The reason you don’t have polio right now is because in the 1700’s someone had the radical idea to expose people to a less potent version of the disease (small pox) that was killing everyone at the time. Lots of intelligent people said you can’t do that, but Edward Jenner and his historical successors went ahead and did it anyway and now you don’t have to worry about anything scarier than Ebola. In fact, the concept behind vaccinations is so stupid in a profoundly brilliant way that people are still complaining about it today.
Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie is not trying to cure Ebola. It’s not his line of work. But Hinkie is making lots of intelligent people shout “you can’t do that” at him thanks to a uniquely reckless approach to a longstanding problem. In a constipated NBA, Hinkie might just be the clearest thinker in the business.
The formula for building a championship team is relatively simple and straightforward. Get one of the five best players in the world, find one of the fifteen or so best players in the world to play next to him, and then fill out the rest of the roster with pieces that fit neatly around the two stars. The order in which a GM does this isn’t all that important, as the whole thing flows down from that first step anyway.
Getting one of the five best players in the world is actually the least challenging part of the equation for a GM. It more or less comes down to being lucky. You either land the right pick in the right draft or you happen to be a general manager in the right city when the right superstar becomes a free agent. Finding a sidekick and complimentary role players is often what separates a good general manager from the pack, but both missions become a great deal easier when you have a genuine superstar on your roster already. And if you don’t have a genuine superstar on your roster, it doesn’t much matter what you do because you probably aren’t going to win a championship.
That’s all a bit glib, and maybe that’s the point. But consider, of the 16 NBA Champions since Michael Jordan last won a ring, only five – Detroit in ’04, Miami in ’06, Boston in ’08, Dallas in ’11 and San Antonio last June — owe their success as much to roster ingenuity as good fortune. Dynasties have ruled the NBA, and for good reason.
The league and its general managers, of course, have figured all this out, and they’ve designed two strategies in attempt to win through in the face of hideous odds: gut the roster and hope for lottery magic, or clear cap space and try to woo one of the NBA’s few elite players in free agency. When that fails, the GM will aim to put together a good (but not great) team, and hope to find a way to make the last leap once the players have coalesced into a solid playoff team. That’s the equivalent of trying to summit Everest by planning to go three-quarters of the way up the mountain and then improvising your way to the peak. You won’t make it and you’ll end up turning around at one of the last camps, which is what most NBA teams do after enough early playoff exits.
Hinkie has no designs of turning around at one of the last camps. In fact, no one’s really sure he’s trying to summit Everest, or if he’s even climbing a mountain at all. All that can be said with any amount of certainty is Hinkie’s conducting the first creative experiment the NBA has seen in ages.
The fundamental charge against Hinkie’s design is that he wants his team to be bad. Such a sentiment is foolish to a degree it’s hardly worth refuting. If the 76ers started playing championship basketball tomorrow, the normally reserved Hinkie’s reaction would be nothing short of euphoric.
Instead, Hinkie is opting for losing over some sort of antithetical safe haven of winning that the basketball community has arbitrarily deemed satisfactory. The only measure against luck is to increase your odds, and Hinkie is doing little more than giving himself more chances to be in the right place at the right time. He’s testing the very limits of losing to an extreme no general manager has before thought to try. We won’t know what’s on the other side until Hinkie gets there.
There are numerous reasons why this plan won’t work. But at least Hinkie is taking a bold shot at changing the status quo while the majority of the league is content settling for almost, but not quite. Fans and teammates may be frustrated waiting for the likes of Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, but at least they’re waiting for players that are actually part of the organization.
History is filled with artists and thinkers who only became revered after their deaths, individuals who posthumously changed a world that would not accept them. Those who failed in their visions might be history’s detritus, but they often open the door for the prodigies that follow. Hinkie is not in their class, but Van Gogh and Kafka would find him more familiar than Ernie Grunfeld or Neil Olshey.
The 76ers are brutal and their players are frustrated. But they’re trying something that’s never been done, and if that doesn’t deserve a little respect, it at least makes them interesting. After all, the purpose of an experiment is not to achieve a specific result, but to test a hypothesis. Right or wrong, you learn something new.