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Who Is Running the Sixers?

In the midst of a historically consequential offseason, Philadelphia is going with front-office-by-committee with coach Brett Brown as the loudest voice in the room. With Kawhi Leonard in play and LeBron hitting free agency, can the Sixers build a true contender without one single person calling the shots?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

NBA draft war rooms are complicated places. There was a good story about that last week. On a predraft episode of The Lowe Post, ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Jonathan Givony told the tale of then–Hornets head coach Steve Clifford lobbying for Charlotte to take Donovan Mitchell in last year’s draft. Clifford was so animated that he reportedly climbed on a table to make his point. It didn’t work. Charlotte took Malik Monk. Clifford coaches the Magic now. And the Hornets are still the Hornets.

No one won in that scenario—except Mitchell—but it got me thinking about the Sixers. (Strange, I know.) After a report from The Ringer and the resignation of president and general manager Bryan Colangelo, the organization went into a critical offseason with no clear delineated front-office hierarchy. In the scandal’s messy aftermath, Josh Harris—the team’s managing partner and principal owner—installed head coach Brett Brown to oversee basketball operations on an interim basis and issued a statement that the search for a new general manager would “commence immediately.”

That was probably closer to wishful thinking and damage control than an actual job posting. According to people with knowledge of the (lowercase) process, the search hadn’t really begun as recently as last week, at least not in any significant way. As one Sixers staffer put it, the organization isn’t “rushing it.” It’s actually understandable. The timing couldn’t possibly have been worse.

Hunting for a general manager right before the draft and free agency is a near-impossible task. It’s hard to imagine that a currently employed quality candidate—whether they be an assistant with another organization or a top-line executive looking for a better situation—would interview for another gig during one of the busiest times of year for NBA front offices, much less take the job at that time. Aside from the complicated optics, cobbling together a new staff in such a short window would be a Herculean task. It would be bad all the way around for everyone. Whatever search the Sixers are conducting won’t be real or meaningful until we get out of this part of the offseason. Which means the direction of the Sixers was and will be decided by the hands already in-house.

When I asked around about who was sketching out the offseason blueprint in Colangelo’s absence, I was repeatedly told that it was a collaboration between Brown, vice president of player personnel Marc Eversley, vice president of basketball operations Ned Cohen, and vice president of analytics and strategy Alex Rucker. (So many vice presidents.) Former Sixer Elton Brand, now the general manager of the organization’s G League team, was also said to be in the mix. That sounded like a lot of voices. I asked a handful of executives around the league how complicated that would make the decision-making process for the Sixers, and the overwhelming consensus of replies could be distilled to one word: very.

One exec made a football analogy of it: “If you have four quarterbacks, that usually means you don’t have one.” Another was more glib: “Good luck with all that.” My concern was that if the Sixers got into a Donovan Mitchell scenario, would any single person identify the right move and make the call?

Turns out Brown didn’t need to pull a Clifford and get on the table; he was already sitting at the head. When asked, Brown revealed that “I was the one that approved the final decision.” The team initially took Villanova wing Mikal Bridges with the 10th pick. That was the safe move, and it went over well with the fan base. Local kids always do. It was the easy, clean call. What happened next was not.

The Sixers flipped Bridges to Phoenix for Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith and an unprotected 2021 Miami first-round pick. Bridges and his mom were still celebrating when they found out he’d been shipped to the Suns.

Making matters more complicated, Bridges’s mother is the Sixers’ vice president of human resources. I’m not sure if you can file an HR complaint against the acting general manager and head coach, but Brown should probably brace for it just in case. The decision didn’t go over well with certain segments of the fan base, some of whom thought it was underhanded and that the organization should be embarrassed. The longtime face of Philly media even labeled it a “big PR bungle.”

Provincial pearl-clutching aside, the Sixers made the savvy play. I’m not sure what Smith will become, but adding an unprotected first-round pick in the draft in which high schoolers might be eligible again has massive value. Not to mention that paying the 16th player selected in the draft rather than the 10th saved the Sixers close to $1 million in cap space. That might not seem like a lot, but every little bit helps if you’re trying to clear room to sign a max-level free agent. The decision was smart and calculated and completely Process—even if it was also [extremely Dave Chappelle as Rick James voice] cold-blooded.

That’s why I was surprised that Brown made the decision. What a head coach wants, right now, is sometimes in conflict with what a good front-office executive envisions for the future. It’s why coaches who operate as their own front-office decision-makers frequently trip themselves up—from Stan Van Gundy in Detroit, to Doc Rivers in Los Angeles, to Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta. Brown, as the head coach, could have plugged Bridges into next season’s rotation and been quite happy. But looking to the horizon, giving yourself options, and thinking about the best way to build a great team rather than settling for a good one is what this recent-vintage Sixers era is about. Brown picked the right option in what has suddenly become his very own basketball chose-your-own-adventure game.

Still, that had to be tough. As Brown said, “I live in this city with you all. I watch Villanova. I love [Bridges’s] mom. I love his college coach.” He acknowledged that there’s “a human side” that’s “hard to explain.” But there is also a business side, and in the NBA that has to trump everything if you want to excel.

“We are star hunting,” Brown said. “Or we are star developing. That’s how you win a championship.”

Brown called the attendant emotion of the move “painful,” but ultimately “what’s best for the organization” mattered most. It couldn’t have been easy. What comes next certainly won’t be.

The Sixers are only now arriving at the hard part. Just because the organization cleared one massive hurdle without a full-time, permanent general manager doesn’t mean it won’t stumble face-first into the next obstacle.

Brown said the organization liked Smith so much that they brought him in for two predraft workouts. If Bridges was their “1A” option, then Brown said Smith was “1B.” In fact, he called Smith “1B” so many times that the NBA ought to make a special dispensation and let the kid wear that as his number. But no matter how good “1B” becomes, he’s not nearly enough if the Sixers want to keep up with the Celtics in the Eastern Conference—or the Warriors, Rockets, and whichever other contenders emerge in the West. The Sixers need more. To Brown’s credit, he’s never been shy about saying so.

“There seemed to be an acceptance that, we declared our hand, this is what we’re going to do, and for the most part we’ve kind of done it,” Brown said after Boston bounced the Sixers from the playoffs. “If that portion of the fan base is still prepared to take this notion [of doing it organically] and that’s going to equal a championship, it’s noble but I don’t agree with it. I think another high-level free agent is required.”

The Sixers get full marks for being smart about gobbling up assets. Brown was correct when he called the unprotected 2021 Miami pick “gold” and said it could be “the thing” that allows the team to “enhance a realistic trade for a star.” But star hunting and star acquiring are two very different things. This is when it gets tricky for the Sixers. They have roughly $30 million in cap space and could clear even more if they can figure out a way to dump Jerryd Bayless and the $8.58 million he’s owed in the final year of his deal. That would free up the room needed to court a top-tier free agent like LeBron James or Paul George. If Philadelphia fails on that front, it could turn around and bundle a combination of players and picks to make an offer to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard. And if that doesn’t work, the Sixers could go shopping on the free-agent or trade markets and see if they can find a star who comes at a slightly-less-than-premium price.

Of course, it won’t be as simple as merely clicking on the item they want and adding it to their cart. If they somehow manage to sign LeBron or PG, it could sap them of a lot of financial flexibility moving forward. That’s a concern considering potential future expenditures. Embiid already got his max contract. In two years, the Sixers will need to find the same money for Ben Simmons, and they’ll have to figure out a way to pay Dario Saric, too, if he’s still around (both become restricted free agents in 2020). The year after that, Markelle Fultz and his jump shot will be eligible for a new deal. In the short term, the Sixers must determine what to do about J.J. Redick. Does he want to stay? And if so, how many years and how much money will it cost? Signing Redick to a three-year contract would take him into his mid-30s when the deal expires. The team desperately needs his shooting, but he’s also not exactly on the same timeline as the rest of the core.

Then there are Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. They were nice late-season grabs for the Sixers for next to nothing, but there’s a reason they both bounced around the NBA so much. At best, they are replacement-level players, and it’s hard to count on them replicating their production. (Colangelo’s limited legacy in Philly will be filling out the roster with veterans on short-term deals to pair with the young homegrown core.) The Sixers might also chose to unplug players and/or picks in order to secure a star via trade. But if that star is Kawhi, will he assure them that he’ll re-sign if he becomes a free agent next season? And if he doesn’t give them that guarantee, would the Sixers gamble on a trade for him anyway?

There are a lot of variables—and every scenario not only alters the fate of the franchise, but also how the organization is perceived by potential candidates for general manager. I’m not sure if the Sixers should promote from within and elevate Eversley or Cohen to the top spot in the front office, but they should at the very least interview some outside options and consider all their choices. Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren and Rockets executive vice president Gersson Rosas would be good people to start with; their names have come up a lot when I’ve asked around about the opening. But whatever the Sixers do, the decision should involve thanking Brown for his help, continuing to get his input, and then unburdening him of any heavy front-office lifting. League history has taught us that doing both jobs is too much.

Brown said he had “no intention” of being the interim general manager and insisted “I’m a basketball coach.” There’s no reason not to believe him. But if the Sixers plan on eventually conducting a serious search with internal and external interviews, then they must also be mindful of how they proceed this offseason. It’s a delicate ecosystem.

On one hand they have a real opportunity to sign or trade for a big-name player; on the other, draining their cap flexibility or depleting their allotment of quality picks might make a prospective GM think differently about the opportunity. As one longtime league executive put it to me, right now the Sixers job is “maybe the most desirable” in the NBA. It’s also a much different gig now than it has been in recent years. Sam Hinkie was charged with a total teardown, and Colangelo came along with construction underway but not yet complete. The next general manager will take over a team that is positioned as an Eastern Conference contender and has two generational stars. That’s an awfully attractive opportunity—even though it comes with increased scrutiny from local and national media and fans. The challenge is for the temporary stewards to keep their team that way until a permanent replacement is found. The Sixers gave the franchise more options on draft night, not less. That’s to their credit. Brown and his guys stepped out onto an awfully high wire and stayed standing. But it’s a difficult balancing act, and there’s a long way to go to reach the other side. The trick now is to make sure they don’t go splat.