June 11, 2018
The days of debate are over, the burner accounts have been shuttered, and Bryan Colangelo is no longer the President of Basketball Operations for the Philadelphia 76ers. None of this would have even been conceivable if you told this story to someone a couple weeks ago, but we sit less than two weeks from the draft and the Sixers are unexpectedly in a search for their next lead decisionmaker.
To put it lightly — this is all pretty unprecedented! It's not often an executive oversees a jump to 52 wins and a playoff series win in his second year and gets handed his walking papers, barring some sort of outrageous scandal or tragedy. Seeing your demise come this soon because your wife could not resist sparring with random Twitter users definitely falls into the former category, and Colangelo can do little else now aside from shrink into the background, hoping time will heal all wounds.
Though his tenure wasn't remarkably shorter than his predecessor, Colangelo leaves town with much less to point to in terms of future capital accumulated than Sam Hinkie. Some of that is just a reflection of their contrasting traits and plans, as Hinkie was able to stockpile picks and interesting pieces by caring little for the short-term results that stemmed from such a philosophy. Brought in as the NBA equivalent of a "change" candidate during the election cycle, Colangelo was never going to be expected or prompted to keep selling out the present for the future.
And so we're left to reflect on the moves he did make in Philadelphia and wonder how they'll impact the team's fortunes over the years to come. There's no chance he'll be remembered with the same reverence as Hinkie was for various reasons, many of them outside his control.
All the same, he deserves a fair evaluation of his time here, how he prepared the team for the future, and where he might have left things on the table.
I'm not sure there's a lot of room for debate on this one. Colangelo was certainly responsible for the selection and made the choice 99/100 people would have made on draft night. But that's exactly it — he walked into a situation where he inherited the No. 1 overall pick, and ultimately took a prospect who was a no-brainer as the top pick.
The people around Colangelo at the time of the selection will try to convince you otherwise, and point to counter-examples to show how it was not as consensus as you might believe. An easy place to turn would be DraftExpress, a public scouting site that has since been shuttered once its principle figures got jobs at ESPN. They were perhaps the leading Simmons skeptics in the public eye during his freshman season at LSU, and Jonathan Givony wrote a scathing editorial for Yahoo in March 2016 to make his case Simmons shouldn't go No. 1.
An example paragraph:
Simmons’ lack of competitiveness in some crucial games has raised questions about his character as a basketball player. While many top picks succumb to the NBA star lifestyle and emerge as average competitors, it’s rare to see that at the collegiate level. From Blake Griffin to Michael Beasley to Carmelo Anthony, those elite college players were rarely questioned about their drive during their collegiate careers. Simmons has displayed an apathy for defense, contact and delivering winning plays in crucial moments. Those troubling revelations in Simmons’ game are cause for concern among decision-makers on lottery teams with whom we’ve had contact.
That's not nothing, and if you look hard enough you can find people extolling the virtues of Brandon Ingram during the pre-draft period.
But even if you disconnect the agendas that were at play in that DX piece, by the time the draft had rolled around the public had come to its senses. Simmons was all but locked in as the top guy on the board, with his otherworldly college production and obvious talent outweighing any supposed character flags.
Simmons has been the top prospect in his class dating back years, and in retrospect his only crime was being burdened with insane expectations. That has followed him to the NBA, where he had a wildly successful first season yet was sometimes spoken about as if he was an unfixable project.
Where I think you can give Colangelo more credit on the Simmons front was adapting on the fly to find players specifically designed to help him be his best possible self. The acquisitions of Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli solidified their bench for the stretch run, and played a big part in improving the performance of lineups without Joel Embiid. Once it became clearer how valuable extra spacing was around Simmons, the front office reacted and got deals done.
Still, let's not go overboard here. Colangelo only brought in those pieces after having to cut Trevor Booker, who he gave up a pick to acquire (along with dumping Okafor and Nik Stauskas) despite a wonky fit alongside Simmons and Joel Embiid. And besides, it's not exactly splitting the basketball atom to recognize a need for more shooting in the year 2018.
Simmons is and was a tricky player to build around, and the Sixers rightly decided his talent was worth that trade-off. Good on Colangelo for that much, and for adjusting on the fly once his ability to play point guard became clear, but I don't think anyone will remember him as, "the guy who took Simmons" like they associate Hinkie with Embiid.
If you want to talk about defining moves, you don't have to look any further than last June's trade for the No. 1 overall pick. There is a ton riding on Fultz's ability to round back into form, both because of the stakes for Philadelphia in isolation and the possible benefits for one of their long-term Eastern Conference foes.
For the people who believe you should never trade with a division rival — don't count me among them — the trade-up for Fultz has already been ruled as a failure. For the Sixers to come out on the winning end of this deal, they would need a Herculean turnaround from last year's top draftee following his lost season. Impossible? Certainly not. But the odds do not look to be pointed in their favor at the moment.
The specific outcome produced in year one was not foreseeable, in this writer's opinion. The idea that someone who shot like Fultz did at lower levels would inexplicably lose that ability before playing a single professional game would have been preposterous if you suggested it last summer.
A lot of people will ultimately judge Fultz's career not on his individual performance but in terms of it means the Sixers won or lost the trade. I don't know if that's a productive way to think about things...
But preposterous though it may be, there were all sorts of reasons to view the trade as a risk. An outcome in which he got injured and was never able to live up to his promise was not unrealistic, as it happens to top prospects all the time. One in which he never lived up the hype is reasonable, as prospects across the board are volatile and susceptible to wild swings in outcomes. One in which other players looked better with NBA spacing and coaching than they did in a college system remains likely, because it happens almost every year.
If Fultz rediscovers the form he once had and becomes the legitimate third piece Colangelo's staff thought he was capable of being, the trade will likely still hurt a bit but no one will fret too much about it. Even a bastardized version of Fultz with no three-point shot to speak of proved capable of helping the team in their regular season stretch run, with the obvious caveat that those performances came against a bunch of bad teams.
A lot of people will ultimately judge Fultz's career not on his individual performance but in terms of it means the Sixers won or lost the trade. I don't know if that's a productive way to think about things — you're ultimately comparing players and pieces in separate systems with different responsibilities, and it's impossible to know how Jayson Tatum (or a different high-level prospect) would have performed if the Sixers did not go the Fultz route.
It's certainly fair, however, to expect him to live up the the responsibilities we expected from him when the Sixers moved up to draft him. The Sixers need ballhandling, creation, shooting, scoring, and point-of-attack defense from last year's No. 1 overall pick. Should he eventually offer some or all of those at a high level, Colangelo will be remembered more fondly in Philadelphia for having the courage to go and get him.
But let's just say this outcome is a lot more doubtful from where we sit today, in early June 2018, than it looked one year ago.
The biggest departure for Philadelphia over the two full seasons with Colangelo in charge was the shift in how things were handled on the free agent market. Prior to his arrival, Philadelphia's focus was turned toward younger players with upside, knowing they could offer developmental reps at the cost of short-term success. It led to a lot of losing, but ultimately produced a few gems like Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell.
This was not necessarily a sustainable strategy forever, and the veterans Colangelo brought in over the last year specifically did plenty to help the team. JJ Redick was an invaluable source of floor spacing all year, and one of the only perimeter players who could be counted on to run crunch-time sets with Embiid. Amir Johnson was a reliable defensive presence as Embiid's backup, and the Marco Belinelli/Ersan Ilyasova combo off the bench gave Philadelphia some scoring punch from the bench that raised the ceiling on the team.
But looking down on things from a distance, allotting playing time for all these guys takes reps and opportunities off the table for contributors who could grow with the team down the road, offering future upside guys like Redick and Belinelli can't offer. So what exactly does that trade-off mean for the Sixers moving forward?
That's difficult to say. There's something to be said for offering the best possible developmental environment for Embiid and Simmons vs. trying to develop too many pieces at the same time, only to not serve any of them in an optimal fashion. Having more shooting around that duo, even if it came at the cost of future dividends, helped establish what exactly Simmons and Embiid could excel at, and gave everyone a firm idea of how to best aid them moving forward.
Talking to coaches and players in the locker room, it would also be unfair to gloss over the character/leadership impact of having guys like Redick in the locker room. They helped keep things together during times of adversity, and offered guidance for players who need to hear from a peer rather than a boss sometimes. Having someone with Redick's shooting pedigree and character to pull aside Fultz and walk him through some things was a nice tool to have in the arsenal.
However, these last two seasons can sort of be viewed as the last in which the Sixers could have hoped to get a surplus of developmental reps at other positions. With the pressure now on to win and win big after a 52-win season in 2017-18, expectations rise for everyone. That includes the head coach, Brett Brown, who has already shown an inclination to ride more established players once they became available to play. Barring significant offseason improvement, is Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot or a similar-level prospect going to warrant a big chunk of playing time in a close game?
I would posit that the Sixers probably gained more from having Redick around than they would have if they split up his money between a few different upside-y players on the wing. But that's purely speculative, and it's still a point worth pausing on.
If there's a singular reason the Sixers gained less in the way of future upside under Colangelo, it's because of an overarching focus on the summers of 2018 and 2019. The vast majority of Sixers moves (or non-moves) have been made with massive free agency goals in mind — even something as small as declining Jahlil Okafor's fourth-year option last fall was connected to the chase of LeBron James, among other big names.
Frankly, it may be the front office staff left behind who ultimately determine how Colangelo's tenure will be remembered in Philadelphia.
And this is where the previous section about loss of future upside really comes into play. The Sixers have passed on any number of hypothetical moves the last two years as a result of their chase for max players. You can call it prudent in many respects, with Philadelphia avoiding spending money just to spend it and remaining patient for a grander opportunity.
But that puts all the pressure on obtaining one of the very few available stars on the free agency market, or else you will have effectively locked yourself out of the proceedings because of salary constraints. Future extensions for Simmons and Dario Saric loom, adding to the money that's already on the books for the likes of Embiid and Covington.
Failing to get another star would represent a massive setback for Philadelphia, and with the Boston Celtics looking much better than anyone expected them to be at this juncture, the stakes have only become higher. It's a very all-or-nothing approach to team-building, which can leave you flush or flat broke depending on lots of factors that are often outside your control.
Colangelo still has plenty of disciples/former colleagues in the front office to carry out his mission this summer, ultimately justifying the slow-burn approach. Should they lure LeBron James, Paul George, or someone of that ilk this summer, it will have only been possible because Colangelo's front office held off on long-term commitments to chase big fish.
Even then, the primary reason a player of that caliber would want to play here is because of the core players acquired by the regime before Colangelo. No All-NBA player is coming to Philly by himself. The ability to join Embiid and Simmons is the draw.
Frankly, it may be the front office staff left behind who ultimately determine how Colangelo's tenure will be remembered in Philadelphia. If the Sixers promote from within or end up keeping a lot of the same key figures upon a new GM's hiring, his former confidants will have a chance to cement the plans they've been working on as a group for months and months.
But you feel a tinge of sympathy for someone who bet so much on their ability to deliver a big result in a small summertime window, only to have the opportunity disappear in a puff of smoke. This may in fact be the biggest (and perhaps only) connecting point between Colangelo and Hinkie, despite the difference in paths taken — both could only look on from the sideline as their acts of patience will ultimately be capitalized on by someone else.
This story, of two GMs who came and went in dramatic fashion, is ultimately still being written. But here's the good news — at least there will be plenty to talk about whenever someone starts shooting "The Process" documentary.
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