Why Sam Hinkie’s next move, if there is one, should be international soccer.
On Tuesday the 24th, a new noun hit the sports world, and it’s one we’ve probably need a sports equivalent of for years: The Colangelo. A Colangelo is the simplest of human traditions: taking credit for someone else’s hard work. Everyone reading this has Colangeloed someone, been Colangeloed, or watched a Colangelo happen. It is a daily occurrence in workplaces across America, even with personal relationships. Steal that work like you did it yourself, and who’s gonna care?
Sam Hinkie, former Philadelphia 76ers general manager, built 80-85% of the team that defeated Miami in the opening round, 4-1, on Tuesday. Yet it’s Bryan Colangelo, current 76ers GM, who will get all of the credit for solidifying the remaining 15-20%. Did Colangelo play a part in the success? Sure; he helped stabilize an unstable situation and bring in older free agents on decent contracts to help the young guys move along. But Colangelo didn’t draft Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid or Dario Saric or any of those dudes.
Hinkie did. Hinkie played the NBA in a way it hadn’t been played before: exploit the system and the capital involved by being openly bad and getting the best college/international players you can. If they work out, great! You’re no longer bad. If they suck? Great! You get another chance to draft the best college/international player you can. It was brilliant, so of course it couldn’t last long in a league built upon the fallacy of Any Team Can Win It All If They Do It The Right Way.
Hinkie’s outsized star has made him the target of both fans and enemies alike. Some will tell you the Process was brilliant but it shouldn’t just be about one man; others will say it was dumb luck that it worked out as well as it did. (The latter mostly ignores analytics and statistics altogether.) The point of it all is this: Sam Hinkie will never hold another job in the NBA. After all the shit they piled on him, they can’t let him come back. It won’t work for either party.
So it’s time to find Sam Hinkie a new career. Sitting on the beach and teaching at Stanford may pay the bills, but I know he’s got a lot of competitive spirit left in him. He isn’t afraid to test international waters or new things or new ideas. He seems to be constantly listening. He loves routines and true free markets, of which the NBA kind of is and kind of isn’t. So, yeah: Sam Hinkie, go to Europe.
Why Not Baseball?
This would be an obvious move, considering baseball meets every open requirement for Hinkie. But:
- The tanking and draft system already exist, and you don’t have to play the lottery. But you can’t trade draft picks. The worst team in baseball automatically drafts #1 overall every season. Perfect! The only problem: the MLB doesn’t allow for trading of draft picks. The capital you receive in the draft is all you can receive, minus spare compensatory picks. Would Hinkie consent to a system he can only control wins and losses in?
- Baseball statistics are leagues ahead of just about any other sport…which creates fewer market inefficiencies. We’re going to play this as, potentially, a negative. Hinkie defied all traditional group-thought at Philly by focusing almost entirely on analytics, both in offensive system and in personnel. Since the Moneyball wave, Tampa Bay’s dream run in 2008, and the Houston Astros last year, basically every MLB team has either a massive analytics department or on-field staff who are focused on statistics. There are market inefficiencies left, but Hinkie likely wouldn’t be able to exploit them nearly as much as he could in the NBA.
- There’s no salary cap, which means he can spend as much or as little as he wants…but it’s also very hard to win in this sport without spending money. Can you make the World Series with a low payroll? Of course – ask the 2016 Indians (24th of 30), the 2010 Rangers (27th), 2008 Rays (29th), etc. Winning it is a much taller task. Not since 2003 (the then-Florida Marlins) has a team below 19th in opening day MLB payroll won the World Series. You can Moneyball all you want, but it’s yet to bring home a title against higher-paying teams.
- It is, indeed, a sport built around routines. I can’t deny this, and it’s a net positive for Hinkie. But don’t you think Hinkie’s gonna fall asleep after about 30 games and wake back up in time for the trade deadline? Baseball simply doesn’t seem like his thing.
Why Not Football?
Lol at the idea of the NFL embracing analytics in the next ten years.
Why Not Hockey?
This actually does intrigue me. Hinkie would serve as a unique voice in a sport that’s grown to embrace analytics just in the last five years. I’ve personally watched the hockey analytics community triple in size since around 2013-2014, and Hinkie would automatically be a hero. On the other hand:
- Hockey analytics for draft purposes are still fairly underdeveloped. Most of what you see in scouting reports for NHL Draft hopefuls is just that: personal scouting. It’s still hard to translate high school or youth league stats to NHL potential. Why? There’s a ton of minor leagues and youth leagues all over Canada, Europe, and even the US now. With basketball, 90% of first-round draft picks all play in the same league: the NCAA. Even with the other 10%, teams have begun to develop various conversion rates and formulas that show a player’s most likely outcome in the States.
- Would a team be willing to give Hinkie the reins? Plus, would he have to reform his strategy to avoid tanking? So, fun fact: the NHL has a lottery, too. Another fun fact: the worst team in the league has just an 18% chance of getting the #1 pick, compared to the NBA’s 25%. In fact, the worst team has higher odds of getting the #4 pick (52%) than it does of getting anything #1-3 (48%). In line with the proposed odds, only one of the last six NHL Drafts has seen the worst team pick #1, and it was Edmonton. Edmonton never gets anything right. You don’t want to waste your time on Edmonton, Sam.
- You’re in much less control of hockey results than you are of basketball. Yeah, talent matters. Coaching matters. But this isn’t the NBA, where a team that’s 20 points worse than another will lose 99 times out of 100. There aren’t really gaps like that in the NHL, and the league’s worst team (Buffalo) pumped seven goals on the league’s best (Nashville) just a month ago. It’s a similar thing to baseball: would Hinkie be willing to leave so much to chance? Plus, with a league that’s relatively easy to catapult to the top, is there really that much satisfaction in taking, say, Columbus to a Cup win when Carolina and Tampa Bay have done it in the last 15 years?
Let’s get it, Sammy. Sam Hinkie should take over the reigns of a moribund soccer franchise. Here’s why:
- It’s way harder to accomplish winning championships if you’re not absolutely loaded with money…which makes the goals more rewarding. More than any American sport, soccer is truly dominated by its elites. Only the NBA can match it in predictability, but only the Champions League can match the NBA in potential thrills and stardom. It proved to be incredibly exciting last year despite an unusual name in the final four in Monaco. Why so exciting? Because Monaco was utterly loaded with young talent (who, because it’s free market capitalism, all went to far richer teams afterwards) that scored a ton of goals. They won Ligue 1 despite spending about a third of what Paris Saint-Germain spends. It was awesome, and it signaled to everyone else that, even if something looks unlikely, it’s indeed very possible to pull off. (This is where I add the caveat that Monaco had an insanely good conversion rate at the net, one that they’ll never be able to replicate again. But alas.)
- The soccer analytics scene has only really begun to flourish since about 2014-15, and Hinkie would be a frontrunner of the community. Because it’s so young, they’re fairly reliant on stats that could use some serious revision, expected goals chief among them. The idea of a Hinkie or someone similar pumping a few million dollars into research and development of on-field statistics, ideas, formulas, etc. would be fascinating.
- The standard deviation of a team’s success is typically pretty low, but pushing a numbers-based theology could break the band of expectations. The example I’ve been pushing in my texts to various friends is Newcastle United. I can’t imagine there’s many States-based fans of Newcastle, because they’ve placed in the top half of the Premier League once since 2006 (5th, 2011-12). Similar to the Sixers, they had a run in the early 2000s (2001-2004, exactly) where the team placed in the top five of the Premier League three straight seasons and were built around a singular, historic star (Alan Shearer = Allen Iverson, no one disputes this). Now, they mostly finish in the mid-teens, with the occasional dismissal to the EFL (English soccer’s #2 league) and the rapid return. It feels very similar to pre-Hinkie Sixers. Why not try and break out of what you’ve been doing for a decade-plus to little success?
- The real challenge: Hinkie has to use an entirely new thought process and system. In soccer, you can’t tank – you get relegated. There’s no draft picks. Free agency doesn’t truly exist in the American sense, of where a player divests from his team and is free game to the highest bidder. Teams simply buy the players they want, because the rules against it are pretty flimsy and FIFA’s Fair Play laws are hilariously inadequate. With the budget of a 15th-place EPL team, Hinkie would be forced to use something entirely different (but still analytics-based) to achieve tournament and league success. My idea: he’d load up on young guys recommended by services like Goalimpact and, indeed, trust the process. At least until they come out of nowhere to finish second to Liverpool one year and Man City buys up half his starting eleven.
Let’s be clear here: Hinkie, in all likelihood, is no Einstein-level genius. He’s smart, no doubt, but he’s not some God-emperor-savior that can save you from anything. What fascinates me most about him is his extreme, soldier-like commitment to his ideals and beliefs. He’s a seriously unique character in sports in that way, a militant Ned Yost but for numbers and The Process. In that way, he’s too good for a media class that demands Everything Right Now…which means he’d have an even tougher time in Europe in terms of PR.
But, seriously: imagine for a second The Sun running an angry cover story about freaking Newcastle United because Hinkie sold off some overpaid 14 goal scorer. Imagine just how mad TV pundits would be after Newcastle starts 1-2-5 in Hinkie’s first season. Imagine the demands of Hinkie to fire everyone, or just fire himself out of a cannon. English soccer fans are way nuttier than any non-SEC football ones we can produce here. Hinkie’s just as nutty as they are, but in a different way. I want it more than I’ve wanted just about anything else in sports.