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March 06, 2020

Sixers owner Joshua Harris says he's not selling team, chides others for 'short-term' thinking

Sitting as part of a panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Sixers managing partner Joshua Harris dismissed the idea that he would be willing to sell the team as franchise valuations continue to soar around the league.

"I enjoy it, I have no plans to sell the team or sell assets," Harris told an audience in Boston. "It's a labor of love."

Harris has recently come under fire for his role in where the franchise is today, stuck in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff standings in spite of significant expectations internally and externally. 

There has always been a layer of mystery regarding his interest in owning the Sixers long-term, in part because of the nature of his business career. Apollo Global Management, the private equity firm Harris co-founded with six other men, specializes in purchasing distressed assets and leveraged buyouts, exiting companies they've invested in/acquired after taking steps to cut costs and improve the theoretical market value of the company.

The Sixers would have certainly been considered a "distressed asset" at the time Harris and David Blitzer led a group of owners to purchase the Sixers in 2011. Harris and Co. bought in for just $280 million, and recent estimates by Forbes have pegged the Sixers as a $2 billion asset, thanks to a better national NBA TV deal, increased revenue streams, and advancements the Sixers have made themselves, such as the completion of their own practice facility in Camden. Even after factoring for inflation, that's a nearly $1.7 billion come up.

And Harris has moved quickly to turn around investments in other sports franchises when the opportunity has presented itself in the past. Harris bought into London-based soccer club Crystal Palace in late 2015 with a cash injection of around £50 million, and reports surfaced in spring 2019 that Harris and Blitzer were looking to sell their stake in the Premier League club.

Assuming Harris does stick around, there are some questions about what exactly drives the team's vision. After backing a long-term rebuild strategy with Sam Hinkie at the helm in 2013, Harris pivoted to a more win-now approach under pressure from the league, hiring Bryan Colangelo in 2016. Two years later, following Colangelo's disgraced exit as a product of a burner account scandal, Colangelo's front office remained wholly in place with current GM Elton Brand at the helm, after a summer with Brett Brown providing the decisive vote on collaborative front office decisions.

"I find people are a little short-term oriented, and your job is to look by that and do the right thing, what you think is right," Harris said in Boston, per Jason Blevins. "There's always, and then there's obviously articles and people who want to have immediate success, and that doesn't really reconcile with what you have to do to win. I always like to think about the day after, the month after, the year after, people have not won in sports that have been volatile in their strategies."

That idea would seem to run counter to how the Sixers have been run in recent years. Consider the following moves:

  1. Trading multiple first-round picks with the Boston Celtics in order to move up and select Markelle Fultz
  2. Trading two contributors on cheap, multi-year contracts for Jimmy Butler, an expiring player who left the next summer
  3. Trading a significant package of picks and players (including Landry Shamet, a success story from the previous draft) to acquire Tobias Harris in an effort to make a push for a title last season
  4. Consolidating multiple picks to trade for Matisse Thybulle, a four-year, 22-year-old college wing on draft night 
  5. Selling second-round picks and forgoing the opportunity to develop players in favor of signing older veterans help to minimum deals
  6. Signing Al Horford, a 33-year-old center, to a $100+ million contract last summer. The partial guarantee in the final year of Horford's contract would seem to be a good indication of whether the move was made with the immediate term or long term in mind. Also worth keeping in mind — the Sixers shedding Fultz's contract (admittedly, while acquiring a pick) at the deadline in order to clear the cap space to make this move

We can argue the merit of each of these moves, as they should not all be treated equally, but if the organization's focus has been on the long-term, they have chosen a funny way to show it. And that's without going further back in the Colangelo era when the Sixers threw big short-term money at name veterans with varying degrees of success (see: Jerryd Bayless vs. JJ Redick), and found minutes for veterans approaching the end of their time in the league over younger, developmental options they had in-house (see: Amir Johnson vs. Richaun Holmes).

By the way, I take issue with the "articles and people" comment re: short-term thinking. The Sixers have received plenty of kudos from fans and media alike when they have thought long-term, such as when they picked up an extra asset in the Mikal Bridges-Zhaire Smith swap, in spite of that move and others like it not exactly working out great for them. As indicated by the movement behind their initial rebuild, there was plenty of support for making long-term focused moves, if not the exact execution of the plan, and short-term complaining has often been rooted in the idea that they are connected to long-term problems.

Harris' point about volatility, though, could be an important indicator for the stability of the front office heading into the summer. 

Brand indicated at the trade deadline he has been the guy calling the shots on personnel dating back to at least the end of last season, putting the Horford situation and the Harris contract squarely on his shoulders. That has inspired further debate about his fitness for the job in recent weeks, particularly if the Sixers end up needing to reorganize the roster once again to better fit Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. But if we take Harris at his word, perhaps he believes managerial instability offers more downside than allowing Brand and his front office lieutenants to continue leading the franchise, even if Philadelphia flames out early in the playoffs.

It's hard to know what any of this means, truthfully. As many people have learned from how the Philadelphia Eagles have gone about their business behind the scenes over the last few months, saying one thing and doing another is always on the table. 

And with ownership staring down a potential luxury tax bill starting next season, it would shock no one if a major playoff disappointment led to major changes. That's how sports tend to work. For now, it all seems to hinge on the health of Embiid and Simmons, who represent the difference between relevance and indifference for Philadelphia.

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