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May 30, 2018

Should Bryan Colangelo's alleged burner accounts be grounds for firing as Sixers' GM?

It's hard to know where to start when the GM of a professional sports team is accused of creating burner accounts that have torn down players on his team, potentially revealed medical information of current and former players, and turned the credibility of the organization into something of a joke. Maybe we just look at all of it?

You would need to read Ben Detrick's story at The Ringer in its totality to draw your own conclusions, but suffice it to say that Bryan Colangelo is in some hot water right now. He stands charged with creating a series of burner accounts on Twitter in order to communicate with (often insult or discredit) and follow important NBA writers, players, agents, and more on social media. As Detrick noted in his story, Colangelo even took responsibility for one of the accounts — which follows this writer, for the record — shortly before accounts who identity Detrick withheld were mysteriously shuttered by their owner.

Add on to this some Twitter shenanigans that followed, and you had yourselves a banner evening for the Sixers. The team's star center came out and joked several times about the ordeal, and though he walked it back a bit in a statement given to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, a lot of toothpaste is out of the tube already.

There is a broader question for everyone around the organization to answer in the days to come — just how bad is this for Colangelo, and is it a job-killing controversy? I believe the answer may be yes.

The identity of the tweeter almost doesn't matter

The morsels of information lots of fans will be drawn to are regarding criticism of Joel Embiid, the team's best player and recipient of a max contract from this very regime last offseason. However, this stuff almost seems like small potatoes when you compare it against some of the things that have been expressed through these alleged burner accounts.

While I will not go into specific detail in the interest of protecting sources and confidentiality, there is information floating around in the numerous screengrabs that reach a degree of specificity that would be very hard for someone to fake without access to detailed, insider information. Throughout discussions with various league and Sixers personnel over the last two seasons, PhillyVoice had some of these specific morsels of information described as wholly off the record.

"I'd probably never speak to you again if you wrote about that," said one source who spoke to PhillyVoice previously, about a piece of information that was broadcast via one of the burner accounts in question.

This background suggests a critical piece of information, even if it's not a smoking gun — whoever is in charge of these accounts, Bryan Colangelo or not, has access to a certain level of insight into the behind-the-scenes details of the Sixers' organization. Either the accounts have some connection to the front office, or the front office has entrusted people with information who not only can't keep it to themselves but are using it to engage in pissing contests with random users on Twitter.

Any possible explanation here is a bad look for the organization. Either you have someone in a position of high authority in your organization who is willing to let go of company secrets in order to win a shouting match with random bloggers and tweeters, or you have someone in a position of high authority who is willing to give those same company secrets to an unqualified, untrustworthy doofus. Both reflect poorly on the leadership structure.

Even if you'd like to give Colangelo the benefit of the doubt — it looks bad, but he has openly denied ownership of all but one account — the connections to he and his family are spelled out through tweets and likes on said accounts. It would be a hell of a coincidence for someone with inside Sixers information to also care about the performance of the University of Chicago's basketball team, which counts Colangelo's son as a roster player.

If the source of all this is Jerry Colangelo — a plausible, if unproven hypothesis floated on Twitter on Tuesday night — that too represents a major conflict for Philadelphia. The man who was effectively brought in to shape things up on the NBA's, well, "recommendation" having a hand in insulting, revealing tweets about Sixers players would be a disaster still. The kind of disaster, by the way, Adam Silver and Co. ostensibly wanted the Sixers to avoid under Sam Hinkie.

Some of the public reaction has been to question the motive of Colangelo doing this specifically, and that too seems off base. For one, we see all the time that people have very little self-control on their public Twitter accounts, to say nothing of places where they can hide anonymously. But beyond that, 

Lasting damage to leaguewide trust

With the above established, the next point is only natural. Is there a path forward where Colangelo's reputation is not irrevocably damaged with the majority of people who matter around the league?

Wojnarowski, who tends not to insert himself into the opinion game if he can help it, insinuated as much in a follow-up to the story from The Ringer:

This is much different than a player, a la Kevin Durant, using burner accounts to lash out at people criticizing his game. This is bridge and trust burning wrapped in one package, between higher-ups in the organization and people who matter most.

There could not be a less opportune time for news of this sort to pop up for the Sixers. On the verge of their biggest offseason in decades — and perhaps in franchise history — the biggest story surrounding the team involves their GM allegedly trashing their star player, amongst other things. It makes the organization look like a clown show, frankly.

LeBron James hasn't shied away from people who use Comic Sans before, so maybe he has a higher tolerance level than most would for executive-level debauchery. But it seems doubtful that the majority of players would sit around and get to the bottom of this story, regardless of the level of truth within. Even if Bryan Colangelo comes up with concrete evidence that it was not him, short of Embiid being revealed as the burner account user, it's tough to imagine a reveal that would eclipse the initial report in terms of scope.

And that's just touching on the relationships with players. Think about the agents, who see petty, hurtful shots being taken at their clients from someone who is clearly plugged into things. Think about opposing executives, who might be willing to dish industry secrets around with trusted partners but might feel hesitant if they believe those could plausibly end up in the wrong hands. Trust is everything on and off the court in professional sports, and this could easily nuke it.

Philadelphia does not tend to be a destination basketball city, but is one at the current moment because it has star players and gobs of money available. If other teams can offer some of both, the Sixers' competitive advantage dries up quickly if they're working from a deficit in the player relations department. Is that what you want to carry into this summer?

Making a decision with incomplete information

So what exactly do the Sixers do with all this information, which is both damning and inconclusive at the same time? There are really only two paths forward. Either the Sixers can offer outright and emphatic denials and work to clear Colangelo's name, or they can move on to a new GM, knowing they have an enviable position to offer intelligent people around the league.

The former seems like a much harder sales pitch to make to fans and outsiders around the NBA landscape more broadly. Colangelo is already on a short leash with many fans in Philadelphia following the Markelle Fultz trade's early results and plenty of smaller misses elsewhere, and this isn't going to help him avoid the reputation he has tried to shake since he arrived in Philly. There are those who will always look at him one way: handed the job by his NBA lifer father, with lots of credit for the team's success since going to departed GM Sam Hinkie.

What is the bigger risk for Philadelphia — not being able to find a competent GM to run things, or backing the guy whose reputation is being attacked at warp speed? I would argue it's the latter, given the stakes this summer, especially when there are proven options (former Cavs GM David Griffin) and lieutenants (Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren) who could credibly take over and keep the Sixers on the right path.

Regardless of what Sixers brass ultimately decides, their response to this snafu could end up defining the organization for years to come. I'm not one to play judge, jury, and executioner with someone else's career, and I'll defer to the powers that be on the who, how, and why of all this.

But boy, if there were ever a time to be taken to task for your Twitter indiscretions, this would be it.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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