For so many of us long-suffering Sixers fans, the hiring of Sam Hinkie nearly three years ago marked a divergence from a path that had been uninspired, unpleasant, and, most importantly, unfruitful. We ignored Hinkie’s flaws and occasional miscues because he represented something that we had long yearned for – something different. That’s why many of us felt so uneasy by the unwelcome addition of Jerry Colangelo in an "advisory" role in December, and it’s why many more of us were furious when Hinkie eventually stepped down in the face of open flirtation from Colangelo and the team’s ownership group with a handful of potential hires, including Colangelo’s own son, Bryan.
We placed our faith in Hinkie, despite decreasing win totals in each of his three seasons with the team and a failure to acquire the superstar-level prospect this aggressive rebuild had been about (ed. note: Joel Embiid, if healthy, is that prospect). We trusted him because, unlike Billy King, Ed Stefanski, Rod Thorn, and Tony DiLeo, he had a discernible plan, a cogent process. And we trusted that, in time, it would yield the results we so craved.
Now, with Hinkie gone and Bryan Colangelo at the helm of the franchise, we don’t know who or what to trust, and whatever honeymoon period we once enjoyed with ownership is over. A recent online poll conducted by the Bucks County Courier Times found that 80.5% of respondents were "angry" at ownership about their handling of the Hinkie-Colangelo handoff. Another 8.3% said they were "a little annoyed", and only 6.6% said they were "glad it happened".
Many have turned their ire to the younger Colangelo himself, wondering loudly and frustratedly about the myriad ways in which his supposedly impetuous nature could blow the bright future created by Hinkie, whose three consecutive years of tanking re-stocked the team’s once-bare shelves with future draft picks, cap space, and young players. Will he overpay to lock up good-but-not-great players like Ish Smith longterm, the way Billy King did throughout his tenure? Will he blow valuable cap space on an oft-injured or potentially burnt-out star, like Ed Stefanski did with Elton Brand in 2008? Will he overpay in a blockbuster deal for a potential superstar, like the team did in dealing for Andrew Bynum during Tony DiLeo’s short-lived tenure as General Manager? Will he do… whatever it was that Rod Thorn did?
For many, Bryan Colangelo represents a return to the "old boys club" mentality of the regimes that predated Hinkie’s tenure, ones that eschewed the value of analytics, often chose optics over process, and hopelessly and pathetically straddled the #8 seed. But despite the fact that he shares a last name with the septuagenarian weasel who dismantled the process via Skype, Bryan Colangelo deserves a chance to show us what he’s all about before we dismiss him outright.
The fact of the matter is, for better or worse, he is the man taxed with turning the collection of assets cultivated by Sam Hinkie over the past three years into a cohesive and competitive team. We may not like the process that brought Jerry’s son to Philadelphia, but I’m not quite ready to assume the worst in terms of results. Here are a few reasons why I’m optimistic that Bryan Colangelo can successfully navigate the second stage of this rebuild:
His Track Record In The Draft Is Really Solid
1995: Michael Finley (#21), Mario Bennett (#27)
1996: Steve Nash (#15)
1999: Shawn Marion (#9)
2000: Jake Tsakalidis (#25)
2002: Amaré Stoudemire (#9), Casey Jacobson (#22)
2003: Žarko Čabarkapa (#17)
2004: Luol Deng (#7, traded to CHI)
2005: Nate Robinson (#21, traded to NYK)
2006: Andrea Bargnani (#1)
2008: Roy Hibbert (#17, traded to IND)
2009: DeMar DeRozan (#9)
2010: Ed Davis (#13)
2011: Jonas Valanciunas (#5)
2012: Terrence Ross (#8)
There are certainly some misses in there, especially in the latter portion of the first round, but it’s hard to deny that Colangelo did a pretty damn good job in the draft, especially in the top half of the first round. For as much grief as he gets for his tenure with the Raptors, that team’s core is comprised primarily of players acquired by Colangelo through the draft.
With the Sixers set to make at least three picks in this year’s draft, and potentially four if the Lakers fall outside the top three following the lottery, we’ll quickly get a sense of Colangelo’s ability to navigate the draft. And with a decent influx of picks coming in subsequent drafts, his success in this area could either make or break his tenure. With the exception of Andrea Bargnani, we’ve yet to see Colangelo whiff on a high pick (more on Bargs later), and in Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, Amaré Stoudemire, and DeMar DeRozan, he was able to find cornerstone players outside of the top-five.
His Phoenix Teams Were Lauded For Their Commitment To Sports Science
Over the past several seasons, the Sixers have been about as unlucky as a team can get when it comes to injuries, but it hasn’t been for lack of effort on the part of the franchise. Under Sam Hinkie, the organization made great strides in the area of sports science, investing in a boatload of equipment, trips to Qatar, and a state-of-the-art training facility set to open this fall. The team also hired renowned Australian Institute of Sport alum David T. Martin to serve as the team’s Director Of Performance Research & Development last summer. Under Bryan Colangelo, we should expect the same focus in that area.
During Colangelo’s time with the Suns, the organization was praised as one of the leaders in sports medicine, extending the careers of Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill, Steve Nash, and many others during their extended period of contention throughout the mid-2000s. His staff took a more holistic approach to treatment, incorporating aspects of kinesiology, functional anatomy, and nutrition into a program that invested a great deal of resources into staying ahead of the curve.
At a time when such a great deal of the Sixers’ future rests upon the navicular bone of one seven-foot tall man, it’s good to know that the man leading the charge understands the value of having an edge in the category of sports science.
He’s Somewhat Innovative In His Use Of Analytics
Despite his father being a contemptuous dinosaur who struggled to comprehend a letter literally written at an eighth-grade level, Bryan Colangelo is actually a fairly thoughtful and sharp executive. Throughout his career with the Suns and Raptors, he embraced advanced metrics and analytic tools, and Toronto was one of the first teams in the NBA to install SportVU cameras in their arena, in large part because of the influence of the younger Colangelo.
With the Suns, he had the foresight to hire and empower then-unproven coach Mike D’Antoni to institute his controversial run-and-gun scheme in Phoenix, sticking with him despite a 21-40 record during his first season at the helm. D’Antoni would go on to lead the Suns to a 232-96 (70.7%) record over the following four years, with the team finishing top-five in pace and threes attempted in each of those seasons. Today, the Suns’ 25-ish threes attempted per game under D’Antoni wouldn’t even crack the NBA’s top 10.
I’ve seen many people complain loudly that the departure of Hinkie will signal a return to the inefficient and archaic playing style of the Doug Collins-era Sixers. I don’t think that’s Colangelo’s intention, and I actually think his history suggests the opposite.
He Had The Balls To Take Andrea Bargnani And Jonas Valanciunas
One of the more unfortunate criticisms of Bryan Colangelo that I’ve seen thrown around since he was hired on April 10 is his ability to assess talent through the draft, with his infamous selection of Italian big man Andrea Bargnani first-overall in 2006 used as the crux of the argument. No, I’m not here to defend Bargnani, nor his selection over five-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, but I am going to say that the fact that Colangelo, in his first draft with the Raptors, was willing to swing for the fences and take a boom-or-bust prospect first-overall is admirable (ed. note: drafting Bargnani wasn’t the problem, but refusing to give up on him was).
Removing hindsight from the equation, I can totally understand why Bargnani was an attractive option for Toronto with the #1 pick. Because 2006 was the first year in which high schoolers were no longer allowed to jump directly to the NBA, that class was one of the weakest in recent memory, with Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas, and Shelden Williams rounding out the top five that year. In Bargnani, a 7’1" 20-year-old with three-point range and a decent post game, the hope was that he could fill out his frame and become a passable defender and rebounder. Instead, despite eventually topping out at 21.4 points per game during his fifth season, he never became much more than a one-dimensional scorer. Add to that Colangelo’s strategy to acquire non-American players in order to have a better chance of keeping them north of the border once they hit free agency, and the pick makes even more sense.
During Sam Hinkie’s tenure in Philadelphia, we appreciated his willingness to take short-term hits in service to the Sixers’ longterm goals. We saw it when he made Nerlens Noel his first major acquisition despite knowing that the highly touted big man would likely miss his entire rookie season while recovering from knee surgery. And he doubled down on that strategy in 2014, selecting injured center Joel Embiid third-overall and acquiring the draft rights to Dario Saric despite the point-forward’s three-year contract with Anadolu Efes of the Turkish Basketball League. While Bryan Colangelo has been brought in, in large part, to accelerate the Sixers’ rebuild, a move he made in 2011 should make you feel a bit better about his willingness to delay gratification when necessary.
Coming off a disappointing 22-60 season in the wake of Chris Bosh’s departure from Toronto to join LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami, the Raptors held the fifth-overall pick in the 2011 Draft. Colangelo had just been signed to a two-year contract extension, and the pressure was on from ownership for him to turn things around quickly. It would have been easy for him to have gone for an NBA-ready prospect like Kemba Walker (selected ninth) or a flashy name like Jimmer Fredette (selected 10th). Instead, he took Jonas Valanciunas, a talented big man still under contract with Lietuvos Rytas in his native Lithuania.
The Raptors were made to wait a year on Valanciunas, who missed the entirety of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season while playing overseas before coming over the following summer. The seven-footer has since become a key piece on a 50+ win Raptors team. Unfortunately, Colangelo never saw the fruits of his selection, as he was let go in May of 2013.
This past year, we saw another seven-foot foreigner with deft touch but an undeveloped frame look dominant at times as a rookie with the New York Knicks. And I think all of us are thankful that Hinkie selected Nerlens Noel back in 2013 instead of settling for Ben McLeMore or Trey Burke. When swinging for the fences, it can go either way, as we’ve seen play out with Joel Embiid. But I for one would rather have a GM who’s willing to take a shot at the next Giannis Antetkounmpo than one who’d happily take Kelly Olynyk two spots earlier.
It remains to be seen what Colangelo will do this summer and what role ownership will play in mandating moves be made. All we can do at this point is hope that his track record and his words align with his actions.
"With regard to that future, I just want to be very clear that this is not about a departure from a process, departure from a strategy. This is a moving forward with everything that’s already been established, everything that’s in place and we’re going to be measured in the continued building of this organization."
– Bryan Colangelo (April 10, 2016)