“What is something you believe to be true, that almost nobody would agree with you on?”
-Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley venture capitalist
A question so simple, yet so hard. Often it is this question which lies at the core of the people, businesses, and sports franchises that define our time. They find something genuinely different and capitalize it. This question, is a contrarian question.
Wednesday night, Sam Hinkie resigned from his position as General Manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers are 10-68 this season. On its face, the story of a GM with a historically awful record resigning does not seem like a story for a time when the Warriors are three games from the greatest regular season ever. Yet, I think the story of Sam Hinkie helps us understand something deeper about NBA success. For many, Sam Hinkie was the experiment in basketball. If that “Read on!” pitch was not strong enough, maybe this one will be: Sam Hinkie’s journey relates to the Warriors, specifically Warriors owner Joe Lacob. But, first, let’s rewind. Back to Hinkie.
Hinkie’s model of team-building, given the moniker “trust the process” for its long-term orientation, was plainly direct. Here it is, put in five sentences: Championships are what matter in sports. In basketball, championships are won by superstars. Superstars are most commonly acquired through the draft. Thus, you need to maximize your chance at picking at the top of the draft. To do that you need to lose, a lot.
Hinkie’s north star was the NBA Draft. Every trade he made was oriented around maximizing the draft. It is said that Sam Hinkie never “lost” a trade. In that sense he is the NBA’s version of Rob Stark in Game of Thrones: someone who won every battle, but lost the war.
The 76ers have been tanking, the sports term for not exactly committing all assets to winning in the present. Tanking in itself is not unique. The Warriors tanked to keep their pick in the 2012 Draft (leading to Harrison Barnes). The Spurs tanked to draft Tim Duncan. The league could brand itself as “where tanking happens” instead of “where amazing happens” and they would not be lying to us. What differentiated Hinkie was the extent to which he was willing to lose. Tanking occupies a weird place in the basketball world as both the path of least resistance to future success and the most painful one. The 76ers were different not in the type of pain they endured but rather in the amount they could tolerate.
Upon his resignation, Hinkie penned a letter to the ownership group of the 76ers. It was 7,000 words long and covered 13 pages. Yes, Hinkie’s letter had more pages than his team has wins. This letter was a manifesto. The tone is set in the third sentence when Hinkie references Atul Gawande, a renowned surgeon. Others referenced include Warren Buffet, Abraham Lincoln, and Elon Musk. Sections of the letter include “Thinking about thinking,” “Be long science.” and “A contrarian mindset.” This letter is as much a piece of academia as it is a basketball piece. To help convey the tone, I have included an excerpt below.
A league with 30 intense competitors requires a culture of finding new, better ways to solve repeating problems. In the short term, investing in that sort of innovation often doesn’t look like much progress, if any. Abraham Lincoln said “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
The letter is equally self-indulgent and thought-provoking. Hinkie cites generational people like Lincoln because he sees himself in them. The letter is not short on self-confidence, especially for a man resigning. Above all else, the letter preaches one doctrine: in the long run, contrarians win. To him this philosophy of the contrarian is what makes Buffet, Lincoln, Musk, and to an extended point, himself, different.
This brings me to Warriors majority owner, Joe Lacob, and a New York Times feature on him last week. The title of the piece, “What Happened When Venture Capitalists Took Over the Golden State Warriors” is like a flashing site saying “Contrarians!”. Below are a couple of Lacob’s quotes from the piece.
On the Warriors organization: “We’re light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things.”
On his background: “In venture capital, I started 70 companies. I also watched my partners’ deals, maybe 200 of them. That’s a lot of companies. I thought about the way we design a board of directors, the way we design the financing. There’s an architecture to it. And I started thinking about the architecture I would use when I owned and built my own team someday.”
Hinkie and Lacob do not sound too different. Both a bit self-indulgent with a belief that their way is different. That they are the contrarian.
For Lacob it is his venture capital background that differentiates him. He hired a GM with no prior front office experience (Bob Myers) because a contrarian thinks fundamentally differently. He fired Mark Jackson, a coach who elevated the team from the Warriors we’d known for decades to a team that made the playoffs. He resisted the NBA norm of having one decision-maker and embraced a roundtable featuring Myers, Jerry West, Travis Schlenk, Kirk Lacob, Steve Kerr, and himself, because at tech companies the best idea wins – not the idea from the highest ranking employee. He rejected a trade offer that would have netted him Kevin Love, a consensus top ten player at the time.
Right now, Joe Lacob is the golden owner of the NBA. Sam Hinkie just resigned. Yet, I do not think their ideologies are that different. Attributing success to luck often sounds lazy but it cannot be ignored. The Warriors are lucky that Curry’s ankles healed. The Spurs are lucky they won the 1997 Draft Lottery to get Tim Duncan. Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors is lucky that sales for the Model S surged right as they almost sold the company to Google in 2013.
Sam Hinkie lacked luck. The 76ers never moved up in the draft order at the draft lottery. Yet, in the long run it is hard to discern luck from management smarts.
Sports are incredibly binary. You win or you lose. This is why they are the ultimate version of of reality television. It is also why we exaggerate the greatness of winners, and degrade the losers. When you are a contrarian and lose, you are massively out of touch; this is Hinkie. When you are a contrarian and win, you are different, special; this is Lacob. In the end, the winners are less genius than we think and the losers are closer to wining than we believe.
At their core, Sam Hinkie and Joe Lacob are not that different.