Likes and Dislikes: 76ers Add Jerry Colangelo to Front Office
Each week we’ll dive into a couple of observations about the Philadelphia 76ers. You can view previous installments in the Likes and Dislikes series here.
This week we’ll talk about the addition of Jerry Colangelo to the 76ers front office and the many layers to peel off of such a surprising, and potentially franchise-altering, move.
Like: Jerry Colangelo’s Wealth of NBA Success
On its surface, on the top layer, the addition of Jerry Colangelo to any front office is welcomed with open arms.
“Proven Winner” is a phrase frequently thrown around, often times long before it should be. How much of a profound impact chance and randomness have on both success and failure is obscured by our desire to quickly and decisively place labels on decision makers.
But for a man like Jerry Colangelo, who has been in a decision-making position in the NBA since becoming the first general manager in Phoenix Suns franchise history, it’s hard to call Colangelo anything but a proven winner.
Sure, the Suns have never captured an NBA title, but so few teams actually win NBA titles that using this as the only measuring stick, while ignoring his consistent success, is inspecting his career with far too narrow of a lens. And when you include his tenure with the Arizona Diamondbacks and as the head of USA Basketball, he does have championships on his resume.
The Suns had some surprising early success, including a playoff appearance in just their second season of existence, but they really found their footing after making a trip to the 1976 NBA Finals, just their 8th season in the league.
From 1976 until 1995, when Jerry Colangelo stepped down to pass the general manager title to his son, Bryan, the Suns made the playoffs in 16 seasons out of 20. which included five trips to the Conference Semifinals and two NBA Finals appearances. If you include the elder Colangelo’s time as the team president, a position which he held until 1999, then you can add four more playoff appearances to his resume.
The Suns won 50 or more games in 4 out of 5 seasons during the late 70’s and early 80’s, then won 50 or more 7 times in a row in from 1988-89 through 1994-95. It wasn’t just sustained good play that Colangelo built, but multiple instances of sustained excellence.
The addition of Jerry Colangelo as a basketball mind is almost unquestionably positive. Everything that Sam Hinkie said — from being able to learn from him, to having aspects of running a franchise that are timeless — is absolutely true, regardless of whether Hinkie will actually be around in a decision-making capacity long enough to truly be Colangelo’s pupil.
Dislike: Ownership’s Impatience and the NBA’s Meddling
The part of Monday’s announcement that was hard to grasp was not why a team would look to hire somebody of Jerry Colangelo’s pedigree, but why it would happen now.
Sure, the Sixers have fallen on tough times, starting the season out 1-21 and with their supposed franchise player making headlines for all the wrong reasons. The convergence of those two events has led to Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie coming under increased scrutiny, scrutiny that has increased because of his continued silence, and scrutiny that brought many of the organizations trademark beliefs under fire.
“This season, to date, has not been easy for us,” Harris said at the press conference. “Our situation necessitated a review to make our organization better.”
But this has been a regime that, more than anything, has been defined by patience and being impervious to outside influences. For some, that trait has been one of the sources of optimism, that they were willing to keep their eye on long-term priorities even if the rest of the basketball public wanted them to focus on short-term window dressing. To others, that kind of oversight is the reason the Sixers are in this situation.
If there’s one thing the hiring signifies, it’s that the franchise that refused to blink may, finally, have blinked. And, according to reports, it blinked quickly: Colangelo said this all came together within the last 10 days, a shockingly quick turnaround for an organization looking to hire a high-level executive. If the hiring is, in fact, not just a public relations move, there was clearly an instigating factor that caused Harris to veer of course, and to do so quickly.
The question of why is an important one. What was the last straw? Was it the play? Was it the Okafor situation? Was it the team’s reaction, or lack thereof, to the Okafor situation?
As Steve Kyler of BasketballInsiders points out, and as Zach Lowe of ESPN confirmed on his podcast, for as much as this plan has been associated with general manager Sam Hinkie, it’s as much Joshua Harris‘ direction as anyone. Harris not only approved the plan, but he selected it. Hinkie was not the first one to come to the conclusion that hitting home runs in the draft was a necessity, he was just the one given the most flexibility to go to extremes.
In many ways, talk of a “process” predates Hinkie, as Joshua Harris has been preaching process over results from the moment his group bought the team.
“In the world of business, to be successful you make decisions, you take risks, and then you live with the outcome,” Harris said during exit interviews after the 2012-13 season, the one where injured center Andrew Bynum didn’t appear in a single game for his team.
“Things don’t always work out,” Harris continued when talking about process over results. “You just make good decisions and over time they work out.”
Harris was always the unique one in the situation, the one the Sixers needed to not flinch if they were to truly follow through with their philosophy.
It’s why the team finally reacting to outside pressure is so befuddling.
Then the news came out that other NBA owners may have instigated the change. The first bit of news came from Jeff Zillgitt at USA Today:
“NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had a significant hand in Philadelphia’s decision to hire Colangelo and placed a call to Colangelo to gauge his interest, two people familiar with the situation told USA TODAY Sports.”
That report was then backed up by a report from Brian Windhorst at ESPN.
“But it was not the bad basketball as much as the hit to the business side that weighed on the rest of the league.
Owners routinely complained about the economic drag the 76ers were inflicting on the league as the revenues of one of the largest-market teams — a franchise expected to contribute more robustly to league revenue-sharing — sagged.”
(It’s worth noting that the Sixers, as a road draw, actually haven’t been at the bottom of the league at any point during Sam Hinkie’s rebuild. In fact, the lowest they’ve been was 10th worst. That’s not a perfect measure, as how many show up, and buy concessions and merchandise, is a better representation of how much money the league would be losing, but it’s worth pointing out nonetheless).
The combination of the two reports brings a fascinating, if terrifying, dynamic to the 76ers move.
The thought of the league telling a team how to go about building a winner is a troubling thought, and a dangerous precedent to set. Not that it would be entirely new, as the NBA has stepped in a few other times in its history, such as when David Stern, then the acting governor of the New Orleans Hornets, vetoed a trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers. But even the implication that the NBA has any influence over the front office personnel of one of its member teams is a scary thought.
Winners: The National Basketball Association and Joshua Harris
The decision by Harris and the Sixers to hire Colangelo is a coup for the league. The league has been desirous to kill the Sixers tanking, as evident by the vote last summer for lottery reform.
The reform, which was proposed in an effort to curb tanking, only received 17 of the necessary 23 votes to pass, which just goes to show that there are other teams out there who can see the possibility of needing to tank in order to turn their franchise around in the future, and don’t want that tactic marginalized if they find themselves in a similar position to the post-Bynum Sixers.
But this latest development, if it does turn out to be true that Colangelo has final say and could replace Hinkie down the line, is a huge win for the NBA. The net result is the same: tanking, at least the Sixers version of it that we have come to know, will be dead.
Hinkie staked his entire reputation on having the time to see his plan through to the end. He had to have known that there would be points in the rebuild where, if it was halted prematurely, he would come out looking horrible. In order to pursue the path that he did he had to have had strong, even concrete, assurances from Harris and his group that Harris would not react to the mounting criticism that they had to have known would eventually come their way.
Regardless of whether it was Harris that couldn’t stomach the losing (and criticism that came with it), or whether it was pressure from the league office, it’s tough to imagine Hinkie getting another shot to run a franchise if he leaves, voluntarily or not, in the near future. The damage this strategy did to Hinkie’s reputation, and the evidence that an owner who seemed to be fully on board finally caved to pressure, will dissuade any future like-minded general managers from trying the same strategy, at least to the extent Hinkie has.
Even if they believe in the strategy, and even if they’re told by potential employers that they have the patience and fortitude to withstand losing and not succumb to external pressure, the precedent of the 76ers and Hinkie parting ways would be enough to make that a promise nobody is going to stake their reputation, and their career, on. The soundness of tanking as a strategy is not the greatest concern with implementing it, that has always been a disbelief that they would actually be around long enough to see the fruits of their labor.
If this development is an effective deterrent to future like-minded general managers, it’s a perfect situation for the league: they get to fix the perception problem the Sixers have caused without worrying about getting the league-wide support necessary to enact rules to actually fix the underlying mess.
Actually fixing the problem would require drastic changes to the free agency rules. The NBA is purposefully set up so teams have an incredible advantage, and really virtual guarantee, to re-sign their own stars in free agency. It’s designed to prevent any individual player from earning too much, which makes destinations the differentiating factor, super-teams possible, and free agency of limited use to teams down on their luck and without a superstar. Actually addressing this problem would require agreement from the Players Association, and such a drastic change to the core of free agency and player contracts would likely necessitate a lengthy lockout, which results on lost revenue for everybody involved.
Even addressing the reaction to the above core problem, which is to address lottery reform to take away the incentive to tank without fixing the competitive balance issues that make teams desperate enough to consider the strategy in the first place, is something that the NBA couldn’t find enough consensus on last year to enact. Now, the NBA gets their deterrent without having to go through the long, arduous, and potentially devastating process of actually making change. Fear, for jobs, reputation, and employability, has always been mankind’s greatest method of control.
The league wins, even if competitive balance does not.
If this really were a decision from the league pushed down on Harris and the Sixers, it would at least assuage some fears fans may have that Harris pulled what seems like a complete 180 on his dedication to the plan he had previously so readily endorsed. That would be easier to stomach, even if it seems unlikely. The decision to hire Colangelo was, ultimately, one that could only be made by Harris. Adam Silver could only make a recommendation, he couldn’t force his hand.
And Harris gets a real sweetheart deal out of this: Hinkie was always the face of this tanking philosophy, even if Harris was as much the driving force behind it as anyone. Even if it wasn’t Harris’ intent, the move is being seen as hiring Colangelo to “fix this mess” and a demotion, and public shaming, of Hinkie. The combination allows Harris to publicly distance himself from the backlash against tanking, but he still gets to keep the assets accumulated from the scorched-earth policy he allowed, or even encouraged, Sam Hinkie to go on.
What This Means for the Sixers Going Forward?
Right now the future of the Sixers is left to a whole lot of conjecture and speculation.
Most of the speculation is that Colangelo is the strongest voice in the Sixers’ decision-making process. That doesn’t mean that Colangelo is ahead of Hinkie on the organizational chart, nor does it mean that Colangelo is, or ever will be, running the day-to-day operations of the franchise.
But regardless of what titles say or who does the legwork, front office decisions ultimately have to be approved by Joshua Harris, and if Harris places more faith in Colangelo’s opinion than he does Hinkie’s, Colangelo will effectively have more power.
Should Colangelo have authority over Hinkie, or at least have Joshua Harris’ ear enough that Hinkie has to essentially get everything vetted and approved by Colangelo before it’s enacted, it doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t work. Regardless of if Colangelo has the biggest voice in the group, it’s unlikely that he, at 76 and with his commitments to USA Basketball, is going to want to do much of the hands-on, day-to-day legwork associated with being a general manager.
In that capacity, somebody like Sam Hinkie, who could be the yin to Colangelo’s yang, and could bring in a perspective that Colangelo might not have. Hinkie has shown to be a shrewd negotiator in trades, has a knack for predicting, and using that to his advantage, the desires of other teams, and has an analytics background that Joshua Harris clearly values: the Sixers have an analytics focus because Harris believes in it, not because Hinkie brought it with him.
Besides the wisdom Colangelo adds to the decision-making process, he could also be the public face of the front office, allaying scrutiny from around the league and performing the public responsibilities of a general manager that Hinkie clearly does not value.
Of course, if Colangelo is in fact the strongest voice in the front office, it means that Hinkie is essentially on a performance improvement plan, and would have to prove his worth to a new boss. While it’s true that Colangelo isn’t likely to be, or want to be, running the day-to-day operations at 76 and remotely from Phoenix, that does not in itself guarantee Hinkie’s future role with the team. Colangelo could look to bring in his own, hand-selected underling, something that has already been speculated because of the availability of his son, Bryan Colangelo, himself an unemployed two-time Executive of the Year winner.
It’s worth pointing out that while Colangelo himself has said he wouldn’t have joined the staff without having significant sway within the front office, and most have speculated that he is at the top of the totem pole, that Colangelo joining the front office to legitimately do as he says, which is to help Sam Hinkie guide the team back to contention, wouldn’t be without precedent.
Back in the spring of 2011 the Golden State Warriors were floundering. They had losing seasons in 15 of their previous 17 seasons. They had drafted a player in Stephen Curry who showed promise, but he didn’t fit, at all, with Monta Ellis, a 24 point per game scorer in his own right. The duo failed to make the Warriors immediately relevant, and Curry had just undergone surgery to repair chronic ankle problems he was playing through during the 2010-11 season, ankle problems which would require a second surgery late on during the 2011-12 season, and, some thought, put his career in jeopardy. All they had were question marks.
The Warriors responded to this disappointment by bringing in NBA-legend Jerry West into their front office to be an advisor and member of their executive board. The Warriors’ front office was in disarray. They had recently hired Bob Myers, himself all of 35 years of age at the time, to be assistant general manager and heir apparent to beleaguered general manager Larry Riley. Now, with the addition of Jerry West, it left many wondering who would ultimately have final say in the decision-making process: the recently-hired legend (West) or the young and inexperienced prodigy (Myers).
It turns out, to the surprise of many, West truly was hired to be just an advisor to help Myers learn what he didn’t know, to provide him the wisdom that only age and experience could instill. The ship that Myers has guided to historical level was, in fact, Myers’ ship to captain.
So while the assumption, which may certainly have validity to it, and certainly is a logical assumption to make, is that Colangelo is the strongest voice in the Sixers’ front office, it’s worth at least seeing how this ultimately plays out.
The real concern is whether Colangelo brings with him an impatience that the Sixers front office has otherwise not shown. More specifically, it’s the reason why Colangelo was hired now that would imply the impatience is setting in.
In truth, the summer of 2016 could have always been the summer the Sixers proceeded forward. The accumulation of assets was always intended to eventually be pushed to the center and traded in for talent, whether that be through the draft itself or in a blockbuster trade like Hinkie and the Rockets pulled off to acquire James Harden. With the potential to have four first round draft picks, 2 of which could be top-5 selections in the draft, the potential additions of Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, and the continued development of Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, 2016 was always a pivotal moment for this franchise.
In that case, having Colangelo’s experience is certainly a positive. There is almost no doubt he would help the Sixers execute this phase of the rebuild.
Colangelo coming in and making sweeping changes to the team overnight is not realistic. Some of the peripheral tactics Hinkie has used might change, like using roster spots as open tryouts, using cap space to facilitate trades to acquire more cap space, and minimizing the presence of veterans, but the Sixers are far too deep into this rebuild to abruptly change course, at least this season.
The real concern is what happens if the Sixers bad luck continues? What happens if Joel Embiid can’t get healthy, or if the Lakers pick doesn’t convey, and the Sixers don’t get lottery luck next may? Will the Sixers “push the go button” when they don’t yet have that can’t-miss prospect they’ve been searching for? Are they frustrated to the point where they will do what they have vowed not to, which, as Brett Brown has frequently described, is to become pregnant with average players? Would they be willing to draft players like Dragan Bender or Zhou Qi in the draft if they are clearly the best players available, even if they are not able to come over immediately?
Those are all valid concerns, but concerns we’ll have to wait and see how this plays out. Assuming a mistake, or a level of impatience that could provoke mistakes, is putting the cart before the horse. Right now, the only thing that is certain for Sixers fans is that they have added another smart basketball mind to their front office who carries with him invaluable experience.
That, by itself, is a positive.
Note: We released a podcast discussing the addition of Jerry Colangelo. You can listen to that here.