Could Sam Hinkie make a return to the NBA next season?

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In a nation divided, one of the topics around sports which highlights that separation is Sam Hinkie. While there may be no person in sports more comfortable living in a world that is shades of gray, reactions to the former Philadelphia 76er GM were black and white: Either he was the smartest and most patient guy in the room who put the Sixers on the track to contention (Joel Embiid, the pick that became Ben Simmons); or he went too far with his plan, disrespected the game, and ruined the culture of a sports team (plus forgot this is supposed to be entertainment).

Right now, Hinkie is living near Stanford in Palo Alto, California, and soaking up that environment. The brilliant Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated spent time with him and found a man comfortable in a tech world where innovation is encouraged and failure is seen more as a learning opportunity than a character definition. If you read one thing today, it should be that piece (which is in the SI magazine, too).

Could Hinkie return to the NBA? He’s on a non-compete clause until next summer, but yes, he very well may.

To date, Hinkie says he’s been approached by a couple of teams, informally, but he won’t know the market until the end of the season, when his noncompete is up. That is, if he goes back to basketball. When I first saw him in October, he seemed unsure. He needed to evaluate. Find a focus. “I’m working 30 hours or so a week, and if I’m being honest I’d rather it was 50,” he said.

As time went by, though, he began to circle back. By early November he seemed more certain. “I think the world probably assumes that I’m recharging and unplugging, and there’s a little of that,” he said one evening. “This will get me in trouble if I say it, but I think I’m mostly sharpening the sword to come back.”

Of course, Hinkie’s vision is more complex than that, because he’s a guy comfortable with complexity. He’s going to be focused on personal growth, artificial intelligence, and more. He’s not defined by basketball.

So if Hinkie is willing to come back to the NBA, will another team bring him in? Most likely.

“(Rockets GM Daryl) Morey says he’d hire Hinkie back as an assistant “in a second,” but that, “I don’t think he’d be interested. He’s destined for bigger things.” Adds Morey: “My advice is to go long on Sam Hinkie. He’s a growth stock.”

A half dozen other GMs and execs—an admittedly unscientific survey—voiced largely similar sentiments. Some pointed out that while fans and media get hung up on the narrative, people in the league move on much more quickly. “Sam’s respected, and that’s the biggest thing for sure,” says one GM. Another points out that just by having confidence in his ideas, Hinkie is appealing to owners. Because, for one, how many people can do the job of NBA GM? And within that subset how many of those actually have a plan? (See the last 10 years in Sacramento.) In Philly, Hinkie became known as a cutthroat negotiator, sometimes to his detriment. But at least one rival GM thought his rep was earned partly because Hinkie’s combination of certainty and patience was intimidating. He knew what he wanted and was willing to wait for it. This is not the norm in pro sports, where, as one exec says, “To be honest, most of us are just plowing through.”

When Hinkie does return, don’t expect The Process Part II. The Sixers were a below average and declining team when Hinkie took over, he knew he needed superstars to win, and he set out to get those via the draft (because, while not perfect it was the best way, Philly was not a free agent destination). He certainly made mistakes, but the biggest of those was letting other people — particularly his detractors inside and outside the league — control the narrative. By the way, Hinkie hates narratives. As if that’s a shock.

If Hinkie lands in a place with a cornerstone star or the ability to attract one without tanking, he likely goes that route. What he and every NBA GM understands is that at any given time there are about 10 guys on the planet you can win a title with as a cornerstone. If you don’t have a LeBron James/Stephen Curry or the like, you need to get at least one. Then surround him with other stars who compliment the style. In Philly, Hinkie went after the stars aggressively through the draft. In five years we can discuss how it worked out (or might have, depending on what the Colangelos do with the team).

Of course, that’s the simplistic explanation of a complex situation, one filled with nuance. You know, the kind of space Hinkie is more comfortable than just about any other owner or GM you can name.