie Landry Shamet on a hazing ritual of buying post-practice fast food for the team. Shamet is now a medium-sized deal on the Clippers. At that time, Weitzman saw him as the kind of player the Sixers would let a reporter trail.
Indeed, team staff introduced Weitzman to Shamet at the practice facility. Weitzman remembers asking, “Landry, how do you want to do this: I can go with you from here? Give me your number? Whatever you want. Landry says: ‘yeah, I don’t know when I’m leaving. Just meet me there.’”
It’s a plan sure to fail, unless Weitzman can turn himself into a private investigator. So there’s Weitzman doing his Dick Tracy thing outside a suburban Philly Chick-Fil-A, looking for Shamet, who seems to be taking forever.
There was a ton of waiting, and some calls back to the team. And then ...
“I missed him! He came in the back entrance,” says Weitzman. By the time he spied Shamet’s car, the player was two cars from the front of the line at the all-important moment of ordering. “I get out my car, and kind of half-jog. I knock on the door. He says ‘oh yeah,’ as if oh yeah, you’re here. As if we hadn’t prepared this whole thing. So I get in. You know sometimes you know you’re not wanted there, but I’m like you know what, fuck this. I’m going all in. I’m going to ask him forty follow-up questions, and I don’t care.”
Shamet orders by reading off his phone. Weitzman had heard that the 76ers’ star, Joel Embiid, had a special order. Shamet confirmed as much, and was careful to make sure the Chick-Fil-A people put that order—four spicy chicken sandwiches, four large fries, four cookies and cream milkshakes—in its own separate bag.”
Embiid is a giant man who could be expected to eat a lot. He’s also battled injuries and weight issues. This funny little story about fast food maybe does kind of matter to the 76ers’ title chances. “And I found that so telling,” says Weitzman, “because Joel’s not in shape, generally. I don’t care how much you’re burning. I counted up the calories. It’s not healthy.”
At the time, Embiid was out injured and it was among the franchise’s chief stress points. Weitzman reports in “Tanking to the Top,” that Sixers head coach Brett Brown shouted at the team’s medical staff: “we’re all going to get fired because Joel’s out of shape.”
Maybe Embiid ate all the Chick-Fil-A by himself, maybe he didn’t—but for sure this is a brazen man of big appetites. For sure his diet is an issue for the team’s long-term fortunes. “I’m in no place to tell anyone to eat less sweets, less fried food,” says Weitzman, “but I don’t think it’s ideal. The health thing has evolved and he’s not an optimum playing weight.”
Both Embiid and the team gave Weitzman guff for reporting Embiid’s order. This is what’s beautiful about Weitzman’s work: He knows too much to be snowed. He was in the car with Shamet when he placed the order. He knows Coach Brown’s concerns. He knows the history. Earlier in the book, there’s an anecdote about Embiid ordering three chocolate lava cakes at a dinner with Cavaliers personnel, immediately following one of the greatest pre-draft workouts of all time. “I heard that summer Joel did some media tour where he was like I was just joking, that was just rookie hazing,” Weitzman says. “It wasn’t rookie hazing. What’s the rookie hazing? [Shamet’s] already going.”
The team said Weitzman was confused about which food was for which person. Weitzman found it entirely unconvincing: “They pushed back. ‘That’s not him.’ That is him. What are you talking about?”
Joshua Harris and David Blitzer led a group that bought the 76ers in 2011. A year into their tenure, they hired Sam Hinkie to run the team. Hinkie, with a Stanford Business School degree and an infinite appetite for zigging when others zag, came from the Rockets where, under Daryl Morey, he had been a key part of basketball’s “Moneyball” revolution. They upset the norms of cap and draft pick strategies, uneven trades, contract structures, and talent evaluation to get the Rockets James Harden. Hinkie had fascinating ideas about what a poor team like the 76ers could do to get good.
What happened next is one of the most confusing chapters in NBA history. Hinkie essentially clammed up. It’s commonly referred to as “the process,” as in “trust the process,” although Hinkie never used that phrase. Instead he drafted, traded, hired, and managed in ways nobody understood in real time. He traded away fantastic players like Jrue Holiday and for injured ones like Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel. He accrued high draft picks and used a lot of them on centers. He grew the league’s biggest-ever collection of second-round picks. He traded away the rookie of the year. And he took the time to explain just about none of his strategy to the public, who knew only that the team was losing an insane, record-setting number of games, which ultimately just pissed people off. In April 2016, Hinkie quit under a ton of pressure, his resignation letter was a treatise on the power of long-term thinking over short. And … now, the 76ers are contenders, thanks to the players, picks, cap room, and assets Hinkie collected.
The lessons of it all have been poorly extracted. Did Harris and Blitzer make a good or bad move in hiring Hinkie? Weitzman’s book is much-needed. This is the basketball world’s first shot at really understanding what even happened. It’s packed with new information, and it’s a lovely read.
“I thought I was writing Moneyball or Astroball,” says Weitzman. But instead, it’s personal, touching on poignant scenes like the night Embiid—perhaps the best center in the NBA, and the centerpiece of Hinkie’s accomplishments—learned his brother Arthur had died. Coach Brown skipped the team’s preseason game to join Embiid at his apartment, as did Hinkie. But Hinkie understood the death of a brother in a whole different way. He had also lost a brother.
Hinkie was ten years old, Weitzman writes, when “at around 10:30 in the morning, Bill, wearing nothing but shorts, picked up a 12-gauge shotgun, pointed it at his own face, and pulled the trigger.” Later that day, a family friend picked up young Sam and took him to a basketball court, where, Hinkie would later say, he found a kind of refuge that he much needed.
The story of these 76ers is about way more than numbers—and on one topic after another, this book is more human than rational. It richly covers topics like why trading Michael Carter-Williams made Hinkie enemies in the team’s business offices, how agents like Jeff Schwartz and Andy Miller warred with Hinkie, why the Cavaliers didn’t draft Embiid, and—crucially—some of the surprising things Hinkie’s close-knit team of quants actually measured.
Later, after Hinkie left, the Sixers would use their number-one overall pick on Markelle Fultz, who then lost the ability to shoot. His career has been a giant disappointment. Weitzman explains what happened in detail, rendering every previous version of these events facile. Carefully phrased evidence is presented for the reader to draw individual conclusions. But this reader wrote in the margins: “Did Markelle’s mom ruin his shot?” Fascinating.
Weitzman’s work is perhaps most important for its lucid and clear-eyed reporting on how the Hinkie era ended. It has long been known that the people at the top had a giant mood shift. Harris called commissioner Adam Silver with concerns. Before long, Hinkie was reporting to Harris’s newest employee: the league office’s go-to, old-hand basketball executive, Jerry Colangelo, whose son was then out-of-work NBA general manager Bryan Colangelo. Then Hinkie resigned. And Bryan Colangelo took over.
But what happened to cause Harris to lose faith in The Process? The book spells it out. Surprisingly, it has a lot to do with Jahlil Okafor’s late-night outings.
Okafor endured a terrible tragedy when he was nine: His mother had a collapsed lung right in front of him, struggling for air. He thought she was joking around. Precious time passed. It took him a while to realize he should call 911, and even then they didn’t have a phone, so he had to run next door. She was pronounced dead at the hospital. Okafor told Chicago magazine he blamed himself.
One night in October 2015, Okafor hit the bars in Philadelphia’s Old City (even though he was only 19 at the time). There was an argument, and someone pulled a gun on Okafor. Park Rangers intervened and the gunman got away. Okafor appeared to be intoxicated. The next day, the team’s head of security, Lance Williams, learned about the episode. He also learned that Okafor had been going out a lot lately.
He could have been killed! Williams was furious with Hinkie, feeling the team should have put far more structure around players like Okafor, and feeling that Hinkie—a middle-aged white man—treated young black men as assets. Okafor continued drinking, including one night in Boston a few months later.
That video is, on the one hand, a fairly common, wee-hours-of-the-morning, post-nightclub scene. But it’s also a lot more than that. It could be a sign the team is not doing a good job keeping Okafor safe. It could be a sign the 76ers aren’t a good place to send your clients. And it has repercussions for the NBA: Okafor is drunk, brawling, bragging about being rich. The league is decades into the mission of making young black men likable to white fans; this does not help.
Williams received a call from Jerome Pickett, an executive vice president and chief security officer of the NBA. “He said the commissioner had called to ask how come one of our players is on TV fighting and nobody from the Sixers has called me,” Williams said. Silver was furious. He knew the Sixers had been aware of how Okafor was spending his nights, and now it was clear nothing had been done. Episodes like these damaged the league’s image. Of more concern was how they put Okafor in danger.
A flood of critical media followed, and there were signs Hinkie had lost Harris’s support, too. Soon, Weitzman reports, Harris deployed one of his preferred law firms, Mintz Levin, to depose Hinkie, Brown, and three other team executives: “They were asked about protocols and systems. They were asked who knew what, and when, and what each person did with that information.”
Hinkie’s departure is about halfway through the book. Hinkie’s replacement lost his job in a hilarious Twitter scandal. Now the team is constructed differently, with general manager Elton Brand reporting directly to Harris, who is taking a more hands-on role from where he lives and works in New York. The book brings us right up to the Sixers’ current stress: Today’s team is built around two superstars, Embiid and Ben Simmons, who happen to fit together poorly. “They have no blow ups, they never curse each other out, as far as I can tell. They just weren’t friends,” says Weitzman. “The on court thing is definitely a problem. That informs a lot. When’s the last time two superstars on a team who were such bad on court fits? They’re human, that has to grate. Ben has to be looking at Giannis [Antetokounmpo, another athletic, ball-handling multi-talent who can’t shoot well] and thinking I could do that. Four shooters and me …”
Will Simmons and Embiid work it out? Will Embiid stabilize as a healthy superstar? It might be too soon to say. Remember, it’s a process.
Thank you for reading TrueHoop! Now that Russia is back in the headlines, I find myself thinking about an old TrueHoop post that might interest you, about the lawyer who has represented both NBA-oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov and Donald Trump. Hope you like it.