When Sam Hinkie was at the helm for the Sixers, his desire to manipulate the market through silence was well-documented. The costs and benefits of strategic silence became quite clear over the last few years; the team was able to pull off a series of stellar trades, but Hinkie’s own name was tarnished by the same approach. Local and national critics demanded accountability from a man who preferred to speak almost exclusively off-the-record.
Accountability is an ideal most businesses and people like to believe they strive for. “Law and order” candidates tend to do well in political elections for the same reason. We all think higher of ourselves if we pretend our actions are guided by invisible guidelines and a purpose beyond our own whims.
The Sixers’ approach to the Nerlens Noel fiasco falls under this umbrella. Speaking on the benched center after last night’s win against Brooklyn, Brett Brown was asked if he felt bad or thought Noel got a fair shot this year:
I feel worse for Richaun [Holmes]. I think that when I put my human hat on and then you go coach a team, make decisions, show leadership, that stands out to me as much as anything.
Nerlens missed everything. 20 minutes before the game last week, I learned he was going to play. He hasn’t been a part of us. I think this conversation goes to a higher level, a more real level in a few weeks when he’s actually had some practices. Richaun has been here from day one. I feel like that is something that’s on my mind as much as Nerlens.
I’ve spoken freely about my fondness for Nerlens Noel. I’ve been with him since he was here. We will coach him and I will help him and what that means, we won’t see on the floor. And maybe that’s where it could help him the most but I don’t believe at this moment that is best for our team. And that’s what we’re going to do. There’s nothing more important than the team.
Nerlens Noel has made life harder for everyone around him in Philadelphia. This is an objective fact. He is putting strain on a coach already overburdened, diminishing trade value for multiple players on the roster, and contributes to a lingering image of strife to people outside the organization.
Noel’s absence from the offseason program, the timing of his elective surgery, and the increasingly hostile comments directed at the organization reveal a young man interested in himself and his own interests. In golf or tennis, that sort of attitude would probably be just fine. In a team sport like basketball, it serves to create a wall between Noel and his team, from the players all the way up to the top of the organization. In a contract year, his rage is understood, but unchecked it damages everyone.
Brown’s expectation for Noel to truly be part of a team and understand what goes into that is noble enough. He saw first hand what it was like to work for a team built around the personality of a Tim Duncan — though the talent makes a difference — and knows plenty about what it takes to build and sustain a winning program.
There’s one problem with this line of tactics. The team has done little to prioritize merit-based evaluation outside of Noel’s case, and it dilutes the message.
Bryan Colangelo was brought in to help the Sixers “take the next step forward”. Insofar as he was gifted one of the best rookie big men of the last 30 years, he succeeded.
Elsewhere, he has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor in complete contradiction of what he is supposed to stand for. Colangelo’s candidacy hinged largely on one premise he laid out on his first day — "We need to start to change the narrative. This is a relationship business."
Colangelo certainly fostered “relationships” over the summer by handing out a lot of money to average veterans. As it turns out, appeasing agents doesn’t relieve the stress of players in a minutes (and money) crunch already on your roster. In the vein of a serial dater, he made the mistake of not tending to the relationship the team already had before picking out some new arm candy.
One of those fresh faces, assumed starter Jerryd Bayless, was plagued by a mysterious wrist injury to start the year. He missed the team’s first three games, suited up for three games in late November, and then abruptly got season-ending surgery three weeks after his last availability. On Bryan’s end, there was no discussion of the matter aside from a brief note in the team’s press release on the injury.
As the hosts in Sixersworld begin to revolt against the structure holding them in place, Colangelo continues to stay out of the spotlight. Instead, he continues the Hinkie-era practice of trotting Brown out time and time again, relying on the coach’s answers to determine the public’s perception of decision-making.
The public can’t get something small as a token quote from Colangelo. Not “we value all the members of our team and expect them to buy into the program,” not “I support Coach Brown’s decision to manage the rotation how he sees fit,” not even “we continue to assess the situation and will make moves that best serve the organization moving forward.” While the head coach publicly shames Noel for not being part of the team — and it was a public shaming, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong — the GM brought in to be a more accessible head of the operation has been content to sit out the festivities.
I don’t have an inherent problem with this, and think a GM risks more and more every time they speak. But if you want to demand a certain type of accountability from those around you, leading by example and being part of the daily conversation is a good place to start.
While many fans would like to untangle Noel and Jahlil Okafor from one another -- and believe it or not, I would too — doing so at this juncture is not possible or realistic. They are both centers. They were both top-10 picks. They both played a role in last season’s 10-win disaster. They shared the court together, spent time at different positions together, they are connected in every sense of the word.
Last November, the Sixers were mired in a record losing streak and attempting to play two ill-fitting pieces together. Frustration boiled over, and one of those players got into a street fight in Boston, an altercation outside of a Philadelphia nightclub, and was caught speeding on the Ben Franklin Bridge.
Framing Okafor’s legal trouble at the time, Brown went out of his way to spin the off-court attention into a positive:
This is a going to hit like a ton of bricks. This is a good wake-up call.
This is my personal opinion — I see this in a different light and if this is all going to come out and it’s going to hit him hard and because of the repetitive incidents that are now being revealed that are that dramatic, then this is a good thing.
If lessons are going to be learned and this 19-year-old man has to learn the responsibility of wearing a 76ers uniform and carrying an NBA logo, then it has to be done in the magnitude of the national media spotlight to make our point, then I say that’s not a bad thing. Let’s make our point. It is hard love.
Following a two-game suspension, Okafor returned to the team on December 7th, and saw his minutes return to their normal level in the very first game. His minutes remained steady, save injury issues, for the rest of the season.
Some would argue a suspension was enough to relay the message, but the timeline of events suggests otherwise. The first fight video surfaced on Thanksgiving, with more news piling in until reports came out on December 1st, revealing the Sixers had to assign a security detail for Okafor. The team took no action until December 2nd, hours after a second video of the Boston incident came to light. It seems clear the move was made primarily out of a desire to get out from under a tidal wave of negative publicity.
There’s no writing this off as a Hinkie-only thing, either. Management has changed, but the man coaching hasn’t. Under both Hinkie and Colangelo, Brown has had — if you take all parties at their word — a certain level of say in the team’s decision-making process. After Hinkie resigned in April, Brown said the following:
I know he's taking his hits all over the place, but he hired me. I was his partner. The very large majority of things we did, we did together. We'll move on.
In the midst of coaching rumors around the same time period, Colangelo spoke up too:
I told the ownership Brett Brown is the coach of this basketball team going forward. I left no question. Brett Brown deserves the opportunity. He toed the company line for the last three years, he’s done everything this organization needs him to do, he’s been in the community, coaching clinics, coaching kids. He’s a lifer. He’s a basketball guy.
I think Brett Brown is going to be a big driver in what we do.
The messenger for the players has not changed, but the message has. Neither of Okafor or Noel have been anything close to model citizens or model NBA players. Some of it is broader circumstance, some of it can be chalked up to personal failings. This doesn't make them bad people, and many of their mistakes stem from youth more than anything else.
But only one continues to get opportunities to both start and play his natural position, even when it pushes the team’s best player and franchise center into less effective lineups. When that’s the case, it’s easy to see why the other guy would speak out.
Despite all this, the Sixers are still in a much better place than they were a a year ago. The runaway success of Joel Embiid will quiet a lot of dissenters, and the return of Ben Simmons will provide an immense injection of talent midseason.
Nerlens Noel is not going to be a member of the 76ers much longer. Comments like his keep everyone on edge, and removing him from the equation will take a mental burden off others around the franchise.
But the problems don’t walk out the door with him. Contrary to popular belief, what you say and what you do both matter. You can’t say you want to open minutes for guys to play in their natural positions and then play two centers, Dario Saric at small forward, or Ersan Ilyasova at center. You can’t stress for three-plus years how you want to build a defensive identity and push tempo, only to exile your defensive specialist to give a post-player shooting 0-10 from the field more minutes. You can’t talk about earning back public trust if you’re going to remain in seclusion during crisis situations.
The Sixers’ mission at the moment, from the hardwood to the sales department, is to get people to “buy in”. They want the players to be an active part of what they’re building, and they want the public to believe, for the second time in a few years, that This Starts Now.
Nobody is going to listen if those claims aren’t connected to action. Maybe Noel’s benching is the start of that process. Until then, the team’s words have the same credibility as a doomsday predictor, wandering the streets a day after the apocalypse never came.