The architect of The Process is eating a salad in the middle of the Stanford University campus. He is dressed in various shades of blue—dark blue jeans, a blue gingham-checked shirt, a blue V-neck sweater, blue-ringed socks. This is not by accident; he has streamlined his clothing choices so getting dressed is of minimal distraction from thinking about more important endeavors. Such as the two graduate classes he's teaching at Stanford's business school. Or the various startups in which he has taken an interest. Or his next adventure to some remote off-the-grid stretch of wilderness or coastline. Maybe even his next grand experiment building a championship basketball team.
What Sam Hinkie is not devoting much of his cerebral cortex to is finding a way back to running an NBA franchise. He would not be opposed to a reprise of his innovative turn as president and general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, the franchise he resolutely drove toward the bottom of the standings for three consecutive seasons to collect as many high-value future draft picks as he could to select The Next Superstar. Or three.
It just isn't a priority. Neither is sharing his thoughts about how his grand experiment with the Sixers has evolved without him or, on the record, much of anything else involving the NBA. Even a mere snapshot of his current existence is likely more than he would prefer after agreeing to meet for lunch.
Other NBA executives, however, were more than happy to share their thoughts about Hinkie's work with the 76ers and whether it should be judged a success. A number of them huddled while scouting the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, Oregon, in November to debate the pros and cons of what Hinkie wrought.
While the views varied, they agreed on one thing: The health of Joel Embiid, the transcendent big man and first and only All-Star produced by Hinkie's hoarding of both Ls and draft picks, is critical to The Process reaching The Fulfillment.
"I have respect for what he did because he had a plan and he stuck with it," said one Western Conference GM who spoke favorably of Hinkie. "It took balls to do what he did. I do [view what he did as a success.] But if they hadn't drafted Embiid, the experiment would've been a colossal failure. Look at their record when he's out. If Embiid can't stay healthy, they'll be horrible."
The blueprint for every team hoping to build a championship contender is the same: form a nucleus of two or three superstars, surround them with supporting talent, hire a coaching staff that can meld it all together and hope no one gets injured. The first order of business, of course, is landing the superstars. Thanks to the NBA's salary cap and player-contract rules, that is infinitely easier to do via the draft than it is in free agency. The vast majority of franchise players were one of the top five picks in their respective draft class.
Hinkie took over a franchise that exploited the weak Eastern Conference by making the playoffs five times in the previous 10 years despite only finishing above .500 twice. The deconstruction Hinkie would oversee inadvertently began the previous summer when the 76ers traded for 25-year-old All-Star center Andrew Bynum, who was in the final year of a deal he signed with the Lakers. The distinction from that trade and those made by Hinkie: The Sixers gave up a protected first-round pick in the four-team deal as opposed to acquiring one. A knee injury prevented Bynum from playing a minute for the 76ers, and Hinkie let him go as a free agent, valuing the $16.1 million worth of salary coming off the books more.
The essence of Hinkie's strategy was simple: acquire as many lottery picks as possible, by whatever means necessary, to take multiple shots at drafting superstars. With the NBA draft lottery designed to reward the worst teams with the highest odds, Hinkie unapologetically assembled teams built to lose and retained salary-cap space to make the 76ers a welcome trade partner for teams looking to dump onerous contracts. That provided him the wherewithal to exact a price from cap-squeezed teams hoping to utilize the Sixers and their vast cap room as a third trade partner to complete a deal: a future first-round pick or, if nothing else, the option of swapping places in the draft.
All of the losing—Hinkie-built teams went 47-199 over three seasons—and maneuvering (27 trades) resulted in five lottery picks which Hinkie used and at least two more (2016 and 2017 No. 1 picks Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz) whose acquisition can be attributed to his wheeling and dealing.
A surprisingly vocal contingent of 76ers fans not only tolerated the abject losing, but they embraced it as the secret passage to an NBA championship, something Philadelphia had last enjoyed 30 years before Hinkie's hiring.
An equally vocal contingent among owners, however, began making their feelings known to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver that the Sixers' blatant tanking was hurting their collective take at the turnstiles. The 76ers went from 18th in the league in overall average attendance in 2012-13 to 29th in 2013-14, 30th in 2014-15 and 28th in 2015-16.
"They didn't have to be that bad," one owner said. "It was just over the top. It was a disservice to their players. They weren't given a chance to be any good. Their owners said to me, 'We didn't have to be that bad.'"
The NBA apparently told the 76ers to tone down their unbridled effort to lose.
"The league office told them multiple times, 'It's too much,'" a second Western Conference GM said. "Sam didn't come up with anything original. People have been [tanking] for years. They just didn't go to the extremes Sam did. The league doesn't care if you win 22 games; they just don't want you winning 15. It's optics. He rubbed everybody's nose in it to the point the league had to do something."
While Sixers principal owner Josh Harris signed off on Hinkie's grand experiment at first, league sources say he bowed to the pressure from the NBA office and hired former Phoenix Suns owner and GM Jerry Colangelo as chairman of basketball operations in December 2015. Hinkie resigned four months later, submitting a 13-page letter of resignation to the team's 12 equity partners. It quoted investor Warren Buffet and physicist Max Planck and referenced both a 10,000 Year Clock and a 400-pound New Zealand flightless bird known as a moa.
Hinkie's wonky disciples, who saw him as the high priest of a church offering higher math and novel thinking as the heavenly ladder to the Larry O'Brien Trophy, loved him even more for it. Those who questioned his methods took it as confirmation he was too esoteric for his—and the NBA's—own good.
The Sixers went straight conventional next, hiring Colangelo's son, Bryan, a former GM of both the Suns and Raptors, to succeed Hinkie, much to the chagrin of his supporters. And last summer, the league took measures to discourage any Hinkie copycats by altering its draft lottery rules. Beginning in 2019, the three teams with the worst records all will have the same chance—14 percent—of landing the No. 1 pick.
Fast-forward to today, and Hinkie is a professor and tech-world consultant, the 76ers are hovering around .500 and other GMs have been left to debate exactly how Hinkie's tenure should be remembered.
His former peers fall roughly into three camps—those who say the experiment failed because the multiple years of losing haven't lifted the 76ers above mediocrity yet, those who believe it's still too early to tell and those who consider the experiment over because Hinkie is no longer conducting it.
Rest assured, though: GMs and owners around the league are keeping an eye on the Sixers to see whether the assets Hinkie acquired ever produce the desired result.
To assess the Hinkie legacy, one must begin by comparing the players Hinkie selected to ones he could have taken. A map of all the picks he acquired, flipped or switched resembles a corporation's organizational chart.
He set the tone right from his first draft, dealing All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday to New Orleans for two first-round picks, the first of which he spent on Nerlens Noel at No. 6. He then used the Sixers' own pick to take point guard Michael Carter-Williams at No. 11.
To the GMs consulted at the Phil Knight tournament, selecting Carter-Williams was a whiff, since the Sixers could've had one of two quality big men—Thunder center Steven Adams (12th) or All-Pro Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27th)—and All-Pro point forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th). What the GMs didn't take into account, though, is that Hinkie moved Carter-Williams before his Rookie of the Year honor lost its luster for what is now the Lakers' 2018 first-round pick. Sure, Hinkie missed the chance to take a true superstar in Antetokounmpo, but he also acquired a lottery pick for a role player now on his fourth team.
While Hinkie didn't trade Noel, Colangelo did, sending him to the Dallas Mavericks at last year's trade deadline for Justin Anderson, a pair of conditional second-round picks and Andrew Bogut's expiring contract. After falling out of Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle's rotation this season, Noel was caught sneaking into the media room at halftime to eat a hot dog. Soon afterward, the Mavericks announced Noel was undergoing surgery on his thumb and would miss several weeks.
Then again, Noel wasn't the only asset Hinkie derived from Holiday. He also picked up a future first-round pick from the Pelicans that he transformed into Dario Saric and yet another first-round pick, which the Sixers subsequently swapped to the Kings and coupled with with another first-rounder to snag Fultz.
The one pick Hinkie made that offers little consolation is Duke's Jahlil Okafor, whom he took third overall in 2015. Alternatives included All-Star Kristaps Porzingis (fourth), Pacers cornerstone center Myles Turner (11th) and prized Phoenix Suns shooting guard Devin Booker (13th). After Okafor struggled to get playing time in the Sixers' crowded frontcourt, Colangelo dealt him to the Nets earlier this season with Nik Stauskas and a second-round pick for 30-year-old backup power forward Trevor Booker.
Beyond the inconsistent production of the Sixers' lottery selections, the GMs also questioned the return from Hinkie's accumulation of second-round picks. In three drafts, Hinkie collected and used 12 second-round picks, but only one (Richaun Holmes) is currently on the roster. On the other hand, two undrafted players—Robert Covington and TJ McConnell—not only stuck but are part of the regular rotation. Covington has started at small forward the last two seasons, while McConnell is a backup point guard who often is part of Philadelphia's finishing lineup.
One can make the case that Hinkie nailed the 2014 draft by taking Embiid third overall and flipping the No. 10 pick (Elfrid Payton) for the rights to the 12th pick (Saric) and that 2017 future first-rounder. Though Embiid missed his first two seasons recovering from a broken right foot, played only 31 games last season and has spent the better part of this season under a minutes restriction to safeguard against another physical setback, he is the lone '14 draft class member to be named an All-Star.
"Was it all worth it?" the front office executive of a perennial playoff team said. "You have to spend some time in the middle of it to know what they went through to say that for sure. But you have two guys who have already bounced out in Nerlens and Jahlil, so you can't say they nailed it."
That's one assessment. A younger Western Conference GM who believes Hinkie's approach had merit had a sunnier view: "Embiid is the centerpiece. He's a monster if he stays healthy. It all rests on his shoulders."
While Hinkie's critics acknowledge drafting talent is an inexact science that no team has mastered, an array of agents, executives, owners and former Sixers employees took the greatest issue with his administrative skills. They portrayed him as somewhat of a recluse, not staying in the same hotel when traveling with the team, not cultivating relationships with agents or providing enough oversight of the young rosters he assembled and taking a strong-arm approach to every trade conversation or contract negotiation.
"When guys started getting in trouble, there was no structure or adult supervision," an agent said in reference to Okafor's reckless driving incident and several bar fights. "He had zero management over the players. They didn't go to meetings, and they were late for everything."
The perennially playoff-bound front office executive had a similar impression.
"They didn't put much structure in place there," he said. "That's the problem with an approach like that, when your decisions are based strictly on numbers. You're not evaluating culture and character. There's so much that has to be handled when your team is that young. You've got to have support that's beyond the wheelhouse—personal development, professional development, familial management."
Those close to Hinkie say he purposely kept agents—and even some players—at arm's length. Getting close to players on a roster constantly being reshuffled would've been pointless, if not emotionally draining. The 76ers' wealth of cap space, meanwhile, would've made it easy for agents to use them as leverage in contract negotiations elsewhere. However, Hinkie didn't want to allow that because questions eventually would arise about why the Sixers weren't landing any of their supposed free-agent targets.
"Agents would complain to me all the time, 'We only have a 29-team market,' because Sam was not looking to spend any money," a second Western Conference GM said.
Hinkie also aggravated agents by introducing a novel approach to contracts for second-round picks and free agents—multiyear, partially guaranteed deals. The idea from Hinkie's end was to trade the allure of longer-term security for fringe players while keeping the risk factor for the team manageable.
At times, that hurt Hinkie and the 76ers with agents miffed by this new negotiating ploy. Some paid him back by refusing to share information with him or provide access to their players, no matter where they were expected to fall in the draft. Porzingis' refusal to visit or work out for Philly is one example; league sources say Hinkie also didn't have full access to Okafor's medical records prior to drafting him.
"The environment was so toxic that agents, schools and teams wanted nothing to do with him," the second Western Conference GM said.
Executives who have spent time with Hinkie insist he was aloof by choice, not by nature.
"Sam could've helped himself by cultivating relationships," the first Western Conference GM said. "He has more personality than the public really knows."
While Hinkie offered a glimpse of that personality in his resignation letter, he didn't win many converts to his ways. One owner of an Eastern Conference team said the letter—which was not intended to be shared publicly—damaged Hinkie's chances of being hired to run a franchise again as much as anything he did while with with the Sixers. Still, sources both close to Hinkie and around the league said owners and executives routinely reach out to him for counsel. Several basketball operations vice presidents and owners said they would hire him, but they wouldn't put him in charge.
Others believe Hinkie and The Process weren't given a full trial, and that he didn't do anything wrong as much as the league turned on him.
"They clearly changed the rules on Sam," the longtime front office executive said. "That wasn't all on him. If he lasts five more months, maybe it all looks different and he is given credit for what they're doing now."
Sources familiar with Hinkie's thinking said his premise is that as much as anything, today's great players want to play with other great players. The key is landing one and then creating the opportunity to land a second or third. As he sees it, opening up a vast amount of cap room and hoping to lure established stars to a team is far riskier than hoping to get it right in the draft. Statistics say with enough swings at the draft pinata, an Embiid eventually will fall out.
While none of the GMs dispute that Embiid is a superstar in the making, they aren't quite ready to sign off on his ability to stay healthy for the 100-game grind that makes up a championship drive.
"If he plays more than 65 games in a season, they should throw a party, because I don't see it," one Eastern Conference GM said.
Simmons also has shown signs of being the second cornerstone, although his limitations as a jump-shooter and the team's losing record sans Embiid this season (3-8) have raised concerns. Even if Simmons is not a bona fide franchise player, the reserve of future first-round picks Hinkie left behind offers ammunition to keep hunting for one.
Hinkie, however, won't be making those picks. He also won't have the chance to show that once the superstar nucleus is in place, he can deftly fit the right complementary players at the right prices around them to chase a title.
"Once you stockpiled all those talented players, was Sam capable of flipping the switch and becoming a real GM?" the second Western Conference GM asked. "Because you don't hire the demolitionist to do the remodel. Those are two different jobs with two different skill sets."
There's only one way to find out if Hinkie can do both. Some owner would have to pull Professor Hinkie away from Silicon Valley and give him another shot at rolling a moa, Max Planck and the next Embiid into a winning combination.
For anyone interested, you can find him in the Stanford courtyard, in all blue, eating a salad.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.