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What Is Going on With the Sixers’ GM Search?

Philly continues to search for a Bryan Colangelo replacement, from big fish like Daryl Morey to relative unknowns in the Jazz front office. Should the team be in more of a rush?

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Timing matters. When an online media outlet published a story about Bryan Colangelo and some curious Twitter accounts, it put the Sixers organization in a tough spot. The piece dropped in late May—shortly before the NBA draft and free agency. That’s a critical period for any organization, and especially for the Sixers, who had high hopes of landing a top-tier talent during the offseason. When Colangelo resigned from the Sixers on June 7, the team had to know that the franchise would be forced to navigate a tricky stretch of the summer with an uncertain front-office structure. But months later, as a new season rapidly approaches, the Sixers are still determining what to do about their general manager position—and it doesn’t appear as though they’ve gotten much closer to figuring it out.

It would have been next to impossible to conduct a proper search for a new general manager before the draft or free agency. There wasn’t enough time, and beyond that, no quality candidate worth hiring would have left another organization during that crucial period in the league calendar to bootstrap a last-second, makeshift offseason plan for the Sixers. Installing Brett Brown to oversee basketball operations on an interim basis—along with help from front-office executives Marc Eversley, Ned Cohen, Alex Rucker, and Elton Brand—was a stopgap solution but a necessary one. The question is why the franchise still hasn’t employed a more permanent solution.

There were reports during the summer that the Sixers were interested in prying Rockets general manager Daryl Morey away from Houston and that they also interviewed former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin. It’s unclear whether the organization thought it had a real chance to poach Morey or it was just making a Hail Mary pass at him, but getting him to leave Houston for Philly was never going to happen. As for Griffin, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Sixers didn’t think he was a good fit because they “want to make collaborative decisions instead of a GM who will have the final say”—as though those two things are mutually exclusive. Then again, in fairness, the Sixers’ front office has been run by two different, powerful factions over the last five years—first Sam Hinkie, then the Colangelos. (It’s wild when you check the calendar and realize all this started not that long ago, in 2013; the Process ages in dog years.) We can debate the results of those decidedly different executives, but there’s no arguing that the Sixers’ top decision-makers over that period were divisive figures with outsize personas that attracted a lot of attention for various reasons. After taking heat for those hires, maybe ownership is content to let things cool off and find someone with a lower profile.

Which doesn’t mean that the higher-profile guys can’t still be useful to the Sixers. Morey and Griffin never felt like serious candidates for the gig, but they both have big names—the kind you sometimes hear when there’s a desirable job opening but the search hasn’t exactly begun in earnest. When there’s no fire on the interview front, it doesn’t hurt to blow a little smoke for PR purposes to placate curious reporters and fans. Indeed, as recently as a month ago, multiple league sources told me the Sixers weren’t exactly in a hurry to hire a new general manager.

That tracks with a report from 94.1 WIP sports radio in Philly—which said Sixers majority owner Joshua Harris might be targeting the 2019 offseason to hire a new GM—as well as statements from Sixers brass. Harris recently told ESPN that the organization won’t rush the interview process and that the Sixers “prefer to find an elite talent who can lead us, but we aren’t going to compromise.”

The search finally began lurching forward last week when the Sixers reportedly interviewed Rockets executive vice president Gersson Rosas, Jazz assistant GM Justin Zanik, and Warriors director of player personnel Larry Harris. This week, the Sixers will also formally interview internal candidates Eversley, Cohen, Rucker, and Brand. As Harris admitted to ESPN, the way the Sixers have so far slow rolled their hunt to replace Colangelo does “leave open [the] possibility” that they’ll eventually promote from within. That was an interesting revelation, because that’s exactly what the Sixers recently did.

In late August, the Sixers issued a press release announcing that they’d given all four aforementioned front-office execs nice, new title bumps. Eversley had “senior” slapped in front of his vice president of player personnel title. The same thing was done with Rucker, who is now the senior vice president of analytics and strategy. Cohen went from associate vice president and chief of staff to assistant general manager. And Brand, who will continue to serve as general manager of the team’s G League affiliate, was named vice president of basketball operations. Here, again, timing matters. The Sixers announced the blanket promotions less than a month before the team was set to start training camp. If I were a cynical journalist (probably redundant), I might wonder whether those title bumps were designed in part to preemptively address the many questions that inquiring media members might have about the GM search and the Sixers’ overarching front-office plans.

When I recently reached out to the Sixers, I was told the front office wasn’t taking any interview requests—until they address the media, en masse, along with Brett Brown on September 18 at the head coach’s annual luncheon. I’m hardly the only one that’s tried to get them to talk. A handful of other reporters I know made similar requests and were also rebuffed. Which, again, makes me wonder about the timing of those promotions. Independent of whether they deserved the new titles—and I have no reason to believe they didn’t—the rollout seemed suspiciously like the organization knew people were hungry for answers and tossed them a fat press release to chew on in the hopes that it would at least temporarily satiate some of their curiosity about why it’s taking so long to find a new executive chef.

If that was part of their strategy, I don’t blame the Sixers. It was a savvy move to buy them some time and breathing room while they figure out how to proceed. The press release even included the requisite word-soup statement from Harris about how the Sixers have “one of the NBA’s most talented and innovative front offices” and a team that is “incredibly well-positioned for not only this season, but for seasons to come.” Which … fine. You wouldn’t expect the owner to say anything else. The problem is that you can run in place for only so long before people point out that you haven’t gotten anywhere.

As a result, it remains unclear what, exactly, the Sixers are looking for in a new GM. When they hired Sam Hinkie, they (briefly) empowered a young, ascendant executive with a clear plan to build for the future. When they later brought in Jerry and Bryan Colangelo, it was a 180-degree pivot in the opposite direction toward the league’s old guard in an attempt to curry favor with other owners and the league office who were displeased by the tank-today-in-favor-of-a-better-tomorrow ethos that defined the Process. Whatever you think about Hinkie or the Colangelos, it was obvious what the Sixers were trying to accomplish with those moves. But right now, as a league source familiar with ownership’s thinking put it, “I’m not sure they know what they want.”

That’s troublesome. Do they want to find and identify the next smart, rising young assistant and give them their own operation to run? Or would they prefer someone with an established name who has already commanded a front office in some other NBA outpost? Or are they actually considering promoting from within and moving forward with some version of the multiheaded executive structure currently in place? Complicating matters further is the fact that Eversley, Cohen, and Rucker all have ties to Colangelo and/or the NBA league office—connections that worked in their favor when they were hired by the franchise two years ago during the messy front-office coup d’état. And beyond that, the notion that the Sixers are looking to hire someone “to make collaborative decisions instead of a GM who will have the final say” is confusing and potentially problematic. Don’t all general managers collaborate with their staffs before making whatever call is at issue? And if the Sixers don’t want to install someone who has final say, how can they possibly hope to attract the highest-quality candidates?

“There are a very small number of elite sitting GMs, and they’re generally under contract with teams for a long time,” Harris told ESPN. “Those situations tend not to change much. For us, we need someone to add real value, which includes looking at young up-and-coming basketball executives and non-traditional candidates.

“We’re going to have a pretty selective list. This is not going to be a huge tournament. We’re going to talk to some people who aren’t sitting GMs who could add value to our situation.”

That reads to me like the Sixers are currently content to straddle the lines rather than pick a lane. But if they don’t figure out what they’re searching for—despite Harris insisting that “this is not going to be a huge tournament”—the Sixers are in danger of dragging out the process to find a GM replacement. And if that happens—if they really are serious about punting this hire to the 2019 offseason as WIP reported—they’ll be right back in the same bind they were in last May.

The Sixers will have roughly $69 million on the books heading into the 2019 free-agency period—which means they’ll have plenty of room to throw big money at a big name or names. They also have that 2021 unprotected first-round pick incoming from Miami that they could use as part of a potential trade package for a superstar. They have flexibility, which is what every front office wants. But after next offseason, things will become more complicated. Ben Simmons and Dario Saric will be restricted free agents in 2020. The year after that, it’ll be Markelle Fultz’s turn. There are big decisions to be made in terms of roster building, the salary cap, and how to make the best use of their pick allotments that will have a significant long-term impact on the future of the franchise. The sooner the Sixers identify whose vision will shape that future, the better. The longer they wait, the more difficult an already complex undertaking will become. Time, per usual, is not on their side.