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September 17, 2020

Sixers must deal with front office mess before hiring next head coach

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On August 24th, one day after the Sixers were swept out of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics, the Sixers fired head coach Brett Brown. It was a move they considered on multiple occasions during his tenure, most prominently when they went into Game 7 of the Toronto Raptors series with rumors swirling. Moving on from Brown, Elton Brand suggested during a presser on the 25th, was the start of a larger upheaval in Philly.

"I've been taking a deep dive in where we failed, what went wrong, and how we can get better," Brand said. "I felt like we need to strengthen our organization from top to bottom, and that starts with the front office, also."

On September 17th, 24 days following the conclusion of the season, the front office changes in Philadelphia remain a semi-mystery. Armed with more information than anyone else on what went wrong and why, the Sixers have trotted on with their external head coaching search before handling their internal business.

Tuesday evening, Keith Pompey of the Inquirer reported the position was Mike D'Antoni's to lose. Several reporters from multiple outlets have said Tyronn Lue was the frontrunner for the job pending the end of the Clippers' season. These sort of declarations would appear to be premature when you consider the lack of changes made in the front office.

Brand has not exactly done a good job masking his intentions publicly. Alex Rucker, who previously served as VP of Analytics and Strategy before a promotion to Executive VP of Basketball Ops, seemed to be the target of Brand's stated desire to get more "basketball minds" in the front office to balance out the organization.

"Balancing our strengths and analytics and basketball strategy with more basketball minds, and whatever happens," Brand said in August. "I'm not sure exactly what changes are going to be made, but I'm assessing it, I'm looking at it, and I'll make the right recommendations to truly have this team in a position to win."

Two Eastern Conference executives who spoke to PhillyVoice on the condition of anonymity viewed this as an attempt to pin the responsibility for Philadelphia's missteps on Rucker specifically, as Brand attempts to move forward as the leader of the organization.

That's not to say the blame is misguided. Rucker has been a prominent voice in the front office since his hiring in 2016. In 2017, Rucker was prominently involved when the Sixers made the call to trade up for the No. 1 pick to select Markelle Fultz, a decision debated internally and canvassed externally months before the 2017 NBA Draft lottery had even taken place, multiple sources say. His promotion following Bryan Colangelo's departure was a significant one, and coincided with the Sixers tumbling down the conference hierarchy.

But Philadelphia's meandering front office evaluation has undercut their ability to even set up a proper fall guy. If analytics truly are to blame, as has been suggested passively in public and actively behind the scenes, there are obvious candidates to have been fired already. The Sixers have had weeks to mull things over, come to a decision, and clear the deck for front office additions. The Sixers have years of evidence, meetings, and "collaboration" to use as evidence.

Why they haven't done something is a bit of a mystery. What makes it even worse is we have seen this movie before.

In 2018, Twitter was quicker to act on the Bryan Colangelo burner scandal than they were. Pressed into a tough spot due to timing, the Sixers moved forward with Brown in charge during the most important offseason in recent team history. But rather than pivoting out of that strange dynamic, the Sixers opted to approach several "ungettable" executives around the league, a la Daryl Morey and Bob Myers, to take over a team without making any other changes to their front office. That led to a setup where Brown continued to have heavy say, with an inexperienced general manager in charge and a bunch of power-hungry holdovers around them.

It was an idea intellectually bankrupt from the start, running counter to all conventional wisdom on how to lure talent. The people with the ideas and ability to move a program forward by themselves are not coming if they are treated like a cog in a machine. When you ask them to come without touching the other parts of the organization, you signal that you believe you know better than they do even as you ask for their help to lead their organization.

That is how you recruit mediocre people who are just happy to have a chance at a job. If the Sixers didn't learn that lesson in 2018, perhaps they should have learned it in 2019, when a hot-and-cold approach with Jimmy Butler factored into his departure from the organization. Ego and talent management has not been a strong suit.

If the Sixers are actually interested in upgrading the front office as opposed to just hiring underlings to work under/with Brand, moving forward on the coaching search before they sort out the front office is nonsense. 

Finding the right coach is even more critical for this group than the average contender. Their roster is a living Jackson Pollock painting, a profound vision to a select group that looks like an absolute mess to most people. Doesn't it stand to reason the executive who might be able to turn this around would actually want to pick that coach instead of having to walk into a situation where the leader on the bench and the front office lieutenants have already been decided for them? 

The irony is they seem completely unaware of how to pitch talent while being susceptible to pitches from people of all types over the years. Sam Hinkie was hired a year after he originally interviewed for the job only after Tony DiLeo and Doug Collins authored the disastrous Andrew Bynum trade. The Sixers pivoted toward "a basketball family" in the Colangelos (with some, er, guidance from the league) and then allowed Rucker and others to ascend following Colangelo's ouster. Now we're back on the see-saw, with "basketball minds" the enduring memory from Brand's recent press conference.

(And all of that is without mentioning the pitching problem extending to players — their biggest signings of the last half-decade have almost all been a result of vast overpays. It's how they lured JJ Redick, it's how they got Tobias Harris to stay, it's how they got Al Horford to come. They were taken to the woodshed in the Harris trade despite the Clippers' clear desire to dump salary and not pay him in the first place.)

Blaming people who can do math or who come from pure, basketball-based backgrounds is a waste of time. Good organizations make use of and properly contextualize both. The Sixers have certainly invested in both, but without consistent and coherent vision from the top-down, you're just lighting resources on fire. 

The Sixers have nothing to be hesitant about here. If a smart and powerful enough voice existed in the front office, they would have emerged during last summer's ill-fated offseason. At best, they're all at least accessories to the crimes against basketball Philadelphia committed. 

Even Brand, who was given the vote of confidence and safety in late August, couldn't tell reporters whether he would be empowered to lead the team from the top or if a bigger name and voice could be hired above him.

“We’ve had some candid conversations," Brand said when asked if a president could be hired above him. "But the option will be open. If the talent is whatever the talent is that’s going to come fix this, we’re going to do the right thing for the organization. We’re not going to skip any steps to better this organization regardless of who that is and how that plays out."

But the order of those steps and how they play out matters a great deal. Until they empower an actual leader and show they've learned from the mistakes of their past, they will not escape the problem. 

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