In my book, Sam Hinkie, general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, came to the plate for Thursday’s NBA draft with an 0-2 count.
Strike 1: He’s one of those stat freaks, known by fellow stat freaks as an “analytics expert.” Some basketball statistics, such as field-goal efficiency (which years ago was called adjusted field-goal percentage) are long overdue and quite useful. Others don’t reveal much, can be misleading and sap the fun right out of discussions about the relative merits of basketball players.
Basketball never has been a sport that can accurately be captured by statistics, in large part because numbers don’t reveal how a player makes teammates either better (Magic Johnson) or worse (Stephon Marbury) based on the timing and wisdom of decisions.
I’ve always suspected the zealous devotion to numbers exercised by some modern sports fans smack of a revenge of the nerds. Picked last on the playground, they’ll show they’re smarter than the kids chosen first, just as their report card shows they’re smarter. Owners fall for it and give “analytics experts” jobs that used to go to jocks.
Strike 2: Hinkie doesn’t seem to believe it’s part of his job to keep Sixers fans informed on much of anything and guards his tongue as if national security depended on it. Again, in so doing, he takes the fun out of it, a bizarre approach for an executive in the entertainment industry.
But man, what a two-strike hitter this Hinkie guy is. He showed that underneath his mound of statistical printouts and inside the cone of silence lies a man with a burglar’s guts.
The easy, safe decision for Hinkie would have been to bypass Kansas University center Joel Embiid and use the precious third pick on a healthy basketball player. Instead, Hinkie showed he’s not interested in building a good team. He wants a great one, even if that means taking risks so many others consider unwise.
Embiid’s foot stress fracture is a legitimate concern, considering the injury greatly diminished the careers of centers Bill Walton and Yao Ming.
If Embiid’s foot injury, or his back troubles, prevent him from becoming the perennial All-Star that his natural feel, clever feet, soft touch and fertile brain suggest he will become if healthy, Hinkie could pay with his job in a couple of years. Give the guy credit for not thinking defensively and for not seeking a quick fix.
Hinkie traded the Sixers’ second pick (No. 10 overall) for the 12th to take Dario Saric, who will play at least two more seasons in Europe. Embiid is expected to miss much of this coming season. Even if he remains healthy once he returns to the court, it could take him a couple of years to develop into a winning center. By then, the Sixers will have stockpiled more lottery picks or packaged a couple of them for a veteran at a position of need.
Embiid’s ceiling is so much higher than that of Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker that if he stays healthy — granted, a pretty big if — the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks will kick themselves for years. If Embiid’s career is cheated by injuries, Hinkie can sleep soundly knowing that his was an error of aggression, always an easier defeat to wear than one driven by fear.