Philadelphia 76ers: The one small move that would have saved Sam Hinkie’s job

Sam Hinkie was all about losing to start ‘The Process’ . He may have gone a bit overboard by the end of his tenure as Philadelphia 76ers general manager. All he had to make was one small roster move, and Hinkie might still be in charge of the Sixers.

The stewardship of Sam Hinkie running the Philadelphia 76ers has recently come back up for discussion due to WIP’s “once and for all” debate. It is a good time to look at how it ended, and brought in the ‘Big Collar’ era.

The official reign of Hinkie as Sixers basketball boss began on May 13, 2013 as he was hired to replace Tony DiLeo after the Andrew Bynum debacle. It ended in dramatic fashion, with a 13-page resignation letter sent to Sixers ownership on April 5, 2016.

However, the true moment that marked the end for Hinkie was a date that will truly live in infamy for Process fans: Dec. 7, 2015, when Jerry Colangelo was named Chairman of Basketball Operations, basically becoming Hinkie’s overseer.

With an unemployed ex-general manager in son Bryan Colangelo waiting in the wings, the clock was ticking on Hinkie from that point on.

We are not delving into whether the hiring of Colangelo was a decision solely made by owner Josh Harris or ordered by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, but the circumstances that led to Colangelo coming on board are important.

Despite all the talk of tanking and the carousel of fringe players on the roster (Coach Brett Brown used to joke ‘Nice to meet you, you’re the starting point guard.’), the 76ers never finished with the worst record in the NBA when Hinkie was in charge for a whole season.

In 2013-14 they won 19 games (showing how things change quickly, Milwaukee had the worst with 15 wins) and the next year had 18 victories, which was only the third-worst records in the league each season. As bad as Hinkie made the team, there were incompetent GMs who made their teams even worse.

Those Sixers teams under Brett Brown always played hard, occasionally won and were usually competitive until the end, when teams woke up and fought to avoid losing to a team not really looking to win.

Whether he was determined to finally have the worst record or he just made some poor roster decisions, Hinkie’s third edition of the 76ers made the previous two look like the current Milwaukee Bucks.

The Sixers lost their first 18 games and only three of them were by less than five points. There is bad and then there is historically bad. The NBA record for least wins in an 82-game schedule (nine, set by the infamous 1972-73 76ers) seemed to be in real danger.

Complaints were not just coming from fans who were enduring a third straight awful season with no light at the end of tunnel visible. Opposing teams were unhappy as they were having trouble selling tickets for what fans thought would be a non-competitive contest.

The 76ers marketing team (Hinkie took a shot at CEO Scott O’Neil in his resignation letter) was also not pleased, we would find out later, as they really had no one to promote (although the Sixers attendance actually went up that season).

Despite the losses piling up, Hinkie did not make any major moves. The Sixers were 0-18 before beating the Los Angeles Lakers, 103-91, at the Staples Center on Dec. 1, 2015. Two more losses later, Colangelo was installed. His first game as president was a crushing 119-68 home defeat to the San Antonio Spurs.

The Sixers eventually sank to 1-30 (!) when the Colangelo/Hinkie duo made their first move. On Christmas Eve, the Sixers traded two second-round picks to the New Orleans Pelicans for guard Ish Smith.

(As a side note, 10 days later Hinkie would sign Elton Brand, starting the path that would eventually lead him to take over Hinkie’s job.)

This move was obviously pushed by Colangelo. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Hinkie’s record knew he loved second round draft picks like they were his own children.  For him to give up TWO was unprecedented, and Smith was also in the last year of his contract, so he would be a free agent in a few months.

Whatever the motivation, the trade gave an immediate boost to the team. With Smith running the show, the Sixers won their next game, 111-104 at Phoenix (the Suns owner was so angry about it he fired the coach soon afterward) and went 3-3 in their next six games.

The 76ers finished with 10 wins on the season, really bad but the ’72-73 Sixers still retained the all-time record.

Hinkie could not survive the abominable start to the 2015-16 season. It did not have to be that way. If Hinkie had made one, very reasonable, off-season move, he might still be running things.

All he had to do was: sign Ish Smith before the start of the season.

Smith seemed like a typical Hinkie process roster move when the 6-foot point guard was claimed off waivers on Feb. 21, 2015 after being cut by the Pelicans. However, Smith turned out to be much more than that.

In the 25 games played at the end of the season, Smith averaged 12 points (almost double his career average) and 6.8 assists. He brought speed and a headiness at the point guard position the Sixers had not had.

Even more importantly, Smith developed a special on-the-court relationship with center Nerlens Noel.  At that time, Noel was looked upon as the future face of the franchise, and to have a point guard who ‘clicked’ so well with him was a positive.

After a nomadic NBA career, Smith was hoping he had found a home and was very amenable to coming back to Philly the following season.

Smith’s agents and Hinkie had discussions over the summer but nothing ended up coming from it.

Things did not go well for Smith after that.

Smith was a player who had a tough offseason, bouncing around from team to team with no one really looking to take a gamble on him. He spent the bulk of his summer with the Washington Wizards, but didn’t impress enough there for them to sign him to a deal for the season.

The Wizards did not sign Smith until Sept. 8, so Hinkie had a whole summer to reconsider not taking him back.

The 76ers were instead going with journeyman Kendall Marshall and undrafted rookie T.J. McConnell as the point guards.

Marshall was coming off a torn ACL and was not ready to play until 23 games into the season, which helped kickstart the downward spiral.

Marshall would never play an NBA game after that season. McConnell was not the savvy, spark-plug McConnell we know now, he was a rookie still learning the ropes.

In a rare interview with ESPN, Hinkie admitted the Marshall move blew up in his face:

“We predicted it wrong,” Hinkie says. “That’s my fault. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and I’m sure I’ll make more. This has been hard. We haven’t been proud of this kind of start. … We thought Kendall was that guy.”

Hinkie even had a third shot at Smith when the Wizards cut him on Oct. 24. With the news on Marshall getting worse, he still did not bring him back, and the Pelicans signed Smith a couple days later.

Three strikes … and Hinkie was out

Smith played so well after the trade he received a three-year, $18-million deal from Detroit (where he had some big games against the 76ers) and is now playing for the Wizards.

Conclusion

If Hinkie had made the simple, and entirely logical, move of signing Smith in the summer of 2015, the Sixers fortunes at the start of the season would have improved.

The Miami Heat might not have been shaking in their boots but the Sixers would have been just plain bad, not statistically the rottenest team in the history of the NBA.

There is a big difference between going 6-17 and 1-23, the record the Sixers had when Colangelo came on board.

Yes, three years of tanking could certainly try a lot of peoples’ patience,  however, hope was actually on the horizon.

The Sixers finally did get the worst record and with the No. 1 pick  drafted Ben Simmons.  With Joel Embiid finally ready to play, Hinkie would have had legitimate progress to show the following season if he was still there.

Next: 2020 NBA Mock Draft 3.0

If he had only signed Ish Smith.