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weak in review

Sam Hinkie and an Untrustable Process: David Roth's Weak in Review

Sam Hinkie's Process is over in Philadelphia. Joe Lacob's work taking credit in Golden State is only beginning. Business, in other words, is booming as usual.

by David Roth
Apr 8 2016, 10:25pm

Illustration by J.O. Applegate

The wealthy have always had their own things, and not just because they have so many more things than everyone else. They come up with these pursuits and poncey affectations and delicacies that seem, from the outside, not just strange but actively perverse, the result of too much comfort and too little, uh, whatever it is that keeps non-aristocrats from boiling tiny songbirds alive in armagnac. There's an insulating and isolating effect that comes with too much ease. It can manifest as seething supply-side harshness or self-flattering TED Talk positivism, but it is always happening somewhere over our heads, for an audience that is composed primarily of other rich people.

We are soaking, right now, in the room-temp sludge that trickles down from up there. It's an admixture of rich-people ideas that are either cruel or whimsical, mercilessly predative or larkishly #disruptive, the details of which invariably arrive in gee-whiz jargon. A sort of faith of convenience holds that there must be something to these ideas, given how popular they are among people who own multiple vacation homes. For a variety of reasons—because our politics and media depend upon their conditional largesse, because of the weird things that happen to a culture that adopts capitalism as its unofficial civic religion—no one even tells them to shut up. If you want to see the impact of income inequality, you don't need to inspect a crumbling public school or white-knuckle it over a deteriorating bridge. Just ask a billionaire a question.

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"What's really interesting is sometimes in venture capital and doing start-ups, the whole world can be wrong," Golden State Warriors owner and revered venture capitalist Joe Lacob told the Wall Street Journal. "No one really executed a game-plan—a team-building architecture—around the 3-pointer." That this happens to be hilariously untrue matters less—well, it matters not at all, to Lacob or the cottage industry that exists to keep people like him sufficiently fluffed. The long piece, which traces the Warriors' breakthrough realization that three-point shots are worth more than two-point shots, scans like poker-faced satire by the end, politely dressing up each of Lacob's ostensible innovations—yes, it is good to have one very good shooter, but what if we had two?—with data that makes it look more like the conclusion of some proprietary algorithm and less like the impossibly prosaic observation of a man with sufficiently brassy balls to take the intellectual credit for Steph Curry's historic supernova breakthrough.

It's an easy thing to make fun of, which I know because I made fun of it, but it reflects something that is stubborn and much more difficult to argue against. Nothing on earth that we have come up with, not the guillotine or the nasty ".@" message on Twitter, has kept the ruling class from behaving ridiculously, and while it would be nice to have a little bit less of these people in the monitors when it comes to our politics, what they say or do is finally their business. If Joe Lacob believes that his Golden State Warriors are a Killer App or Thinkfluential Event Horizon or Iterative Basketball Solution instead of another basketball team that drafted the right players and built a system around their talents, that's his business. He can believe whatever he wants to believe, and better he claim credit for pioneering the have-the-best-player-on-earth strategy than start messing around with, like, social security. The problem is when the rest of us start believing it.

When you hear them say, "it might be nice to eventually try to win some games." Photo by Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It was from the winnovative world of solutioneering—or, anyway, from elite management consulting—that Sam Hinkie came to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers had been purchased as a distressed asset by a team of private equity investors led by Josh Harris, and Hinkie's pitch for transforming the team was delivered in a language they could understand. The idea, to the extent that the famously secretive Hinkie ever explained it, involved stripping the persistently mediocre NBA team down to the studs and relaunching it as a long-horizon exercise in arbitrage. Players would be exchanged for draft picks, each one a lottery ticket; the team would lose as much as it could, to increase the odds of those tickets paying off in the NBA Draft Lottery. The team's sensitivities would be more sensitive, its data dredged from deeper and colder waters than any other team's, its approach to asset accumulation more ruthless and unencumbered by sentiment than any other front office. And at some point, when the assets matured—that is, when the draft picks turned into players, and the players turned into stars—the team would begin trying to win a championship.

The gamble was that all this losing would not alienate people who wanted the team to win a championship, and who would understand that a team stocked with the NBA's most valuable commodity—the sort of young stars on below-market contracts that can only be obtained through the draft—stood a better chance of doing that than any other. This part of the gamble, if not exactly any other, can be said to have paid off. Smart people trusted Hinkie's Process enough not to worry about the wholesale absence of short-term successes, and they did so for reasons that are easy enough to understand in the abstract. When Hinkie resigned this week, by way of a 13-page letter that reads like an explosion at a Successories factory, it was because he recognized that he was being crowded out by a cabal of NBA figures who had essentially seized control of the team in the course of this season. The team's new GM is Bryan Colangelo, a two-time NBA Executive of the Year (and the son of the team's head of basketball operations, the effectively league-appointed NBA eminence Jerry Colangelo). His mandate, also new, is to knock it off with the sucking around already.

Sixers fans have suffered enough without enduring some sportswriter's psychoanalysis, and that suffering is surely a big part of why so many of them were so despondent at Hinkie's departure. It is easier to be interested in a team that might someday be something interesting than one that is and forever will be mediocre and, despite Hinkie's steadfast refusal to make the case in public, many Sixers fans were willing to accept his plan as a way forward. The plan, and The Process itself, is not a bad one. The problem, and the thing that is most mystifying about seeing people so bereft at the departure of this charmless man, is that Hinkie's implementation of that plan was so thoroughly hapless when it wasn't merely hamfisted. He simply didn't get very many basketball decisions, as opposed to the more Process-oriented asset-management decisions, right.

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe," Hinkie wrote in his letter of resignation, citing a totally made-up Abraham Lincoln quote. The Sixers gave him three years, and he gave the team the ultra-promising big man Jahlil Okafor, who melted down in public as a rookie under the strain of all this losing, and the rights to promising Euro player Dario Saric. Hinkie hired a well-regarded coach in Brett Brown, and gave him an all-you-can-eat serving of fungible journeymen and misfit draft picks; the players played like assets, the team lost and lost, and the Process never quite seemed to begin. The assets were accumulated as promised and rolled forward as needed, but it is not yet possible to see what the next good Sixers team will look like, beyond the fact that Jahlil Okafor will be its center and one of the team's passel of gangly wings—maybe Jerami Grant, maybe Robert Covington—will play some minutes in the third quarter.

When you're assets. Photo by Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics executed a similar teardown and extremely effective rebuild in roughly half the time; the Sixers could have as many as four first-round picks in what's regarded as an average NBA Draft, but the Celtics, who own the Brooklyn Nets' first-round pick in addition to their own, have only a slightly worse chance than the Sixers at snaring one of the two potentially franchise-changing talents in the draft. Both teams tanked seasons in hope of glory down the road; there's a tiresome discussion to be had about the relative merits of that, but it's tiresome. The point is that the Celtics are nearly finished with the work of building a team that could compete for titles, and the Sixers have not, strictly speaking, even started. "Hinkie was bad," as Spike Friedman wrote on Twitter, "not because tanking was bad, but because he did it badly."

If this is mostly a problem for the Sixers and their fans, it's not nearly as vexingly unsolvable as Hinkie made it look. He stuck to his principles, and valued picks and players exactly as he believed they should be valued; he did not waver, but he sure did not win. He'll get a job in some other front office making suggestions to a person who will take them under consideration before making the final decision. There is always work for a smart person with a suitable pedigree and fluency in management patois, which is good for Sam Hinkie but points back to a bigger problem. It's not that what Hinkie did in Philadelphia was a con, or a crime, or even unethical. The issue is that it was so criminally, depressingly familiar.

In an unequal culture, money mostly talks to itself. It invents a series of secret values and its own chunky language to dress up and express some very old and familiar things—that the name of the game is to have more, and keep it. There is a whole rhetoric of this, a parallel language of efficiency and enlightened self-interest that bedazzles and blasts coats of easy virtue onto some old and unvirtuous things, like Damien Hirst plastering a skull with diamonds. Good luck becomes the rational result of an efficient system; abstracted, self-centering disregard passes as laser-focused acumen. The winners win again—the Sixers are worth more than twice what they were when Harris and his co-investors bought the team—and tell us, in their language, why they deserve it, and how much. The game reveals itself, over and over again, and yet it is somehow still so hard to see, or to talk about in any words but the ones the players use.

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Joel Embiid
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