The Sixers couldn’t stomach any more losing. Three years into “the process” (a pejorative term the team never pushed), Philadelphia has been losing even more games this season. Sam Hinkie, the team’s general manager and architect of their strategy to milk bargain markets and the draft for all they were worth, became marginalized, leaving his post when the team sought to add another layer of authority between him and ownership. On the way out, Hinkie’s (private) 13-page letter of resignation was leaked to the jeering public.
Darryl Morey, the godfather of the league’s front office analytics movement and Hinkie’s former boss, is reportedly on shaky ground in Houston. Morey’s Rockets team isn’t nearly as bad as the Sixers, but a bad mix of talent and personalities have sunk them from a top-4 team last year to the very bottom of the playoffs hunt. The knock on both men is that they’re too smart for their own good, valuing players like investment assets but not as delicate human beings.The knock on Hinkie and Morey is that they’re too smart for their own good, valuing players like investment assets but not as delicate human beings..
Typical hot seat speculation boils down to a calloused should they/shouldn’t they get the axe format, with generally objective evaluation of the executive’s performance. But for many, these latest developments are about more than whether another fired suit did a good or bad job. This is validation for fans who agree with Charles Barkley, who famously mocked Morey as an imposter, a nerd who used numbers to justify his otherwise pointless contribution to the sport of basketball. The game is one of sweat and emotion and brute force, not percentages and distance tracking and shot charts. Talent wins, not math.
As with most sports narratives, that story just doesn’t add up. The end goal of Morey, Hinkie, and other numbers-savvy executives is no different than their critics would want. The data-inclined people running these franchises are trying to use market inefficiencies, clever trades, and scrupulous cap management to find and acquire good players, plain and simple. They say as much, and their actions back up that commitment.The underlying reason these “nerds” are so maligned is not their strategy (which makes plenty logical sense) but their perceived hubris. Pride comes before a fall, after all, and these white collar Ivy Leaguers have quite the nerve to believe that they can outsmart the room. Fair enough. Hinkie’s letter is quite TED Talk-y and self-important. Morey’s contract-to-the-wind gambles have blown up in his face before.
But this is the sports world, where pride is celebrated. The most revered man in the NBA made it a hobby to psychologically abuse a young man in practice, and crafted his Hall-of-Fame acceptance speech around the singular, petty focus of those who didn’t appreciate His Airness enough. Pride isn’t out of favor: it will always endure as pride in “playing the game the right way,” pride in the abilities God granted you at birth, or pride in a team of strangers that win more games than another fan’s team of strangers. Pride isn’t on trial here, dorks are.
The sports world will be one of the last places where a nerd with confidence is tolerated. Neither Hinkie nor Morey ever presented themselves as brainiacs with the keys to basketball success. In fact, one of the weaknesses Hinkie’s detractors and supporters alike agree on was his refusal to defend himself to the press. Rather, these two have had the gall to place a premium on thoughtfulness and ingenuity.
Whether we agree with the approach of either Morey or Hinkie, we should hesitate to jump in on the mockery. They’re well-compensated adults, not victims. But the shallow, worldly dynamic of exclusion aimed to dismiss non-jocks from enjoying and contributing to the games we love is sub-Christian. Nerds are not sub-human, nor even sub-sports-human. They belong, even if they can’t hit a homer or dunk a basketball. Let’s not let slow-dying conventions about sports belonging convince us otherwise.