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July 10, 2018

Cataldi: Both Sixers and Flyers are struggling in free agency – and their GMs are to blame

In the month since Brett Brown temporarily took over the duties of Sixers GM, he has failed to accomplish the main goal of this off-season – to add a major free agent whose skills complement the two young superstars on the team, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

That’s right. The coach failed. Why is that fact so hard for the “basketball experts” in this city to comprehend?

Not only did Brown fail to reel in the big catch of free agency, LeBron James – even though the Sixers were widely seen as one of the two top suitors – but he failed to sign Paul George, and he has failed to acquire Kawai Leonard in a trade. Those are all verifiable facts. Look them up.

Believe it or not, the media spin over the past couple of weeks is how well Brown has adapted to the GM job after the abrupt departure of clueless Bryan Colangelo. Adapted how? By maneuvering for a lesser talent in Zhaire Smith instead of Mikal Bridges in the first round of the draft? By claiming Landry Shamet (who is already hurt) with his other first-round pick?

Or maybe the self-proclaimed experts are impressed by Brown’s re-signings of J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson, or inking of free agent Nemanja Bjelica, or trading for Wilson Chandler.

Are you still awake? 

The bottom line is, the Sixers are not one bit better than they were when this off-season began, unless you want to count the unprotected first-round Miami pick (via Phoenix) in 2021 acquired on draft night. In fact, with the losses of shooters Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, they are probably not as good as the team that lost in five games to Boston in the second round of the playoffs.

Brown himself established the goal of the summer when he said after the draft-night trade that he was “star-hunting,” implying that the first-round pick was bait for a big deal. If there is a star among the additions he has made since that remark, please identify him.

There is none. The coach who was the biggest reason for the Sixers’ ouster in the playoffs has whiffed again, but you will hear that opinion only here. Brown plays by a different set of rules than most Philadelphia sports executives because he treats the media with respect. Imagine that. He does what the job requires him to do, and he gets points for that.

Hey, I like Brett Brown as much as the next guy. He has appeared on our WIP radio show whenever we have requested him, and he has answered our questions openly and honestly. He is, by all accounts, one of the nicest people in sports.

But that doesn’t change what happened in the playoffs, and it doesn’t alter his poor performance since then as the team’s temporary GM.

Brett Brown has failed again. That’s the truth.

* * *

It is now official. The most exciting goalie in Flyers history is also the team’s most boring general manager. Only Ron Hextall could spend $35 million on a free agent and even make that seem dull and uninspired.

Now in his fifth season overseeing the roster, Hextall made a rare big investment in James van Riemsdyk, a left winger who scored 36 goals last season in Toronto. So far, so good. The Flyers could definitely use a big scorer.

Hextall is the latest in a succession of Flyers GMs who carry none of their dynamism as players into the front office. Bob Clarke won two Stanley Cups as a player, none as a GM. Holmgren took no prisoners on the ice; we were all prisoners of his ineptitude as a GM.

There are just a couple of problems with the move. First, van Riemsdyk was already a Flyer once – a mediocre Flyer. Hextall’s predecessor, Paul Holmgren, thought it was smart to trade van Riemsdyk to Toronto for Luke Schenn, who would presumably help his more talented brother, Brayden, in Philadelphia. Didn’t happen. Brayden eventually left for St. Louis, where he just had his best season in the NHL. Luke, a bust here, landed in Anaheim.

Second, van Riemsdyk was the booby prize for the biggest catch in free agency, John Tavares, who will replace him on the Maple Leafs. Hextall lamented that Tavares eliminated the Flyers from consideration before the free-agent hunt began. Is it possible Tavares saw what fans have witnessed since the day Hextall took over – a GM with none of the moxie that he had in the nets?

OK, Tavares said it was his childhood dream to go to Toronto, so the Flyers probably never had a chance anyway. But the point bears consideration anyway. Hextall is the latest in a succession of Flyers GMs who carry none of their dynamism as players into the front office. Bob Clarke won two Stanley Cups as a player, none as a GM. Holmgren took no prisoners on the ice; we were all prisoners of his ineptitude as a GM.

Another connecting trait shared by the three GM busts is attitude. Throughout their tenures, they have acted as if they had the same star quality they enjoyed as players. Hextall actually said two weeks ago that he didn’t feel a responsibility to explain his latest draft – even though he made the remark at a news conference designed for precisely that purpose.

The last time the Flyers won a Stanley Cup, they employed as GM a brilliant roster manipulator named Keith Allen. He never played for the Flyers. Over the past 43 years since the last championship, 28 of those seasons had either Clarke, Holmgren or Hextall as GM. They all played for the Flyers.

What’s the definition of insanity?

MORE FROM CATALDI: Similarities between Phillies and Super Bowl champion Eagles becoming impossible to ignore