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Atkinson praised Hinkie, but Nets rebuild isn’t ‘The Process’ ... and that’s fine

After “The Process,” every rebuild will be measured against what Sam Hinkie did. Is that the right model though?

Sacramento Kings v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

It was an off-hand comment before the Nets win over the 76ers at Barclays. Kenny Atkinson was comparing the Nets situation with that of the Sixers who of course are much further along in “The Process” than the Nets are in their rebuild, which really doesn’t have a name. Atkinson wanted to praise Sam Hinkie, the departed and controversial Sixer GM.

“I was debating whether I was going to say this but I’m going to say it,” said Atkinson, who worked with Hinkie in Houston when he was an assistant coach and Hinkie an assistant GM. “Because I worked with him and I think of Sam Hinkie and what he did, there should be a management award for him, somewhere, management study, on what he did.

“We can argue whether you like it or you don’t like it but I was around him, I really like him as a person and I just think he did a phenomenal job thinking long-term like that, to have that vision that most of us don’t have, let’s be honest, I don’t think he gets enough credit. It’s a lot of reason they have all the talent that they do. He’s a big reason.”

Maybe so. Hinkie of course was fired by the 76ers and replaced by Bryan Colangelo just as “The Process” began to bear fruit (and not long after Sean Marks beat out Colangelo for the Nets job.) But he was not a universally appreciated figure in the NBA ... and he isn’t employed.

More importantly, as the trade deadline just showed, the Nets are not following his lead. There are big differences between what he did and what Marks and Atkinson are trying to do. Hinkie, of course, started off with a few more assets in terms of picks and players. Marks had no picks. Hinkie had the advantage of being able to tank to get his own picks higher in the lottery.

“The Process” was based in numbers, analytics, as is the Nets rebuild, but their culture, too often, was embattled, us vs. them, without an appreciation of the long-term. Hinkie made enemies, lots of them, including other GM’s and agents.

Here’s one example, which may be recalled by the Nets’ fan. Back in December 2014, the Nets traded Andrei Kirilenko, then on his last legs, to Philly in a salary dump. Hinkie acquired Kirilenko; point guard Jorge Gutierrez; a second-round pick in the 2020 draft; the right to swap Cleveland’s second round pick in 2018 (which Philadelphia had previously picked up) with Brooklyn’s own second round pick that year and cash considerations. In return, the Nets got forward Brandon Davies, who they waived the next month.

But there was also a handshake deal between Hinkie and Billy King, according to a later report in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Kirilenko’s wife was having a difficult pregnancy and King wanted Hinkie to assure him that the Sixers wouldn’t force Kirilenko to report to Philadelphia, that he would simply release him.

King was reportedly infuriated when Hinkie declined to honor the deal. To make matters worse, Kirilenko, living in New York, refused to report and with Hinkie suspended him before finally caving in February at the trade deadline. Bob Ford of the Inquirer quoted a “league source” as saying, “He might have an IQ of 150, but [Hinkie] doesn’t seem to realize you have to deal with these people over and over,” referring to agents and fellow GM’s.

Others described him as “aloof,” “secretive,” “an MBA who treated players as commodities” and “definitely not a basketball guy,” He was reviled as someone who didn’t understand the way the NBA worked, with its intimate dance between agents, GMs and players. He had to win every battle.

Agents didn’t like the way he would construct deals for his many second round picks and ultimately they mounted a whisper campaign against him. He was, as David Falk, the dean of NBA agents, “a pure analytics guy,” who hadn’t surrounded himself with “enough pure basketball people.” In June 2015, the NBPA, the players union, began an investigation into possible violations of the CBA by Hinkie. Player agents were in the lead.

And of course, he didn’t win. Ownership first brought on Jerry Colangelo to be his boss, then at the end of a 10-win season in 2015-16, he resigned under pressure, ultimately to be replaced by Colangelo’s son, Bryan.

Contrast all of that with what happened at the trade deadline this week, how the Nets have handled their rebuild. Players and agents praised Marks for his openness and Marks told reporters “I don’t love using the term ‘asset’ because that sort of dehumanizes the whole thing. Our guys are part of the Nets family.” (Of course, as Brian Lewis remarked, “Marks doesn’t like the term, but the NBA is a ‘Godfather’-style family: Strictly business.”)

Players do appreciate it. “Sean was talking to my agent a lot around the point of how much they value me here, how important I am here,” DeMarre Carroll said. “They did a good job of keeping me informed of different scenarios.”

Mark Bartlestein, agent for both Carroll and Joe Harris, praised the Nets front office for keeping him informed with regular conversations. And that is the heart of the difference between The Process and the rebuild. Communications.

Yes, yes, of course, the Sixers have their great young core, all the product of “The Process” — Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, etc., but they also blew it, despite their analytic bent, on Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams. Their development record is not what you would expect from such a youth-oriented program. (We’re not touching the Markelle Fultz situation. That’s on Colangelo.)

The Nets, on the other hand, have a “long, long way to go,” as Marks has said. But he’s been open about it all. Expectations have been measured, progress has been promoted, culture has been altered and patience has been preached. It’s been a complete shift from the way things used to be done around here ... and yes, from Hinkie, some of it deliberate, some the product of different realities.

Nets fans are reveling in the progress of young players, some drafted by the Nets, like Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, some picked up (and developed) from G-League, like Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris, and one rescued from Hinkie’s own scrap heap, Jahlil Okafor.

The new era, the ‘Markinson’ regime, has pandered, really to no one. They’ve done it their way, not Hinkie way. Less disruptive, more player-friendly. Will it work as well as “The Process” has, at least short term? Stay tuned... for a long, long time.

Hinkie is no longer running the Sixers, but his impact has been felt, and Atkinson thinks he deserves praise for it. Just don’t emulate it.