Make no mistake: Philadelphia’s decision to hire Jerry Colangelo as chairman of basketball operations and special advisor on Monday signals an end to GM Sam Hinkie’s days as the lone architect of Philadelphia’s controversial rebuilding process. No, Colangelo, the managing director of USA Basketball, will not run the day-to-day operations. Colangelo, 76, will remain in Phoenix, and has not overseen a basketball operations department in nearly two decades, anyway. Yet Philadelphia didn’t bring Colangelo in to be a figurehead and Colangelo isn’t taking a position just to be one.
Said one rival exec, “Jerry isn’t signing up with that mess unless he is getting serious input into what is going on out there.”
Put it another way: Hinkie is still the decision maker but it’s doubtful any significant move is made without Colangelo’s approval.
Did the Sixers need to do this? Honestly, no. The team is terrible; a 19-63 season in ’13-14, followed by an 18-64 season in ’14-15. And Monday’s 119-68 loss to San Antonio dropped Philadelphia to 1-21 this season. “Trust the process” is a catchy phrase, but rival execs (correctly) point out that thus far the process is little more than a willingness to lose a historic number of games and accumulate the high draft picks that come with it. Some picks, like in the case of ex-Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, are even fodder to be traded for future picks. Hinkie is reclusive, leaving coach Brett Brown to face the daily barrage of questions about how exactly the Sixers are going to dig themselves out of this hole.
But there is a plan here. This is not the 1980s, when the NBA was forced to intercede and stop Cavs owner Ted Stepien from dealing pick after pick for middling talent. The Sixers have a few good young pieces in Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, injured center Joel Embiid and ’14 first round pick Dario Saric, currently playing in Europe. They could have as many as four picks in next June’s draft, including two in the top-five. If Philadelphia’s starting lineup next season is Embiid, Noel, Ben Simmons, Nik Stauskas and Kris Dunn, with Okafor and Saric coming off the bench, is anyone complaining?
I didn’t think so.
There are things Hinkie could do differently, and there are decisions he will pay for down the road. His staunch refusal to spend money on established veterans has been puzzling. Cory Joseph and Danny Green, two free agents from last summer, wouldn’t get the Sixers into the playoffs, but they would have filled needs on the floor and provided valuable leadership in the locker room. Losing leads to bad habits, and as hard as Brown has worked to keep the locker room positive, this kind of overwhelming failure has consequences.
But he has promised to build a roster with the potential for long, sustainable success, and a year from now that roster could exist.
Colangelo said all the right things on Monday. He described his role as one of mentorship to Hinkie and said he was intrigued by Hinkie’s plan. Sixers owner Josh Harris said he continued to have confidence in Hinkie, while Hinkie called Colangelo “a breath of fresh air.”
“If you really want to have a meritocracy of ideas and if you really believe the best decisions come from a wide set of options, you better get some really talented people around the table,” Hinkie said. “To me, that fits right in with this.”
In an ideal world Colangelo offers wisdom from afar, chipping in ideas that Hinkie incorporates into his vision. Colangelo has always been open with the press, and the Sixers could certainly use some transparency from its front office. But it’s fair to wonder just how much authority Colangelo wants and just how willing Hinkie is to continue in a role that has suddenly become less powerful. Already rival executives are wondering if Colangelo will attempt to maneuver his son, Bryan, a two-time NBA Executive of the Year, into a basketball ops position.
That would be a mistake, as would any attempt by Colangelo to nuke this process. Hinkie doesn’t get a decade to see this thing through, but he at least deserves one more summer, one more season. A few ping pong balls here, a healed foot there and suddenly the Sixers could look like Oklahoma City, circa 2009, just on steroids. A reckoning for Hinkie is coming, but it shouldn’t be today.