It’s hard to read ESPN’s great new article about Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie without thinking he knows exactly what he’s doing.
The Sixers are using the most radical tanking strategy that the NBA has ever seen. Hinkie has put all his focus on the long-term, sacrificing any hope that the team can make the playoffs in the next year or two.
Since he got hired in the spring of 2013 he has refused to sign free agents, traded his team’s best players, drafted guys who are injured or overseas, and generally done everything possible to amass assets to build a championship team down the road instead of a good team right now.
A lot of people hate the plan because it’s flagrantly anticompetitive, but it makes total rational sense. In fact, Hinkie was involved in the best example of how this type of team-building strategy works — the 2012 Thunder-Rockets trade that brought James Harden to Houston.
According to ESPN’s Pablo Torre, the 76ers hired Hinkie after he made a presentation centered around the Harden trade at a dinner with ownership in 2013. From ESPN:
And Hinkie, as if to underscore that divergence, walked into dinner carrying a laptop, complete with a massively detailed PowerPoint presentation that Sixers executives now recall as an “investment thesis.” Its centrepiece was a diagram that illustrated, arrow by arrow, transaction by transaction, how Houston had amassed the assets — two first-rounders and a second-rounder, along with guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb — to acquire superstar guard James Harden from the Thunder in October.
Before the Sixers hired him, Hinkie spent eight years as executive vice president of basketball operations for the Houston Rockets. Many of those years were spent conserving cap space and hoarding assets in order to either sign a big-name free agent or make a trade for a superstar.
In the fall of 2012, that happened with the Harden trade.
Today Houston is one of the best teams in the NBA, but before the Harden trade on the eve of the 2012 season, they were what many people would call “tanking.”
They spent the summer shipping off the players that made them a .500 team the year before — guys like Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, Chase Budinger, Courtney Lee, and Luis Scola — in exchange for future assets. Basketball Prospectus projected them to win 21 teams and finish last in the Western Conference.
Days before the season started, they flipped a bunch of assets to Oklahoma City in exchange for Harden, and immediately signed him to a maximum contract extension.
As Hinkie demonstrated in his PowerPoint, this trade wouldn’t have been possible if the team hadn’t dismantled their 2011-12 roster and amassed future assets. Here’s what they gave up in the Harden trade, and how they acquired them in the first place:
- Jeremy Lamb (drafted in 2012, acquired from Milwaukee in exchange for Samuel Dalembert)
- Kevin Martin (acquired from Sacramento in a 2010 three-team trade)
- 2013 1st-round pick (acquired from Toronto in exchange for Kyle Lowry)
- 2014 1st-round pick (acquired from Dallas in a 2012 three-team trade in which Houston gave up Jordan Hill)
- 2013 2nd-round pick (acquired from Boston in exchange for Courtney Lee)
Houston ended up getting one of the best players in the NBA for a pile of assets that don’t look all that appealing on paper. It was a brilliant trade, and a perfect example of how you parlay an assortment of assets into something that can win you games.
Harden has since become an MVP candidate, Houston used its cap space to sign Dwight Howard the next summer, and now they’re one of the handful of teams that can realistically win a title this year.
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