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September 20, 2018

Questions about Sixers' power structure remain following Elton Brand, Joshua Harris presser

You can say this about Elton Brand following his introductory presser at the Sixers' practice facility on Thursday — he absolutely has the respect of the people within his organization. The new GM stepped to the podium with a cavalcade of Sixers staffers and employees lining the room, a rare sight even for an announcement as impactful as this one.

It was that same respect and admiration that Sixers owner Joshua Harris harped on again and again as he explained the decision to hire Brand over a field of candidates — 10 were interviewed for the job, per Harris — that universally had more front office experience than the man they hired. Harris used words like "integrity" and "relationships" over and over again, almost as if he was trying to emphasize the departure from the previous burner-happy regime.

But it was Harris' response to the opening question of the presser that fascinates me, at least until Brand establishes his managerial track record and gives the public something to judge him on.

Pressed on who would ultimately have final say in the organization, Harris gave a rather roundabout answer that both did and did not answer the question.

Elton and Brett are partners, like in many, many great organizations in basketball, him and Brett are partners. Both of them report to me and to ownership, and we expect they'll be collaborating a lot. Ultimately, Brett is the on the court voice, and Elton's the off-the-court voice. Elton will have kind of the loudest voice off the court, and final decisionmaking authority subject to ownership...minute-to-minute coach sort of decisions will be Brett, and personnel decisions, trades, free agency will be Elton.

On the surface, saying Brand has the loudest voice off the court and that he has "final decisionmaking authority" is a pretty clear statement. However, Harris' insistence on reinforcing the idea that Brown has the authority on a minute-to-minute basis in game situations — something that has been true for the duration of his tenure here, and that is a given for a head coach of a professional sports franchise — was a bizarre detour that suggests we aren't getting the full story here.

If Brown's cache in the organization was not made clear over the last few months, suffice it to say that his voice carries weight within the Sixers and that he likely wouldn't have lasted this long in Philadelphia were that not the case. His claims this summer about not wanting to be the GM of the team long-term are true, but he and the other power brokers in the organization spent the offseason attempting to obfuscate the current and future power structure. That's not done without reason.

Earlier this summer, it would have been easy to chalk that up to not knowing for sure until a new hire was in place. With Brand sitting in the GM's chair, however, answering the question clear and direct is a simple task. Harris had the chance to do this following the very first question at the press conference and instead meandered his way toward the answer. That suggests the surface-level version they're giving us is not the full picture of what transpires behind closed doors.

And really, it takes a big leap of faith to take their word at face value following Brand's hire. As he did throughout his playing career, Brand comes across as a sharp and affable guy, and none of this is a reflection on his preparation or aptitude for the job. Even still, the justification offered for his hire provided little in the way of concrete details, and instead focused on platitudes that are hard to disprove.

In fact, Harris' primary rebuttal to questions about Brand's lack of experience was to point to what he did as a player and not anything specific he'd done to date as a Sixers staffer.

Elton has 17 years experience as a player, and you can't discount that in terms of understanding how this league works and how to get to the next level. And in his two years of management experience, we've been incredibly impressed, and then during the interview process, his vision and ability to lead was evident. But also, just the broad support he had internally, across the board, and so it became a relatively easy decision for us, he rose.

If career years spent playing in the NBA was a catalyst for success, there would be a lot more NBA greats — or just longtime NBA players in general — with fruitful track records as general managers. 

Treating sets of experiences in wildly different roles as equivalent is curious, and the Sixers had all sorts of decisions this summer that could have been championed as a shining moment for Brand. Harris could have suggested he factored heavily into the Zhaire Smith trade, the acquisition of Wilson Chandler, or any number of smaller moves the team made throughout the summer. By choosing to point to Brand's playing experience as the great equalizer, Harris only created more questions about the search process, and what could have led them to believe Brand was the guy in the first place.

Ask yourself this — is it more likely that the Sixers believe playing experience is equivalent to managerial experience despite a mountain of evidence that suggests otherwise, or that the Sixers prioritized this sort of inexperienced candidate in part because it's the scenario that allows power players in place to best maintain their places in franchise hierarchy? 

Will we ever know with 100 percent accuracy who and what drives the future decisions made by this managerial team? Probably not. But given that Brett Brown admitted at his luncheon that the GM search was conducted by a three-man team — Harris, Brown, and co-owner David Blitzer — it doesn't take a genius to conclude Brand's decisionmaking authority will come with strings attached, and a powerful "partner" who will be tough to overrule.

I'm not old school and trying to fight that and saying, let me pick with my gut. I think that will separate myself [from other former players].

To Brand's credit, he suggested throughout the press conference that the buck will stop with him, regardless of what the power dynamics are behind the scenes. Harris laughed and patted him on the back when Brand said midway through the presser, "I'll take the hits. When there are decisions on the basketball side, I'm taking the hits, that's just what it is." 

Brand does not have the look or sound of a patsy who is simply going to be a fall guy for the organization should their team of decisionmakers fall short of their goals. The former All-Star told PhillyVoice he hopes to set himself apart from the dozens of former players who have failed as lead executives in the past by blending his own wisdom and experience with the advances and expertise of people around him.

"I think my approach, I answered a question about analytics, I know that's a great tool," said Brand. "I'm not old school and trying to fight that and saying, let me pick with my gut. I think those little nuances, the way the game was trending — I'm on top of that, I think I have the pulse of that — I think that will separate myself [from other former players]."

Speaking with the people who will work under him, he is respected for both his mind and his character, and to a man, they will tell you they believe he is the person who can keep this project chugging along toward greatness. Everything he offered at his opening presser meshes with Philadelphia's public vision of what they say they want — a consensus builder who maintains strong relationships across multiple levels of the league, with the humility and flexibility to accept the wisdom of others in order to grow his own.

Whether or not Brand will prove his worth on merit is an open question I look forward to seeing him answer. He's a hard worker on top of his aforementioned strengths and were we judging the hire solely on initial impressions of his vision, it would appear the Sixers are in good hands.

The trouble in judging his level of authority, then, is that people in power around him can't seem to come out and give a straightforward answer when there are countless opportunities to do so. If the Sixers reach their goals from here on out, none of this will ultimately matter. But until answers can be offered without waffling or hedging, until this group proves they can be trusted to take the necessary next steps to build a legitimate contender, it will remain fair to question the logic behind their decisionmaking and the level of transparency they're actually offering to the public.

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