According to two sources with inside knowledge of the negotiations, the Sixers had agreed to release veteran forward Andrei Kirilenko after the trade was consummated, but did not follow through on that handshake deal. Kirilenko, who played only seven games with the Nets this season, remains on the Sixers roster but has refused to join the team despite a request to do so.
"He might have an IQ of 150, but [Hinkie] doesn't seem to realize you have to deal with these people over and over," one league source said.
Could Hinkie have misinterpreted or misunderstood the alleged agreement with the Nets, who wanted to satisfy the desire of Kirilenko - a favorite of Russian team owner Mikhail Prokhorov - to become a free agent?
"No," said another source. "I think he started thinking he can just hold onto him and use him at the trade deadline in a package to get something."
Nets general manager Billy King and Hinkie both declined to comment on the record for this story, but a Sixers team source disputed the allegation.
"We made the trade to get the draft pick and in hopes [Kirilenko] might play for us," the Sixers source said. "[Releasing him] was not a condition of the trade, but I have no idea what was said to him on the other end."
On Friday morning, Hoops Hype reported that, according to a league source, the Sixers have suspended Kirilenko without pay for failing to report. Coach Brett Brown confirmed the report at the team’s morning shootaround in Brooklyn.
The trade sent young forward Brandon Davies from the Sixers to the Nets in exchange for the 6-foot-9 Kirilenko; guard Jorge Gutierrez; the Nets' 2020 second-round draft pick; the right to choose between the two teams' 2018 second-round picks; and $1 million.
For the Nets, who have spent themselves into a corner in the last few years, the trade was essentially a salary dump. Brooklyn was able to write off the remainder of the $3.33 million due to Kirilenko this season and the $816,000 due to Gutierrez, and was able to save $11 million in luxury tax payments to the NBA. The Nets also secured one-year salary-cap exceptions in the amounts of the two contracts.
The Sixers are an eager partner for teams willing to part with future assets - particularly draft picks - in exchange for accepting some financial burden. Because the Sixers have such a young, unproven roster, it is also an inexpensive roster, and the Sixers are still approximately $15 million beneath the league's salary-cap floor. That is money the team will have to spend somewhere this season, and the acquisition of future assets is considered by Hinkie as a good way to spend it.
The Sixers released Gutierrez the day after the trade and he is playing with the Canton Charge of the NBA Development League. Earlier this week, on the day before his contract would become guaranteed for the rest of the season, the Nets released Davies, who had played in seven games and totaled 44 minutes for Brooklyn. Brooklyn saved another $2 million in luxury tax payments by releasing him.
And then there is Kirilenko.
Andrei Kirilenko, who will turn 34 next month, was signed by the Nets as a free agent in 2013, and owners and general managers around the league started screaming. Kirilenko opted out of his contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves, which would have paid him $10.2 million for the 2013-14 season, and took a midlevel exception slot with Brooklyn for $3.18 million last season and $3.33 million this season.
It was speculated that Kirilenko was being paid off the books by Prokhorov, but an NBA investigation turned up no evidence to support that widely held suspicion. For his part, Kirilenko said that he wouldn't have done it 10 years before and knew the money wasn't great, but that he thought it was his best chance to win a championship before retiring.
Kirilenko, who played four professional seasons in Russia (three for a team owned by Prokhorov) before joining the NBA in 2001 with the Utah Jazz, suffered through a difficult first season with the Nets, limited to just 45 games because of a recurring back injury. This season, he fell quickly out of the rotation of coach Lionel Hollins, played his last game Nov. 13 at Golden State, and then took a personal leave of absence from the team on Nov. 21.
The reason for the leave of absence was not revealed, but league sources say Kirilenko's wife is going through a difficult pregnancy and the player wanted to stay home with her. Whether that is accurate or a means for Kirilenko to get away from a bad playing situation is moot. Either way, he didn't want to continue to play basketball for the Nets - although getting the rest of the $3.33 million is OK with him - and he certainly has no intention of suiting up for the 76ers, even though his smiling face is still on the roster page of the team's website.
According to two sources, the Nets told the Sixers that Kirilenko would not report and wished to become a free agent. Brooklyn had other trade options that would have worked out just as well or better if Kirilenko had been willing to play. Those sources insist the Sixers agreed to release Kirilenko but did not.
"That's 100 percent accurate," one source said. "[The Nets] clearly believed there was a handshake deal."
If the Sixers truly viewed Kirilenko as a possible player for them, as their team source indicated, it is hard to understand why they agreed to waive physicals as a condition of the trade when acquiring a player who had been unable to stay on the court because of injury.
For the most part, the general managers of the NBA form an old-boys club. Twenty-three of the 30 general managers in the league played and/or coached the game at the college and/or professional level. Sam Hinkie is not in the club, but he has to operate in that world.
Right now, because Hinkie's short-term goals don't conflict with those of most other teams, the Sixers are a useful depository for bad or unwanted contracts. Often, the deals involve the acquisition of future second-round draft picks, of which Hinkie now has a pocketful.
"With Sam, it's all about assets," another league source said. "He wants small things to add up to big things. He does things his way."
That's fine, but sources around the league indicate that Hinkie is also gaining a reputation as someone with whom other teams are leery of doing business. There is always reason to question the motivation of sources, and Hinkie's analytical approach to the game does represent a challenge to the old-boys club's way of operating. But not living up to a handshake agreement, if true, would be a bad way to build relationships.
"General managers like to call each other and talk, but nobody wants to talk to Sam Hinkie. Nobody trusts this guy," one source said.
It's not a big deal in itself, this business with Kirilenko. Maybe he'll get released eventually. Maybe he'll retire. Maybe he'll go back to Russia and finish his career there. What he won't do is play ball with the 76ers, and, depending on whom you believe, it's fair to wonder if down the road anyone else will, either.