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‘Built to Lose’ Author Jake Fischer on Tanking, Sam Hinkie, and Uncovered Stories of the Process-Era Sixers

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Philadelphia 76ers V Boston Celtics Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of speaking with Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer. In addition to the notoriety he’s gained through his excellent reporting on various outlets for nearly a decade now, Jake is especially well known in these parts for being a once-and-forever Liberty Baller. The impetus for our conversation was the release of Jake’s first book: Built to Lose: How the NBA’s Tanking Era Changed the League Forever, which was released on May 5.

In an effort to promote the book to its target audience, Jake returned to his old stomping grounds to discuss Sam Hinkie, the Process and present Sixers, and the ways that tanking previously affected and still impacts the NBA landscape. He was also kind enough to share some exclusive anecdotes from the book with detailed reporting about the Sixers of a bygone era.

The first place I’d like to start is with Liberty Ballers. What stood out about your particular era with the site?

I think Mike Levin might remember it differently, but for me — I was at Philadunkia, the ESPN TrueHoop network, which is really where I got my legit start after my personal blog and other little, tiny Philly blogs. And I saw the juggernaut that LB was becoming and I really wanted to be a part of it. I emailed them around that 2013 draft. I had a pretty good night, breaking some news about draft picks and stuff like that. Mike was interested but he thought that the site wasn’t exactly, like, reporting on the team yet. He still wanted it to be like a traditional blog. But at a certain point around that fall — I remember exactly where I was, in my sophomore dorm — Derek Bodner left to go start his own site, I believe? Or he got hired at, I think Philly Mag. Derek was the reporter-type guy at the site at the time. So I reached out and that’s how I got my start. And I think from that whole season on, that group covered the team top-to-bottom better than anybody. I was on the ground going to practices and shootarounds in Boston. Mike had his whole personality and all his columns, and we had the whole crew from Roy Burton and Dave [Reuter] and Jake Pavorsky was coming up and doing his thing. Sean O’Connor was as detailed as anybody. So we really, I think, cornered the market in terms of Sixers internet coverage.

Tell me about the genesis of Built to Lose. How did you come to the conclusion that this particular topic was good fodder for something so long-form like a book?

The LB background is obvious, right? Like, we were in the eye of that hurricane [The Process]. And like I said, I was in school in Boston. I interned at Slam magazine that summer of 2013, which was also kind of like my foray into the actual reporting and being on the phone with real NBA figures. So I took a credential from Slam every night to go to TD Garden to see them and [The Celtics] were tanking then, too. The Celtics traded [Kevin Garnett] and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn [right around when Sam] Hinkie traded Jrue [Holiday] to New Orleans. So when [the Sixers and Celtics] played each other, when other tanking teams played each other — like Orlando, the [Utah] Jazz were tanking that year, Phoenix was supposed to be and then they had that surprising 48-win team — but whenever a team in the tanking conversation came to play, it felt like a big moment. And it kind of followed me throughout my career. From thereon through [working for Sports Illustrated], I wear an Eagles hat a lot when I go to shootarounds. And whenever people would see that and find out that I’m from Philly, they’d ask my opinion and they had their opinion on tanking and on The Process. I think from the moment of the [Rights to Ricky Sanchez] lottery party in 2014 — it’s in the epilogue of my book, or the acknowledgements, I think. I just remember the floor shaking and the cups bouncing. It was a moment. It felt like something that was really seismic. I knew I wanted to cover it in long form then. I thought it was gonna be an SB Nation longform. I remember pitching Mike Prada who was the [SB Nation] NBA editor at the time. I wanted to do a story with Nerlens [Noel], going to the barber with Nerlens. I wanted to get a flat top fade with Nerlens and just be part of that moment. It didn’t work out, obviously, but it became this. And I’m not too unhappy with the outcome.

Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

As you put together the book and through all the research and sourcing you did for it, what surprised you most about what these teams have in common?

Yeah, I talked to over 300 people for this. From low-level 10-day guys, to Brandon Davies, to Lavoy Allen, to Thad [Young] and Evan [Turner] and Spencer [Hawes], to top Sixers executives who shall remain anonymous due to various NDA’s and whatnot. I think what was really interesting and why the book was not just about Philly, it’s about the league at large and a lot of teams, is that: as Sam came to Philly, as Rob Hennigan got to Orlando, as Ryan McDonough got to Phoenix, as David Griffin came to power in Cleveland, and Pete D’Alessandro in Sacramento, as all these analytical-minded guys came to power, it happened coincidentally leading up to this 2014 draft, which was supposed to be the best draft since ’03, all while the [Miami] Heat with those ’03 guys were just running the league. So all these teams thought, ‘You know, we might as well punt a few years. We’ll wait it out a little bit. And by the time the Heat have fallen off, we will be, you know, where Philly is right now.’ And Boston is not the contender that they were the last couple years, but they made a bunch of Conference Finals runs. And Phoenix didn’t think it would be Devin Booker being the guy, but they get Booker and DeAndre Ayton and they get Chris Paul and they’re now one of the top teams in the West. So the strategy clearly had its benefits.

I imagine that there’s something poetic about putting out this book about the wave of tanking in the NBA as the Sixers sit on the precipice of clinching the number 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Has that come up as you’ve been promoting the book?

Yeah, definitely. People want to know ‘Was it worth it?’ and ‘Does it have merit?’ And I think Sam’s detractors can point out [Michael Carter-Williams] and Nerlens and Jahlil Okafor and then even the whole Markelle Fultz situation, even though that happened after Hinkie’s tenure. [But] I think that was kind of the genius behind his strategy. The book kind of covers different case studies. Boston moved on from their stars before it was too late. Versus, there was a lot of coverage of [late-career] Kobe [Bryant]’s Lakers. And they ended up being one of the worst teams in the league year after year, because they were trying to build around Kobe instead of trying to rebuild. For Philly, Sam never had the hubris that he was just going to pick three straight MVPs like [Oklahoma City] did from ’07 to ’09. He wanted to [throw] as many darts at the dartboard as possible because he knew that it was going to be hard and that the draft was an inexact science. So I think coming away with just Joel [Embiid] and Ben [Simmons] is, like, they got Joel and Ben! And here they are. So I think that just goes to show that if you are going to play that game — you know, Orlando obviously had to rebuild again from that rebuild. Just now, at the deadline, moving on from [Nikola Vucevic], [Aaron] Gordon and [Evan] Fournier. So, you do need a lot of shots if you want to give it the old college try, or else you’re going to potentially end up in a situation where you’re shorthanded.

Philadelphia 76ers V San Antonio Spurs Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Why do you think Sam Hinkie’s version of tanking became so polarizing — to the point that it cost Hinkie his job? Because his Sixers weren’t the first teams to do this. They’re certainly not the last. Was it just the bald and unapologetic nature of the Sixers’ rebuild?

Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head. And I think he messaged it pretty opaquely at the start in his press conference, and then he never really talked again, aside from after the draft and after the trade deadline. And the theme of building and patience, and ‘growing the orchard’ and all those things, was pretty obvious at a certain point. And then trading Jrue right after the whole Andrew Bynum debacle — that was a pretty big bomb that dropped on a lot of people. That wasn’t really expected. I remember, it came out of left field publicly. And even in the book I’m going to have a lot of reporting that very few people in the entire Sixers organization were even aware that was going to happen. From my reporting: going into draft night, it was only Sam, Sachin Gupta, Courtney Witte and Rod Thorn who knew. All the scouts were sitting in a conference room attached to Hinkie’s office at the old P-COM facility. There [were] just doors separating them. And pretty much 90 percent of the Sixers’ staff was out in that conference room and it was just Sam and those three guys pulling the trigger. I think that shock factor also foreshadowed how he was going to conduct the rest of his time there. He never really cared about communicating it because that’s what he thought was best. He thought any info he gave to anybody — even within his own building — was gonna sacrifice the Sixers’ positioning to make a move for the long term.

Obviously, tanking still exists in today’s NBA, and it seems that teams aren’t even trying that hard to hide it currently. Oklahoma City sat down a fully healthy Al Horford for the rest of the year right after the All-Star break, but there’s not a peep from the league office about how Sam Presti has made a mockery of the league. Why do you think that is? Is it because Presti and other GM’s who are tanking are just more willing to play the game than Sam was?

I think they’re more willing to play the game. I think COVID is a real factor this particular season. Like, there are no fans, or there’s no ‘ticket sales are down’ type of thing where SportsCenter can say that the Sixers are selling tickets for 76 cents. Also I think it’s just become a bit normalized. And the fact that lottery reform got passed, at the time [the league] kind of put up their fists and puffed out their chests and said ‘We solved tanking.’ Daryl [Morey] even facetiously tweeted at the time, he tagged Hinkie and said ‘Tanking is solved.’

And I think they feel like their strategy is enough to prevent [tanking]. Like, the Knicks in 2019 are the perfect example, the first year of the new reform. They were tanking for Zion [Williamson] and they fell down to 3. They didn’t get him. And it was considered a win for lottery reform and everybody kind of forgot about it and moved on. But you’re right, what OKC is doing with Horford and Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander], what Houston’s doing with John Wall. I mean, Al Horford’s at home, John Wall is literally sitting healthy on the bench watching Kevin Porter Jr. take over the Rockets. It’s definitely more brazen and audacious and bald than anything Sam ever did.

You mentioned what the league has done: in recent years the NBA has tried to combat the tanking problem by flattening out the lottery odds at the top of the draft, so as to dissuade teams from trying so hard to get to the bottom. Now they added the play-in games, which allow four more teams the opportunity to get in the playoffs. But as a Sixers fan, if these changes existed in 2012, I’d still have been dying for the Sixers to tank because the best prospects get picked at the top of the draft, and I wouldn’t be particularly excited by the possibility of winning the play-in and getting killed in round one. Do you think these changes have worked league-wide to fix the issue the league saw?

No. I think they’ve worked in the sense that it’s no longer a narrative, it’s no longer a headline on ESPN. Kevin Pelton just put out a graphic [recently] that there’s a tanking advantage to get into the top-5, especially in a draft like this one, [which] is considered, ironically, the best one, perhaps, since 2014.

Which we talked about that could’ve been the best since 2003, and it’s considered to be a five-player draft. And all the teams you talked about — Houston, OKC, Orlando, Detroit — they’re all tanking very, very clearly. [They’re] trying to get into this pick range. The Minnesota top-4 pick is, like, a joke on Twitter. Clearly it’s a strategy that has its benefits since teams are still playing the lottery.

Philadelphia 76ers v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

If the Sixers are an example of a tank working out in the end, is there a team that comes to mind when you think about a failed exercise in tanking?

I want to say the [Sacramento] Kings. They’re in the book, kind of, as a cautionary tale of what happens when you’re a small market [team] and you don’t tank all the way. Like, they got DeMarcus Cousins at number 5 — by all accounts they were very lucky. He only fell to them due to off-court temperament type of character concerns. But even from there, they never were bad [enough] again to get the next guy. This is before De’Aaron Fox in 2017. Even still — they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2006. They have shifting goals and different benchmarks. Mike Malone and Vivek Ranadive and Pete D’Alessandro took over the Kings at the very same time that Sam Hinkie and Brett Brown came into Philadelphia. Mike Malone had a two-year window to build that thing thoroughly and make the playoffs. All of a sudden, by that December, they’re trading for Rudy Gay — Vivek wants to make the playoffs. There’s this whole [conversation] about [whether or not] Pete was gonna fire Mike Malone, since he got hired after Malone. And sure enough, they do fire him the next year. And they bring in George Karl and they bring in Vlade Divac to push out Pete D’Alessandro. There was no clear, uniform direction. And that’s what I think Sixers fans — the ones who were Process supporters — were so happy about. That there was finally some direction. I think that’s something that fans can get behind. When you’re constantly shifting your goalposts and your owner comes in every offseason and gives a different directive to his coaching staff and his front office, and even has a different coaching staff and front office altogether, that’s the way you end up in purgatory and you end up on that treadmill of mediocrity for a long, long time.

Are there any Sixers-specific anecdotes that made it into the book that you’d like to share?

Yeah, there’s a few. Obviously the Andrew Bynum fiasco in 2012-13 set this whole [Process] off. Thad Young told me a brand new story: the Sixers — every day — were going into practice wondering whether or not Bynum was gonna be cleared to play that day. And there was one day that they found out that he wasn’t, and Thad told me that it was because they found out that [Bynum] hurt his knees [by] walking his dogs on a gravel road. And Thad walked right up to him and was like, ‘Bynum. Big man. Do you want to play for us this year?’ And he said ‘Yeah.’ And [Thad]’s like, ‘How much do you make?’ And Bynum said, ’Like 17, 18 million.’ And [Thad] was like, ‘Well, fucking pay somebody to walk your dog for you!’

And there’s this great detail in the book that I haven’t really teased to anybody yet: Sam was super, super staunchly negotiating every single draft from ’13, ’14, and ’15. Someone in the organization told me that he would have Sachin go through that dividing door in the conference room and call in people every now and then, to like, ask about a certain player that they knew a lot about. And one time, this guy got called into the room, and Sam had a landline and a mobile phone to his ears — just like that Joe Dumars picture — and he had his sleeves rolled up and his tie loosened and he’s negotiating. And there was this legend that was going around the team that in college he had to fulfill a negotiating requirement in front of a full lecture hall, and Sam called a pizza delivery guy to the room — he had ordered 50 pizzas — and in front of this packed lecture hall, he negotiated the whole order for free.

Oh my god.

Yeah, that’s one of my favorite details in the whole book.

Wow, I hope he still tipped that guy.

I don’t know, he got it for free.

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Just as an NBA analyst, how do you feel about this Sixers team? Do you think they have as good a chance as anyone at the title?

I think that the strategy that Hinkie employed was in [the mindset] of trying to compete for titles year after year after year, not just make one effort at it like Toronto did in 2019, or like the Mavericks in 2011. And I think Philly is right there. I don’t think they’re the favorite by any stretch, but they’ve got an unguardable guy in Joel and they’ve got an elite defense. At the end of the day, the title [often] comes down to a lucky bounce here or there or an injury or whatever, and they’re right in that top tier where anything could happen, and they have a real shot at it, for sure.

Finally, I’ll ask you the unanswerable question: how do you think things would have played out if Sam Hinkie was never usurped of his power and forced out?

I think Sam is one of the most brilliant people I’ve spoken with — let alone NBA people I’ve spoken with. He’s really, really, really, thorough and detailed. And he asks all the right questions when he needs to, and I think that mindset would have translated to building something. I think he never got a chance to do it. I think a big misconception was that [the Sixers] were just gonna tank and tank and tank and people don’t really realize that if Joel Embiid didn’t get hurt in his workout with Cleveland — Cavs officials, to this day, maintain that Joel broke his foot during his workout with the Cavs — they would’ve gotten [Andrew] Wiggins at 3. Dario [Saric] probably would’ve been the guy at 10. Dario and his agent told me that they got a promise from Sam, from Philly, that they were gonna take him at 10. That’s a whole ‘nother factor with the Elfrid Payton trade. But I think that their plan all along was to build towards 2016 free agency. That’s why Brett negotiated for a fourth year in his contract, that’s why they were hiring people like Chris Babcock and Todd Wright who had connections to Kevin Durant from Texas, who was obviously a free agent in 2016. They were hiring Billy Lange from Villanova who had a connection to Kyle Lowry. Lloyd Pierce had a connection to LeBron. They were doing small things like that and there was definitely an air around the organization that 2016 was gonna be the year that they were gonna build this core and then sign the free agent to come and lead them to the promised land. So I think the strategy was in place, and then Joel fell to them at 3 and the whole Okafor fight in Boston happens and it all fell apart. I think Sam was planning for it and I think he could have done it.

Is there anything else that you’d like to get out to the Liberty Ballers community?

I mean, without Liberty Ballers I don’t think this book exists. I think, from creating the narrative to, also, the community that we helped cultivate, but also that people were a part of that helped make this a topic of relevance, and also supported all of our careers. And the fact that I’ve written this and Derek and Rich [Hofmann] and Kyle [Neubeck] are on the beat like they are, and Spike [Eskin] and Mike have become the juggernaut that they have been, and Jake Pavorsky’s running The Basketball Tournament. Apologies to anyone I’ve left out. But that’s not just a testament to us, it’s a testament to the readers. So that’s my shout-out to the Liberty Ballers crew and community.

Built to Lose: How the NBA’s Tanking Era Changed the League Forever is out now. Buy it at Bookshop, Triumph Books, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

Follow Jake on Twitter here.

This interview has been condensed for our readership.

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