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July 11, 2018

Is the Sixers' search for new GM taking a long time for the right reasons?

Bryan Colangelo's burner account scandal that shook up Philadelphia's front office would be hard to paint as an overall positive for the Sixers organization. Anytime your top decisionmaker sees inside secrets and criticism of players leak from the organization as a result of a combination of recklessness and carelessness, it reflects poorly on everyone else associated with the team.

However, there is a major silver lining to be found in the midst of all this nonsense. Philadelphia's managerial opening became available at a rather unprecedented time, with a young team coming off 52 wins and a playoff series victory and multiple young stars already in the fold. That's to say nothing about the future assets still in their possession or the cap space available to bring in impact players.

Theoretically, the Sixers would have their choice of any number of qualified candidates to come in and run the show, even with how awful the timing actually ended up being. Under the interim guidance of Brett Brown, the Sixers maintained all their future flexibility and even picked up some extra assets along the way, perhaps improving the state of their war chest in the trade that netted them Zhaire Smith and an unprotected first-round pick.

But during interviews with media members in Las Vegas earlier this week, Sixers owner Joshua Harris made some comments that are at least worthy of an appraisal.

Philadelphia's search for a permanent GM remains in progress, and reporters in Vegas questioned Philadelphia's owner about whether he/they want someone with GM experience running the show:

I think it would be a plus. I think general manager experience and a track record is a plus. I mean, obviously we've lived through a science project. It had its benefits, but you may not be able to get that, right? Like you may not be able to get it. I think it's a plus, I don't think it's essential. I think the people that do the best are the people that take the existing group of people that they know, and they take an objective look at the people that they're joining, and they try to create the best team. I love that approach.

To cut through the nonsense here, there are a few takeaways within the rambling — an experienced candidate is preferred but not essential, and ownership is looking for someone who won't shake things up too much in the front office. Both seem rather pedestrian on their own.

However, that seems to be a disqualifier for a lot of potentially strong candidates. It's no secret that when a new head honcho gets hired in a position of power, they come in with the expectation that they'll have a certain level of say in hiring people underneath them. It's why managerial changes in sports often come with coaching changes, and why there were constant (and substantiated) rumors about Colangelo wanting to replace Brett Brown with "his guy," whether that was Mike D'Antoni or Jay Wright.

If it would take accepting the existing structure in place in order for a potential candidate to get hired, that's going to rule out the people who exist near the top of the candidate field. The Inquirer's Keith Pompey reported on Monday that San Antonio's R.C. Buford was a potential target, which would represent an amazing get for the organization. With the organization's connection to the Spurs through Brett Brown, they at least have a direct line to him should they choose to use it.

But focusing on Buford (or a similar candidate) for a moment, why would he leave the comfort of an organization considered among the best and strongest in sports over the last two decades in order to join a franchise in which his autonomy would be limited? Why would he abandon infrastructure that he has had significant control of — with an ownership group that has given he and Gregg Popovich constant and unwavering support — in order to join a new team in which his overall decision-making power might decrease? 

Yes, the opportunity to take over a team with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons plus a lot more in tow should not be taken lightly. What also shouldn't be taken lightly, however, is an ownership group with an unprecedented opportunity staring down a near limitless field of candidates and putting up artificial barriers. Regardless of the field you're in, a job is often only as good (or bad!) as the people above you allow it to be. 

Combine that with the bird's eye view on the situation, knowing what happened with Sam Hinkie as it pertains to the league itself getting involved, and suddenly there are more red flags than you'd think were there on first glance.

Maybe that's an overly pessimistic view on things, but that's the sort of sober view these decisionmakers have to take every single day on the job. Running a professional sports franchise is all about determining what the range of outcomes is and deciding how much theoretical risk you're willing to assume to chase a payoff. When you're asking people to potentially leave front offices like those in San Antonio, Houston, or Boston — which are the sort of places Philadelphia should be hunting — you're going to draw more natural skepticism than you would from people working for mediocre-to-bad franchises.

And this is before considering why it would be a "plus" to have someone with GM experience. In pretty much every line of work, it's obviously preferable to bring in people who have a track record of knowing what they're doing. It's why students fresh out of college have to hit the entry-level market before working their way up the food chain.

But is that the same for a front office position in sports? The dynamic is different because anyone who is a former general manager is likely out of work for good reason. This isn't your average field in the modern American economy where you people get trapped in a numbers game and laid off for financial reasons. In fact, it's more common for teams to eat future salary in order to move on and get a better candidate for the job.

To use one example, Kiki VanDeWeghe has been tied to the Sixers via numerous reports over the last month. He has successes on his resume, like the drafting of Carmelo Anthony, but he was also responsible for selecting one of the most infamous draft busts in history (Nikoloz Tskitishvii) and ultimately saw his contract expire following a first-round exit in 2006. VanDeWeghe hasn't been a GM in almost a decade — is that the sort of person you'd expect to hit the ground running and build a contender around Embiid and Simmons in short order?

Regarding the decisionmaking flowchart, Harris also doubled down on the "collaborative process" the Sixers have pitched all summer with Brown effectively running the show. The owner noted some organizations afford their lead person more autonomy, but that may not be the case in Philadelphia.

Certainly there are other ways to do it, where there’s a big, strong leader. He or she makes every decision, and there’s many roads to run. That’s just not the road we are going to take.

Again, there is nothing really wrong with this in a vacuum. Most good organizations are built on strong, collaborative processes that combine information from people with different backgrounds. This is especially true in professional sports — analytics staffers combine with scouts and coaches and medical personnel in order to paint the most complete picture.

But ultimately, the buck has to stop with someone. And most people who are going to take on the level of responsibility it takes to be a general manager want to believe that will be with them. After all, if you're going to bear the brunt of the criticism in the event things go south, why wouldn't you want to have the corresponding power to at least warrant that? Wearing a heavy crown is only tolerable if the fiefdom comes with it.

Combine these public statements with Philadelphia's action over the last month — which is to say, combine it with the fact that a new general manager now has to sign up for the job after all the important decisions of the draft and free agency were made — and you see an organization posturing as if they're not especially interested in bringing in a strong voice from the outside.

That may very well turn out to be the best thing for the organization, because to Harris' overarching point, there are plenty of qualified people in the front office at their respective positions. Continuity is a good thing on the court, so why wouldn't it be good in the front office?

It just seems worth noting, as the month of July begins to slide by, whether the Sixers are artificially cutting off options before they've given them a chance to play out naturally. If you're going to take your time in a search, you might as well reap all the benefits of pushing deep into the offseason to find your guy. 

And based on their words and actions so far, it's not entirely clear if the Sixers, knowingly or unknowingly, are doing that.

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