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Trust and the Process

On the court, the Sixers are the feel-good story of the season, pushing for the playoffs after years of tanking. Off the court, the Bryan Colangelo–led organization is having some of the same transparency issues that marred Sam Hinkie’s time with the team.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

If you just went by the record and the on-court product, the Sixers look like a team executing a well-thought-out plan. But that feel-good story isn’t the whole story. Earlier this week, Philly beat the Hornets in Charlotte to secure its 21st victory — the team’s highest season win total in the past four years. It was a nice story, but it was tarnished by the sort of ham-fisted handling of critical events that’s made them the pitiable fascination of rubbernecking NBA fans for a while now.

A review of the team’s odd crisis management of late: Last Friday, president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo made a rare appearance on a Philadelphia sports talk radio station. Despite his predecessor getting regularly pilloried by Philly fans and reporters for being inaccessible, Colangelo hasn’t proved much more available than Sam Hinkie was during his tenure. Not surprisingly, Colangelo was asked for an update on Joel Embiid’s status. (As of Wednesday, Embiid will have missed nine straight games and 12 of the past 13. He remains out indefinitely.)

The exchange did not go well. Colangelo initially said he’d like to “be forthright about Embiid” but those pesky HIPAA laws prevented him from doing so — a bizarre assertion considering general managers regularly provide injury updates. When pressed on the matter, Colangelo sounded aggravated and said he didn’t “understand the skepticism.” “If there was something untoward happening,” Colangelo insisted, “I’d be the first to call it out.” Then he asked the hosts to discuss other topics because the Embiid stuff was “getting old.”

It got worse for Colangelo and the organization. Later that night, Embiid shuffled around half-naked onstage at a Meek Mill concert. Bless his fun-loving heart.

The next day, on Saturday, while everyone was still cooking up hot takes on the big man’s dance moves, Sixers reporter Derek Bodner broke the story that Embiid has a meniscus tear in his left knee and not just a simple bone bruise. It was a painful 24 hours on the PR front by any measure.

The meniscus tear revelation was a bombshell for several reasons — not the least of which was the timing. The Sixers learned about it from an MRI on January 20. They briefly shut Embiid down after that — while not disclosing the tear and publicly insisting it was just a bone bruise — only to let him play on January 27 in a nationally televised game against the Rockets. Then they shut him down again while Colangelo insisted there was nothing to see here and everyone should move along. So much for him being the first one to call out something untoward.

The way it was handled by the organization didn’t seem to go over well with Sixers head coach Brett Brown. Like so many times during the previous administration (from being pestered about Embiid’s first two surgeries to Jahlil Okafor’s off-court legal issues last year), the poor guy was dangled in front of the media to answer questions better suited for someone in the front office. According to reporters on hand, Brown grew increasingly frustrated last Saturday and eventually told the assembled media he wasn’t going to answer any more questions about “Joel dancing” and urged them to “ask Bryan” instead.

In an unexpected development, Colangelo materialized at the Wells Fargo Center to field queries on Saturday, not long after Bodner’s report was published. When I asked someone with knowledge of how that unfolded whether Colangelo would have made himself available to discuss and disclose the meniscus tear if not for Bodner’s report, the reply was quick: “Doubtful.”

Colangelo told reporters the Sixers let Embiid play on January 27 against the Rockets because the symptoms had subsided and were “non-reactive in any kind of way.” He said the swelling began on January 29, which is why Embiid hasn’t played since. Then he tossed Embiid under the damage control bus because of the whole dancing thing and said he understood “some of the potential concern out there.”

“It’s not the best thing to see when you wake up on Saturday morning and find out that was the case because I know the reaction,” Colangelo said. Especially after just giving a radio interview where he simply could not “understand the skepticism.”

If that was the only fire the Sixers were putting out right now, they might be able to smother the smoldering controversy with the usual silence afforded by All-Star Weekend. Alas, they’re also currently taking heat for several other issues. Among them, the fact that Ben Simmons hasn’t played yet this season (and might not play at all, according to a recent report — more on that in a bit), and their continued attempt to offload Jahlil Okafor for anything of remote value. It’s hard to knock them for that last part — Okafor’s outmoded, plodding skill set is not easy to move — except that they didn’t send him to the road game in Charlotte this week because of ongoing trade negotiations. That’s a weird and unusual step — made weirder and more unusual by Brown flat out admitting to the media what was happening.

“Jahlil Okafor’s situation is transparent,” Brown told reporters in Charlotte on Monday. “He’s in the middle of being discussed in trade scenarios. … That’s the reason he isn’t here.”

The Sixers’ backslide on matters of public perception and disclosure is fascinating to watch, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. (One league executive quipped “this is how Hinkie got exiled.”) It’s been an interesting season for Philly, but part of the fun in watching the team is once more rooted in the attendant dysfunction. Put another way, the Sixers are the Sixers again.

It hasn’t even been a year since Hinkie decided to drop his now-infamous 13-page manifesto rather than stick around while Sixers majority owner Josh Harris hired all the able-bodied Colangelos he could find. In the aftermath of Hinkie’s departure, members of the organization pushed the same narrative using similar talking points. I wrote quite a bit about the palace intrigue when I was still in Philly, but the abridged version goes like this: Tension between Hinkie and ownership/other Sixers executives had grown well in advance of him quitting. The way those team sources told it at the time, the Sixers’ brass asked Hinkie to find someone to deal with the media and do a better job of building relationships across the league with agents, players, and other general managers. The company line was that Hinkie was slow to respond to those repeated requests.

I’ll never forget how one source explained it after Hinkie’s ouster: “It’s kind of like asking your kids to clean their room. You’re not really asking.”

That, more than anything else, is why, according to team sources, Hinkie was out and Bryan Colangelo was in. Now, some of those same Sixers employees fear Colangelo is making similar mistakes. One member of the organization used the word “stunning” to describe the aforementioned botched sports radio interview and allowed that Colangelo has been as hard to pin down as Hinkie. We should note that over the course of the past month, The Ringer repeatedly asked to interview Colangelo. Those requests were alternately denied or ignored. “Definitely one of the reasons they canned Hinkie,” a league executive said. “Same stuff.”

Hinkie could not be reached for comment. That might sound like standard operating procedure for him, but the largely unknown truth about Hinkie is that, despite the conventional understanding of the man, he was frequently available to the media. You could get him on the phone, and if you saw him before a game, it wasn’t uncommon to sit and talk with him. He just didn’t usually do it on the record. It was mostly used for deep background or to point you in the right direction. And he almost never did radio or TV appearances — which did not go over well in a town still dominated by older radio and TV personalities with atavistic ideas about “access” to general managers.

Given all that, and given Hinkie’s unrepentant and open embrace of tanking, it’s not surprising that he got pushed out — but it is surprising to watch Colangelo ape parts of the approach that made Hinkie haters so mad in the first place.

Last March, Okafor had surgery to repair his meniscus. He was expected to be on the mend for roughly two months. Instead, he remained out until the back end of the 2016–17 preseason, with hardly an update from the front office. Point guard Jerryd Bayless was said to be out with a “sore wrist” for almost two months — until the team unexpectedly issued a statement in December that he was undergoing season-ending surgery for a torn ligament. First overall pick Ben Simmons had surgery in October to repair a Jones fracture in his foot. That’s tricky stuff, to be sure. But the approximate three-month recovery window for that kind of injury would have had the rookie on the court by now. Instead, Brown recently told reporters Simmons is “moving forward but it’s at a very slow pace, our pace.”

Then there’s Nerlens Noel, who openly threw shade at the Sixers and Colangelo in September for failing to untangle the knot of big men on the roster. Shortly afterward, and right before the season started, Noel had unexpected surgery on his knee. Upon his return, the Sixers mostly kept Noel on the bench — at which point he promptly threw more shade at the Sixers and Colangelo, grumbling to reporters that he was too good to sit and that the front office needed to “figure this shit out.”

As the trade deadline approaches, Colangelo is still trying to appease Noel on that issue. Depending which rumor you prefer, the Sixers have engaged in trade conversations about Okafor with every team from the Bulls to the Pelicans to your local rec league squad. Two different league executives said there’s a market for Okafor that should yield something on the order of a first-round pick; you are forgiven if you’re skeptical. For a hot second there, it seemed like a deal was done, which is why they said Okafor didn’t accompany the Sixers to Charlotte. But at the time this story was published, still no deal. Oops. There was also a rumor circulating that Okafor was spotted at Logan Airport in Boston, the implication being that he was being dealt to the Celtics. (If Bigfoot was a ball-movement killer with questionable rebounding ability, you would imagine this is how the reporting might go.) But late Tuesday night, a league source confirmed that Okafor is with the team in Boston. That had to be a strange reunion and not at all awkward.

“Usually you hold a guy out if you have a deal or a deal that’s all but done,” a league executive said. He called it a “weird holding pattern” — which is a good way to describe how the Sixers are operating on the whole again, too.