It’s been just over two years since Sam Hinkie stepped down as the Philadelphia 76ers’ general manager and president of basketball operations, marking the end of his participation in perhaps the boldest and most hotly (and exhaustively) debated rebuilding project in NBA history — a years-long plummet to the bottom of the league’s standings, in search of high lottery picks who could help transform a franchise that had spent years on the “treadmill of mediocrity” into one with the top-tier talent capable of competing for championships.
As the 76ers emerged this season as a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference, winning 52 games and making the second round of the playoffs fueled largely by the talented young players who came in his wake, Hinkie began to return to public view, appearing as a speaker and panelist at the 2018 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference back in February and agreeing to a lengthy feature for The Ringer about what he’s been doing and what he might do next.
Hinkie has been splitting his time between the business and sports worlds, acting as “an angel investor and adviser for various startups” while also doing some consulting work for unnamed NBA teams. On Thursday, though, he reportedly switched fields of play, spending the day consulting with the brass of the NFL’s Denver Broncos, led by general manager John Elway, at their headquarters in Dove Valley, Colorado.
[Hinkie] met with Elway, along with the pro and college scouting staffs, spoke to Broncos director of football analytics Mitch Tanney and analyst Scott Flaska. He spent time with Mike Sullivan, the Broncos’ [salary] cap guru formally known as the director of football administration, and he met with the team’s athletic training staff and the strength and conditioning coach, Loren Landow.
The premise of the visit was simple, and one every NFL team is dealing with lately: How to best use the influx of data they’ve received over the years to benefit them in player evaluation, in-game situations, salary cap and contract decisions, and training and rehab matters.
NFL is entering its analytics era
The NFL has long been viewed as lagging behind Major League Baseball and the NBA in pro sports’ analytics revolution. Reports have suggested that some NFL decision-makers were skeptical of the potential benefits of an advanced analytical approach, while others worried that moving in the direction of Big Data without uniformity regarding which teams had access to what new information would impact the league in unforeseen ways, potentially creating a significant competitive imbalance.
The NFL has, however, been collecting a ton of data — on how, where, how quickly and how frequently players and the ball move, during practice and in games, through the use of radio-frequency identification chips created by Zebra Technologies attached to shoulder pads and placed inside footballs — for several years.
In February, the league’s competition committee approved a proposal “to release in-game player-tracking data on every NFL player to all 32 teams,” with data collected during the past two NFL seasons going to teams this spring, and league-wide data going to all 32 teams on a weekly basis throughout the coming season.
NFL teams are now sitting on a treasure chest …
What could teams potentially do with all that data? As Bill Barnwell wrote for Grantland in 2014, “The possibilities for using this information are endless”:
With reliable player-tracking data, we could chart things that are impossible to track now. Think of it: Right now, NFL safeties in deep coverage spend most of each passing play offscreen. We find out what they do only when they screw up and/or by watching coaches’ tape. With player tracking, we could track each safety’s range on a given play and how fast he moves from sideline to sideline. We could visualize each route run by a receiver during a season and calculate just how open a player gets versus the defense, or how badly players tire when they’ve been on the field for multiple consecutive snaps, or which running back is fastest in the open field. It would be a gold mine of information.
… if they find the key to unlock it
As detailed by Lorenzo Reyes of USA TODAY Sports back in March, the new data could also provide more granular insights into things like how the playing surfaces and conditions in each stadium might impact performance (and, as a result, tactics and strategies), how best to manage player fatigue and injury recovery, player evaluation models that teams could use in scouting and free agency decision-making, and more.
The problem, though: it’s a ton of raw information, dumped in the laps of teams whose staffs might not be particularly well versed in digging through reams of data to find the answers to their most pressing questions.
“To be honest, there were so many numbers, we had no idea what to do with them,” an offensive assistant from one NFC team told Reyes. “We assembled a team of guys just to sift through what the hell we were looking at.”
Enter one of the forerunners of the NBA’s analytics era
Which, of course, is precisely the sort of thing Hinkie made his bones doing, first as Daryl Morey’s right-hand man with the Houston Rockets and then as the No. 1 guy with the 76ers. Under the stewardship of Hinkie — who reportedly worked part-time for the San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans before going all-in on the NBA — the Sixers famously tracked everything under the sun in search of player-development and competitive edges. From a 2015 ESPN the Magazine feature by Pablo Torre:
Virtually overnight, the Sixers went from not even having Microsoft Outlook to having mandated biometrics. From day one, Hinkie has had every player wear a fatigue-tracking GPS device, made by an Australian company called Catapult, at practice. The team would soon measure hydration and, thanks to take-home monitors, sleep. […]
Hinkie, as part of his drive to measure everything, tracks each shot his players take, not just in games but also shootarounds and practices. “You can’t hide,” [veteran shooting guard Jason] Richardson says. Some of the tallying is by hand; some of it is noted off video. [Head coach Brett] Brown uses the data to see which players “are investing time into development,” he says, and doles out playing time and in-game privileges accordingly. “It’s crazy,” [center Nerlens] Noel says. “They’ll tell me what my free-throw percentage is in practice. And I’m like, ‘What?!'”
In the short term, all that tracking, measuring and evaluating didn’t appear to amount to much in Philadelphia. The 76ers went 47-199 in Hinkie’s three-season tenure, including an NBA-record-tying 26 consecutive losses and an NBA-record-tying 18 consecutive losses to open a season, before Hinkie and the Sixers parted ways under a cloud in the spring of 2016.
The insights gleaned from that period, though, have served as the cornerstone of what the 76ers would become. They led to the implementation of a fast-paced, floor-spreading, ball- and player-moving offensive style, as well as an exacting defensive scheme, that might not have looked pretty operated by D-Leaguers and journeymen, but fares a lot better with premium talent plugged in. They led to the growth of a team culture that prizes conversation, cohesion and collective effort. And they led to the discovery and development of overlooked and undrafted players like forward Robert Covington, who just earned All-Defensive first-team honors, and point guard T.J. McConnell, a hard-charging grinder who made an impact during the 76ers’ second-round series against the Boston Celtics.
Those insights — and, yes, all the losses that led to the high draft picks that resulted in the chances to select and develop All-NBA second teamer Joel Embiid and Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons, which was always the point of Hinkie’s “Process” — helped put the Sixers on the path to an extremely bright future. And while the Broncos aren’t looking for a similar sink-to-the-bottom, rise-to-the-top approach to returning to Super Bowl contention — the NFL team that came closest on that score resides about 1,400 miles east of Denver, and it has since changed tacks — they are looking for expertise in finding actionable needles in haystacks of data that someone like Hinkie could provide. More from Jhabvala:
“Again, it’s that pragmatic part,” Tanney told The Athletic earlier this month. “If we just do some one-off research that doesn’t make any sense, that doesn’t do anybody any good. It needs to be applicable.” […]
“I like it because it obviously makes you better,” Joseph said in March. “If it can make you 12 percent better, we have to use it. Analytics have been a big part of the game for the last five or six years, so I think it’s important to not ignore those things. Again, if it can make you better by one percent, why not? Why not use those things?”
Whether Hinkie’s consulting winds up having a notable impact on how the Broncos parse information, what kind of stuff they look for, and what sort of decisions they make remains to be seen. But the toothpaste’s out of the tube; this data’s out there now, and if every team in the league isn’t already looking for native speakers to help them translate it all into tangible on-field benefit, they will be soon. It’s a copycat league, after all, and nobody wants to get left behind.
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