Sixers' analytical approach

Posted: May 14, 2013

JOSH HARRIS acquired Twinkies and Hinkie in the same calendar year.

Either move could make the billionaire investor look like a Ding Dong.

Harris' group of investment sharks, Apollo Global Management, in March bought a piece of Hostess out of bankruptcy.

Harris' group of hoops hobbyists, the Philadelphia 76ers, last week hired 35-year-old Stanford MBA graduate Sam Hinkie to be the team's president of basketball operations and general manager.

Twinkies have a timeless allure.

Hinkie is more the flavor of the month.

Considering the evolving nature of sports, Hinkie's profile and his background might endear him to half of the Sixers' fan base and doom him in the eyes of the rest.

It will be years before either side can be validated. Half a decade will pass before Hinkie's analytics-based approach can be fairly judged.

He first must hire a coach. He then must decide the worth of players such as Andrew Bynum, Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen, and, yes, even spirited forward Thaddeus Young and All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday.

Harris, whose investments also have included cruise lines, knows a bad boat when he sees it. This 34-win ship is listing severely. Anyone might be jettisoned.

Hinkie was part of the Rockets' retooling this past offseason that landed James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. He worked under Houston GM Daryl Morey, a new-age, big-picture man who runs his operation without fear of ridicule.

Hinkie will be given a sledgehammer and a smartphone by Harris, a fellow geek. This Old Team could be deconstructed beyond recognition by summertime.

Fortysomethings and their elders likely will roll their eyes and regard Hinkie as part of an overvalued wave of fantasy nerds who use probabilities as sacred texts and who forsake what their eyes and their hearts (and their scouts) tell them.

The thirtysomethings and their Freakonomics legions likely will rejoice that the Sixers have moved past sexagenarian Doug Collins, the crusty coach who just quit.

Replacing Collins, of course, will be Hinkie's most urgent task. Given the league's increased use of analytics, he will have no shortage of candidates who understand his methods.

Should the Sixers pursue Pacers assistant Brian Shaw, as is expected, they will be seeking a man baptized in applied analytics. Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard was a panelist at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March, where the ComicCon alumni who now work in sports administration meet to plot their revenge against the jocks they employ.

Hinkie, with an MBA from Stanford, is Harris' latest move toward "building advanced analytic capability" within the organization, Harris' late-night hobby among his other investments.

Does the hire of Hinkie indicate that only Spoelstras need apply? Hinkie was a candidate for the same job last year, but Collins' distaste for applied analytics and his assumption of complete control of the franchise would have clashed with Hinkie's religion.

The Sixers opted instead to promote Tony DiLeo, a loyal soldier for more than 2 decades – who, it should be noted, appreciates analytics in NBA strategies. DiLeo is expected to be let go.

And, lest anyone throw aside conventional wisdoms, consider this: The Oakland A's, sport's pioneer into calculus-dependent franchise-building, have made the playoffs just six times in Billy Beane's 15 seasons as GM, and have won one playoff series.

The Rockets – who, unlike the cost-conscious A's, operate under a leaguewide salary cap – have been to the playoffs three times under Morey. They have won one series.

How much credit should Hinkie get for Houston's qualified success? Who are his guys?

Fashionable, serviceable point guard Lin? Prized shooting guard Harden?

Did Hinkie slam his red stapler on Morey's desk and threaten to burn down the building if Asik stayed in Chicago?

Of course, there are facets to running a team that cannot be graphed.

How do you quantify chemistry? What is the jerk quotient? What metric gauges the likelihood of, say, players eating chicken and drinking beer in the clubhouse during games?

Even if Hinkie is an eyes-on GM, an eager, tireless scout, does that mean he knows what he's seeing?

Harris has hired what he knows; what has worked for him in the past. Dispassionate acquisition and manipulation of resources, inevitable "reorganization" of "assets," resulted in a lack of humanism that helped lead to the disastrous moves the Sixers made last year.

The questions about Bynum's toughness, professionalism and commitment all turned out to be warranted. Any questions about Andre Iguodala's value were not.

Still, teams implement everything they can to produce wins. Consider some of the better teams over the past few seasons.

The Celtics, operating in the shadow of the sabergeeks at Fenway, hired Harvard law grad Mike Zarren almost a decade ago, and he advanced to assistant GM as the team acquired stars like Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen – but also was bolstered by less-heralded veterans Jeff Green and Brandon Bass.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is rabid about analytics. The Spurs, perhaps the benchmark for professionalism, have used an analytics arm for years. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra created the team's stats system when he was Pat Riley's gofer, and Spoelstra uses the software to run simulations.

The Sixers already are among the 15 NBA teams that have installed SportVU, the Stats, Inc. camera system that tracks players and the ball and how they relate and interact. SportVU is not, of course, the only such tool, nor is it universally loved by analytic nuts. The Heat, for instance, does not have one.

The Sixers also hired Aaron Barzilai in November, long after he might have analyzed a trade for a player such as, say, Andrew Bynum . . . an unfortunate timing development, perhaps.

Barzilai's basketballvalue.com website computed players' values for the two seasons that preceded the end of the 2012 playoffs.

The website showed that, remarkably, Andre Iguodala was slightly more valuable than Kevin Durant . . . and was worth considerably more than Andrew Bynum.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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