By Noah Levick
In the wake of the Sixers being swept by the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, fingers can be pointed in many directions.
Josh Richardson thinks there wasn’t sufficient accountability under head coach Brett Brown. Ben Simmons’ season-ending left knee injury was costly, especially against a Celtics team with multiple perimeter threats. Al Horford and Tobias Harris failed to compensate for Simmons’ loss. General manager Elton Brand agreed to give them lucrative, long-term deals last summer.
Ultimately, though, a proper account of the Sixers’ bitter disappointment of a season and the state of the franchise should focus on higher powers.
Under managing partner Josh Harris and co-managing partner David Blitzer, the Sixers allowed Jerry Colangelo — and then Bryan Colangelo — to take a large chunk of control in the organization, which clearly didn’t support Sam Hinkie seeing his process through. Following a scandal that involved burner Twitter accounts releasing confidential medical information and fantasizing about knocking sense into Joel Embiid’s head with a “medium-sized ladder,” Harris was responsible for hiring a new general manager.
In July of 2018, he talked with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Amy Fadool about the search.
It did, in fact, take a while. Brown guided the Sixers through the draft and free agency as interim GM. He proclaimed the Sixers were “star hunting, or star developing,” but the team had no splashy offseason acquisitions that summer. Brown was in command — at least technically — for a draft in which the Sixers took Landry Shamet and Shake Milton, picks that look strong two years later. They also traded Mikal Bridges, the No. 10 selection, in exchange for Zhaire Smith and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick.
At the time, Brown said he “approved the final decision.”
He recalled about two weeks ago that there were many individuals who had an influence.
“It’s well-known how highly I thought of (Bridges),” he said. “That was during that period where we were going through some general manager searches and so it was my responsibility, or it fell on me, to be a part, a significant part of that draft. Obviously we had a lot of voices in that room and it’s very much a collaborative thing.”
Regardless of how Bridges and Smith’s careers pan out — Bridges is currently much further along in his development — the circumstances under which that trade happened were not ideal. Still, one might contend that Burnergate was an unfortunate, unavoidable mishap, and that Harris and company were right to be deliberate.
This is where it’s worth remembering how Brand became general manager. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnaworski, the Sixers had interest in Daryl Morey, Bob Myers, Dennis Lindsey and Sam Presti — well-regarded, experienced executives. The team also had interviews with Gersson Rosas, Justin Zanik and David Griffin, per The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey.
Rosas is now the Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations, Zanik the GM of the Jazz and Griffin the Pelicans’ executive VP of basketball operations. All have more extensive resumes and better track records than Brand, whose only executive experience before being promoted was as the GM of the Delaware Blue Coats, the Sixers’ G-League affiliate. Pompey specifically reported that the Sixers didn’t believe Griffin was a good fit for their desired front-office structure, one which would be governed by “collaborative decisions instead of a GM who will have the final say.”
The exact responsibilities placed on Brand have, at times, been murky. He noted in February that the team’s organizational chart has changed so that Brown’s job status is now under his purview instead of Harris’.
“Once I got a year under my belt,” Brand said, “the conversation was, 'Hey, you did a great job your first season where you took us.' The Brett conversation was, 'Look, E.B. This is how it is around the league. You've done a lot for me and the organization. We respect it. Ownership, we're all aligned with that, that that's how it should be.' So it wasn't a big deal. It was light.”
While the decision on Brown will supposedly be Brand’s, there’s blame to be shared within a “collaborative” front office. Alex Rucker, the executive VP of basketball operations, and Ned Cohen, the assistant GM, haven’t made the team better. Another Colangelo hire, Marc Eversley, departed during the NBA’s hiatus to take the Bulls’ GM job. For what it’s worth, Brand said in May he’s open to making an outside hire to replace Eversley.
We could be harsher and provide further examples and details, but it sure seems reasonable to say that the organization has not been run well. Well-run teams don’t let a family seize power within their organization, or hire inexperienced GMs because of an insistence on collaboration.
Some of Harris’ errors have drawn strong, immediate backlash. You may recall the team planned in March to institute temporary pay cuts because of the coronavirus pandemic for full-time, salaried employees making at least $50,000, received criticism and then scrapped the idea. Changing course was the right move, but that such a decision was reversible highlighted how the original plan was short-sighted, cruel and unnecessary. Harris, who has a net worth of $4.8 billion according to Forbes, also has stakes with Blitzer in the New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Steelers and English soccer club Crystal Palace. The two are reportedly in the running for the New York Mets, as well.
Other Harris mistakes have happened behind the scenes, where scrutiny is easier to shirk. Brown, Brand and others are more obvious targets.
A new head coach might step in for Brown and coax the best out of Embiid and Simmons. A new GM might assess the roster’s various flaws, find a few savvy trades and help restore the Sixers to contention. Neither outcome is out of the question, and yet it’s logical to have reservations about the Sixers as long as Harris and Blitzer remain at the top.