If you thought the 2015-16 campaign was going to kick off without the Sixers process being questioned, Brian Geltzeiler threw together a doozy of a story for Sports Illustrated/The Cauldron this morning. It's been much talked about and has been one of the more popular social media topics, especially if you're a fan of Shirley Temples.
From the surface, and looking at the whole thing, it's a feature with a lot of shock value and should raise a lot of concerns. Being deeper than the surface here, however, as a blog of writers and readers with an obsessive interest in this team, a deeper (or "critical") look at the details was warranted. In some ways, the talk is very much concerning. In others, the details are either irrelevant or flat out wrong. Let's begin with the most concerning part of the feature.
Joel Embiid's Problems May Have Been Self-Inflicted
Aligning with noise from the past, Geltzeiler through his reporting adds to the concern about Embiid's work ethic, and frankly, how serious he's taken his foot issues.
According to multiple sources, Harris did not want Embiid to attend the annual Las Vegas Summer League this past July so they could proceed with the surgery on his navicular bone. Brown and Hinkie were both given strict instructions by Harris to keep Embiid from going to Vegas, yet each of them put the onus on the other to handle the job, and neither did.
Embiid was determined to go to Vegas to party for the balance of the 10 days of summer league. While Embiid was in Vegas, he was mandated to wear the walking boot in advance of the second surgery, but Embiid not only refused to wear the boot, but he carried himself as if nothing was wrong with the foot, shooting jumpers and even occasionally dunking. These actions have given rise to the theory that Embiid actually re-broke his foot, rather than the initial injury not healing properly. It also led to Embiid having the surgery a month later than the club originally had hoped.
This is absolutely damning of Embiid, whose work ethic and dedication to the game I've defended in the past. I continue to acknowledge the simultaneous loss of his brother and the ability to play the game he loves last year, and the domino effect that had on his life. I still believe he deserved some benefit of the doubt, but ignoring doctor's orders simply cannot happen. This has risen to a level well-beyond "concern-trolling", and has to be approached with the requisite seriousness going forward.
It's easy to put the onus on Hinkie or Brown here, as Harris reportedly did, but keeping an adult millionaire away from Las Vegas while the rest of his team is there is ludicrous. Harris cannot and should not have free reign over Embiid's offseason activities (or his off-the-court life generally), and there shouldn't be trust issues between an organization and one of their supposed foundational pieces. Embiid is a professional, and should be expected to act accordingly regardless of where he is, without supervision or babysitting.
That applies to his dietary issues as well:
Per a source, the Sixers' training staff was so concerned about what he was eating, they stocked the refrigerator in his downtown hotel residence each week with healthy food. When a staffer went to restock the fridge each week, most everything was uneaten and unopened, and they were throwing out the fruits and vegetables every week. When the team subsequently asked to see Embiid's room service bill, they found that most days he was ordering junk food along with his signature beverage, a pitcher of Shirley Temples. Embiid also was frequently seen feasting on chicken fingers and hot dogs at and after games.
Humor of sucking down Shirley Temples aside, this is a concerning pattern that applies to multiple areas of Embiid's professional life. The axe does fall on Hinkie here in that perhaps he misread or failed to get a full picture of his character pre-draft. It's hard to know if these things would continue to pile up if Embiid could get on the court and play, but that's neither here nor there. Added up, this adds more substance to some concerning reports that have leaked out in the past year, even if it's essentially rehashing things we already knew.
Owners Without Influence Are Getting Impatient
On to the dispute section of the program! Per Geltzeiler's report:
Hinkie is considered one of the smarter general managers in the league, and multiple league sources told The Cauldron that Hinkie still has Sixers majority owner Josh Harris in his corner.
Hey, we're getting off to a good start here! Wait, you mean there's more to follow?
Harris, per a source, has no issue (yet) with Hinkie's approach, largely because the franchise is worth two to three times what Harris and his group paid for it in 2011, but sources suggest that other pieces of the ownership team are getting less patient.
I won't pretend to be privy to what the ownership group as a collective is thinking, but the important distinction here is that Harris is in Hinkie's corner.
It would be dangerous to outright dismiss the feelings of other stakeholders, especially if enough begin to take issue, but the buck stops with Harris as the majority owner. This isn't like the U.S. government, where checks and balances could be used to override the President; Harris is the king, and while lords and dukes are free to share their thoughts they can ultimately be beheaded.
Marketing Leader Upset Team Traded Marketable Player
There's no denying that the furor surrounding Michael Carter-Williams' exit will hover around the franchise for years to come. Geltzeiler, however, seems to be under the impression that Scott O'Neil's opinions matter on the basketball operations side of things:
According to multiple league sources, last season's decision to trade point guard Michael Carter-Williams — Hinkie's first draft pick with the franchise in 2013, and a second-year player coming off winning the league's Rookie of the Year award — was Hinkie's alone, and the move angered both head coach Brett Brown and team president Scott O'Neil, who were caught unaware. Although Brown previously had some dustups with Carter-Williams, he had no desire to take a competitive step backward and give up one of the team's better players for a (potentially valuable) future first-round pick. O'Neil was miffed because he was planning to market the team around Carter-Williams and 2014 lottery pick Nerlens Noel.
The aforementioned pieces of that paragraph are bolded for several reasons. Scott O'Neil is not the team president and has not been since he was brought to the franchise in 2013. O'Neil is the CEO of the team, with the official designation "Executive Officer and Chief of Business Operations." You could check his LinkedIn profile for this information. The actual president is...
Geltzeiler continued on Carter-Williams, suggesting that trading the point guard called into question drafting him at No. 11 in the first place. That sort of revisionist history has bounced around our comment sections repeatedly, and gains no more merit at Sports Illustrated than it would here.
A popular name that emerges here is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is still more of a theory than a foundation piece at this stage, or Rudy Gobert, who was never a realistic candidate to be taken in the first half of the '13 Draft. The idea that drafting the Rookie of the Year from a weak overall class and obtaining a (likely) future lottery pick for him should be scrutinized is curious at best. The Sixers even got demonstratively better last season after Carter-Williams left town by handing the reins of the team's offense to Ish Smith - who is now making exactly zero guaranteed money with the Wizards as a training camp invite.
(Added note: It would have been difficult to build the team around 2014 lottery pick Noel... because he was selected in 2013. While it'd be fascinating if Hinkie can in fact operate on multiple planes of existence simultaneously, he is in fact beholden to our section of the multiverse.)
Everyone Else is Wrong About Dario Saric's Contract
The Homie Dario™ has been a major sticking point for critics and defenders of The Process. He is either an example of Hinkie's wonderful patience or a symbol of his inability to "land the plane." What he hasn't been, though, is a source of much confusion with regards to his contract. LB alum and Philly Mag's Derek Bodner, along with various beat writers and national reporters, has repeatedly stated that Saric has a buyout clause after the second year of his contract with Anadolu Efes.
In the originally published version of the piece, Geltzeiler claimed that this was bunk:
This season, the Sixers will roll with a frontcourt of Noel and 2015 No. 3 overall selection Jahlil Okafor, thanks to Embiid's unavailability as well as that of Dario Saric, the team's other 2014 lottery pick. Initial reports around that draft claimed that Saric had a buyout clause after the second season of his contract with his team in Turkey, but those are false, and the Sixers may not see Saric for quite some time yet.
Andy Glockner, the editor responsible for the piece, has since taken responsibility for that error making it to print:
Glockner is a stand-up guy for falling on the sword here, but the burden falls on Geltzeiler. He has been an active and vocal critic of the Sixers rebuild for the last two seasons, which is fine in a vacuum.
Being a critic does not give you the liberty to make up or distort facts, however, and his inability to get even basic details of the grand-scheme plan correct calls into question his overall reporting on the subject. Not believing Saric will come over does not erase the clause from his contract. And the inclusion of this line naturally brings into question the accuracy of the other reports, which we still assume to be true.
Well Actually, Gregg Popovich's Coaching Tree Is Bad
Just as a kicker, Geltzeiler threw in a tidbit about Brown's standing with the organization.
For all of the respect that Brown commands for his demeanor, patience, and Xs and Os acumen, he's still a coach who has lost 130 games in his first two seasons. His San Antonio pedigree has always been considered a big plus, but maybe not as much as it once was. According to a league source, it's not lost on Sixers ownership that more coaches off of Gregg Popovich's coaching tree have struggled than succeeded, and Brown's standing may not be as firm with the club as most people outside perceive it to be.
Beyond what losing 130 games means for Brown, it's important to evaluate the comment with regards to Popovich's coaching tree. Consider some of the guys who have emerged from the Spurs organization:
- Sam Presti started as a video intern and moved up to Assistant GM in seven years with the Spurs. His record has grown spottier in recent years, but he still drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka.
- Danny Ferry* and Mike Budenholzer, architect and coach of last year's surprise Atlanta Hawks, spent a combined 22 years working for the Spurs basketball operations.
- Steve Kerr -- you know, the guy who took the Golden State Warriors from plucky upstarts to title-winners last season -- has repeatedly referred to Popovich as one of his mentors, after spending the tail end of his playing days with San Antonio.
Reading through the report, there are more than a few concerning details. Substantiating previous claims about Embiid's nonchalant rehab solidifies what we heard months and months ago -- he needs to get his act together. The Embiid details on their own present a compelling story and case against one of Hinkie's most important decisions if not the most important. Geltzeiler did a lot of homework here, and that shows in the details he can provide.
But with the Joel Embiid reporting lumped in with half truths, misstated facts, and blatant falsehoods, the hard work and gritty reporting has a hard time escaping what's really a whole bunch of loud noise.