Did Public Opinion Scare 76ers Owners Away From Kristaps Porzingis?

Were the 76ers owners scared off from drafting Latvian rookie Kristaps Porzingis because the fan base wouldn't be happy about the selection?

Philadelphia 76ers co-managing owner Josh Harris speaks at a news conference before an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in Philadelphia.

Did Joshua Harris’ growing impatience influence the Sixers’ 2015 draft?

Lost in the shuffle of the Sixers playing well — they’ve won two of their last three, including victories over the Portland Trailblazers and the Orlando Magic, with a double-overtime loss to the New York Knicks mixed in as well — was a report from Marc Berman of the New York Post that implied Sixers’ ownership may have taken the possibility of drafting Kristaps Porzingis off the table because of fears that the fan base wouldn’t accept it.

“Sources have indicated Philly ownership was gung-ho to take one of the Big 3 — Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor or D’Angelo Russell — because taking another unknown European project may not have sat well with a disenchanted fan base.”

— Marc Berman, NY Post

A couple of things real quick before we get started.

First, discussing the report is not verifying the report, or an admittance that the report is true. I have no information to verify that the thought process from ownership is true as reported by Berman. This is simply a discussion on whether such a mindset by the owners, if true, is wise.

Second, this is not meant as a debate on whether the Sixers should have drafted Kristaps Porzingis. Both Porzingis and Jahlil Okafor are exceeding expectations, and arguments can be, and have been, made in support of each prospect. This is not debating whether the Sixers should have passed on Porzingis for basketball reasons, but whether the Sixers should have passed on Porzingis for the reasons stated by Berman. This is a discussion of process, not results, and really you could substitute the names used in this example (Porzingis and Okafor) for generic names that nobody has any ties to and have the same debate.

The final disclaimer is that the article never actually states that general manager Sam Hinkie wanted to draft Porzingis, even if the implication may seem to be there on first glance. It merely states that ownership was locked into Towns, Russell or Okafor because of the potential for fan backlash.

With all that out of the way, it’s a very troubling report, and it’s troubling for a number of reasons.

Ownership’s meddling

It’s troubling because of the role ownership should play, which is to empower the people they have hired to be decision-makers and to give them all the resources necessary to make those decisions.

Neither Joshua Harris or David Blitzers are basketball scouts, and neither, to my knowledge, traveled to Sevilla, Spain, to see Porzingis in action enough to have an informed opinion. If the basketball people aren’t making the basketball decisions, your organization has big trouble ahead.

One of the best attributes of this ownership group is that they had always seemed fine with this. For better or worse, they empowered Doug Collins and gave him everything he needed. They gave Sam Hinkie, at least initially, freedom to operate how he wanted and see his plan through.

Even if this is a rare occurrence, it’s a troubling thought.

Rush for results

Perhaps even more troubling is the “why” provided in the report: that a disenchanted fan base wouldn’t have accepted the selection.

There’s an old saying in the sports world that if you listen to the fans, you’ll end up being one of them. The immediate success that Porzingis has had shows why making personnel decisions based on a desire to avoid crying kids is a recipe for disaster, and just because a guy like Porzingis is unknown to stateside NBA fans does not mean he was unknown in NBA circles, as Porzingis was playing against a higher level of competition than the ACC had to offer.

Fans, almost by definition, are not unbiased observers and rational decision-makers. That’s not their job. Sometimes appeasing the fan base in the here and now and making the best long-term decisions are one and the same, but more often than we’d like to admit, they’re not.

When a point in time comes where a team has to decide which to prioritize, the long-term health of the franchise is always more important. If the best long-term decisions are consistently made, the fan base will eventually be appeased. Immediate approval is the shortest of the short plays.

For an ownership group that was preaching process over results long before Sam Hinkie arrived, it’s an implication that would be a troubling breakdown in the decision-making process.

But it’s a mistake that sports management frequently makes. They make it because they can’t stand the heat of an angry fan base, or can’t stand the loss of revenue from an apathetic one. General managers make moves for immediate improvement because they feel the pressure to improve their standing in the court of public opinion and save their jobs, regardless of whether or not the decision is the best one they can make for the long haul. Nobody wants to see another general manager reap the rewards for decisions he was fired for making.

A fan base is fickle. Whether or not a decision is popular among a fan base in June of 2015 has no bearing on whether the fan base is excited, appreciative, or supportive of management in June 2016, much less in October 2018 when that draftee is finally hitting his peak and actually contributing in a meaningful way toward winning basketball.

If you look at it, excitement borne out of having high-level young players on the roster has never been the cause of the apathy, anger, or resentment some segments of the Philadelphia fan base have felt toward their hometown team. Fans and media alike were excited during Michael Carter-Williams‘ run to the Rookie of the Year award. They were pleasantly surprised by, and excited about, Nerlens Noel‘s second-half performance last season. They have been excited about the offensive prodigy that takes the court for the Sixers every night this season.

Each year of the Hinkie rebuild has featured a young player to be excited about.

The reason many fans have turned on Hinkie’s rebuild is the fact that the team hasn’t been competitive for quite some time. But rookies and second-year players don’t typically make a team competitive, and you have to look no further than the recent draft classes to prove that.

Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, has won 30.2 percent of his games since entering the league. Jabari Parker is struggling this year, his first fully healthy season in the league, with Parker playing a minor role and his 19-27 Bucks taking a frustrating step back. Neither Julius Randle or D’Angelo Russell is winning at a clip worth mentioning. And, for as much as the Knicks have turned it around, and as much as Kristaps Porzingis has been a part of that, it’s hard to envision that he alone would have the Sixers dramatically closer to being competitive, at least in a meaningful way.

The reason the Knicks are winning and the Sixers, Bucks, Lakers, and Wolves are struggling, despite their recent high draft selections, is the Knicks have the right mix of productive veterans to compete in the NBA, something the Sixers have largely purposefully ignored.

Whether or not ignoring that aspect of team building at this stage of the rebuild is something for a different column. And the problem isn’t so much the possibility that ownership wanted to speed up the timeline and make the team competitive faster than Sam Hinkie was on pace to do.

The point is, if ownership wanted to “fix” the perception problem of a team and move the timeline up, crossing off a talented 19-year-old because of a need for immediate results was not the place to do so. The draft is the place ownership could inflict the maximum amount of damage by meddling, but it was also the last place they should have looked to for immediate results.

One of the greatest strengths this ownership group seemed to have was that they had patience in an impatient league. That they were willing to let Nerlens Noel rehabilitate his torn ACL because they were not blinded by the games he would miss in year one, but also saw the value he could provide in years two through eight. That they were willing to take a chance on Joel Embiid, despite the fact that he wouldn’t be able to play his rookie year, because they knew getting a player as talented as Embiid was a rare opportunity. That they were not going to turn down a potential top-5 pick, one of the most valuable future draft picks traded in recent memory, for Michael Carter-Williams just because Carter-Williams could miss shots and turn the ball over for the team right away.

For those who bought into “the plan” — and many already had strong opinions on these players as draft prospects long before they had been selected by the Sixers — there was very real thought that the patience they showed was on the precipice of paying off in a big and meaningful way.

And it still might. The position the Sixers find themselves in has a tremendous amount of upside that has yet to coalesce. There’s also the very distinct possibility that there’s far more to what actually transpired in the Sixers’ war room leading up to the draft than what was reported by Berman, if that’s even how it went down at all.

Still, while the report about ownership’s involvement is vague and unverifiable, a characteristic of this clandestine management group that’s unlikely to change in the near future, just the mere implication of such mismanagement is a scary one for Sixers fans who have so much riding on the judgement of a select few.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.