Philadelphia 76ers: Why was Sam Hinkie so obsessed with centers?

Under Sam Hinkie, the Philadelphia 76ers only wanted one thing, and it’s disgusting.

With the current, post-Process-era of Philadelphia 76ers history firmly at a crossroads – if not downright over – it’s hard not to take a look back down memory lane and reminisce fondly on simpler times, when championship-or-bust was as believable as the Washington Nationals winning a World Series while Bryce Harper wore Phillies Pinstripes.

From 2013 to Joel Embiid’s debut on opening night of the 2016-17 NBA season, basketball was fun in South Philly. It wasn’t particularly good, heck most would even call it downright bad, but the idea of removing the pressure of wins and losses from the enjoyment of watching sports was oddly freeing, right? It was like intramural sports or a couch co-op game of Super Smash Bros – sure, winning is fun but it’s the process of getting together and having fun that’s really important.

Oh hey, there’s that word again “Process”, a proper noun signifying a singular event, place, or person. Well, in the world of sports analytics, where teams looked to capitalize on competitive advantages in an environment where few exist, no event is more singular than ‘The Process’.

Helmed by Daryl Morey‘s former right-hand man, the Philadelphia 76ers undertook one of the most radical transformations in sports history, cashing in every possible asset not nailed down to transform a perennial playoff burnout into a champion through a clever process of lottery picks, overseas stashes, undrafted free agents, and eventually, way, way, way down the line reinforcements in free agency.

Did ‘The Process’ work? Yes. The Sixers landed Embiid and Ben Simmons, signed J.J. Redick away from the Clippers, had the assets to trade up for Markelle Fultz, and could even swing two blockbuster trades to acquire Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. Granted, those decisions look progressively worse with each passing day, but hey, that isn’t Sam Hinkie’s fault.

What is Hinkie’s fault, however, is how he used the picks under his watch while serving as the team’s GM, and needless to say, that track record was also far from perfect.

For example, Hinkie really, really, really liked centers. Loved em, couldn’t get enough. Centers to Hinkie were like power forwards Elton Brand, in that he wanted three elite ones even though only one should realistically be on the court at any given time.

All jokes aside, Hinkie’s first draft pick was a center, and he selected two more near the top of the lottery before eventually handing in his red letter of resignation in 2016.  Though the trio shared very little in terms of playing style, body type, or even pre-existing injuries,  the theory behind each selection is what really baffles the mind.

You see, while Hinkie rightfully deserves a lot of credit for his forward-thinking attitudes to team building, his idea of what a team needed to succeed even in 2013 was woefully out of date.  I mean think about it, even then the Warriors already had their Big 3 in Steph, Klay, and Draymond, and LeBron’s ‘Big 3’ was tearing it up in South Beach with Chris Bosh oftentimes filling the five spot. Kevin Love was the hottest name on the trade market, and outside of then-King center Boogie Cousins, the age of the dominant interior presence was rapidly being pushed aside for a new era of fast-paced, 3-flowin’ small ball.

Sure, maybe this paradigm shift could have made dominating in the paint even more valuable, as few teams can confidently field a matchup piece that can neutralize a player like Embiid at both ends of the court, but with the Kansas center already in the building, why triple down on the position with the addition of Jahlil Okafor?

I get the Embiid thing, I really do. Nerlens Noel had already been a Sixer for a season, and while he came as advertised on the defensive end, his inability to make an impact on the offensive end of the court flew in sharp contrast to Hinkie’s vision. If Embiid could get his body right, then the Sixers could have a young center to build around for the foreseeable future the likes of which hadn’t set foot in the City of Brotherly Love since Andrew Bynum took up bowling.

But again, why Okafor? Was Hinkie, like the rest of the Delaware Valley, so high on D’Angelo Russell that when he ultimately went to the Lakers, his entire draft strategy fell apart?  If that’s the case, why not trade up and lock up Embiid’s former Montverde Academy teammate Fultz-style?  Or was it that Embiid’s injuries were so career-threatening that Okafor seemed like a viable Plan B even if he lacked the former’s defensive acumen or potential to knock down shots from beyond the arc?

I get trying to build for the future with the highest upside prospects possible, but even in 2015, Okafor’s style of play was ancient by NBA standards.

Sidebar: Kristaps Porzingis was never going to be a Sixer. I know this one gets thrown around a ton by the anti-Hinkie consortium as some major lapse in judgment but when a player refuses to even work out for an organization because they are New York or bust, why would anyone make that pick when he could have just stayed in Europe?  From an asset optimization standpoint, that’s a decidedly risky proposition.

Now to be fair, hindsight being what it is, it’s not like the top of the 2015 NBA Draft was ripe with talent. Outside of KAT, his midseason Timberwolves teammate, and Porzingis, the draft’s top-10 produced exactly zero all-stars, with another center,  Willie Cauley-Stein, probably going down as the fourth-best player. With that being said, players like Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre, Terry Rozier, and even Montrezl Harrell would look really good in a Philadelphia 76ers uniform, and could even coexist next to Embiid with minimal creativity.

*sigh* could you even imagine a Simmons-Booker-Embiid Big 3? At this point, I’d settle for Rozier over what Bryan Colangelo got form Okafor (aka nothing).

When it comes to talent evaluation, nobody’s perfect. Maybe Sam Hinkie really did think Jahlil Okafor was the best player on the board in 2015 and truly thought he’d be a positive asset for the Philadelphia 76ers even if Joel Embiid reached his full potential. However, by remaining unrelenting in a roster composition theory that was already outdated when he signed his contract, the ‘The Process’ Padré set himself up for failure – or to select Ben Simmons first overall in 2016. Such is the plight of an unconventional thinker.