Bryan Colangelo's two months as General Manager of the 76ers have been remarkably newsworthy, especially for a team that won a collective 47 games over the last three years. The team announced progress on their new, state-of-the-art training facility, they secured the #1 overall pick for the first time since 1996, and Embiid's health has improved as hoped. Everything seems to be coming up Sixers, and that's great news for a franchise desperately in need of some positivity after a tough three years, and an unremarkably mediocre decade prior.
Still, with all the talent in the pipeline and the incredible assets the Sixers' still have in reserve-- the rights to Dario Saric, the Lakers' Top 3 protected pick, the Sacramento pick swaps and 2019 pick-- there remains a lot of navigation to successfully traverse from Point A (10 win team) to Point B (annual champion contender). And while Colangelo has been provided as strong a head start as can be expected, he's going to have to make shrewd, winning trades and avoid strategic pitfalls in order to get there.
I maintain that Colangelo deserves the benefit of the doubt as a General Manager until he accumulates a history of moves upon which he can be judged. Even if his Toronto tenure was anything but encouraging, the hope that he has learned from his mistakes is legitimate, and there is very little that would thrill me more than seeing a top-tier GM in charge of this organization. He deserves to be given the chance to be evaluated on his own terms, on the moves that he makes to turn this promising group into a bona fide contender. Still, as more information about his draft preparation has come to light, I've begun to see some cracks in the armor, and they've exacerbated some of my preconceived impressions about Colangelo's weaknesses as a GM.
I went on the Sixers Beat earlier this week with Derek Bodner and Rich Hofmann and accidentally voiced some concerns that encapsulate why Colangelo may not succeed. We were discussing the Sixers' big man logjam, and what return values we would find acceptable for Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor. My two suggestions for trading Okafor were for a return of the 3rd overall pick in this year's draft, where I would be happy to either take Dragan Bender, a versatile, high-IQ big man with quick feet and smart defensive instincts, or to trade down and grab two picks from either the Suns or the Nuggets, in an attempt to diversify the teams' draft picks and increase the probability of hitting on one of them.
While the three of us agreed that these were options we'd undertake if we were managing the Sixers', we also quickly put them to bed, as it has become very clear that Colangelo is not interested in either. The Sixers have shown very little interest in Bender, declining to even work him out; as for trading down, Colangelo has stated that there are 6 or 7 players he's interested in, and that he wants to trade back into the Top 8, specifically changing a question about the Top 10 to stipulate that qualification, and also signaling a lack of interest in picks in the late lottery and teens.
As a concept, this is fine. Colangelo and his team may evaluate prospects entirely differently from how I do, and it's well within the realm of possibility that they are right and I am not. It's perfectly possible for them to get a great player who fits with the team in the Top 8, and that I'm thrilled with the move in a year or two.
The problem is in the thought *wait for it* process. By focusing on these specific goals to the exclusion of others, Colangelo does the team, and himself, a disservice. In addition, he reduces his leverage in trade talks by cluing other teams into his thinking. Rather than increasing his options and confusing media and opponents about his true intentions, Colangelo is narrowing the number of acceptable choices and telegraphing the manner in which he builds the team. It may not prevent or even hurt the end goal, but it certainly can't help it. This is the same sort of obvious yearning that led to Rob Hennigan's poorly-fated 2014 draft, in which Hinkie took Hennigan's player, then got a second player and value for him. Why would Colangelo want to subject himself to this possibility?
On the other hand, why not at least bring Dragan Bender in for a workout? He has been in the Top 5 of mock drafts for a solid year, some smart writers have even had him as high as first at separate points in the year, and his skillset hypothetically meshes with Simmons', Noel's, and Embiid's. Even if you are lower on his potential, what is there to be lost by bringing him to Philadelphia and seeing his skills for yourself? If he impresses, you can re-asses your evaluation of him. If he doesn't, you've muddled the signals to your competitors by showing you're at least interested in taking him, and then you can promptly ignore him, even as you maintain a veneer of interest.
The same applies to limiting your options in the lottery. Even if you only like 6 or 7 prospects, why not perpetuate a relative interest in many more players? By refusing to entertain prospects beyond those 7, or even beyond the 8th pick, Colangelo is closing off a multitude of trade options and possibilities, many of which could wind up benefitting the team down the road.
When Zach Lowe wrote about the Hornets last summer, one passage about their draft day decision to turn down the Celtics' offer for Justise Winslow stood out to me (emphasis mine):
You have two minutes to decide: ‘Do I want to do this trade? You don’t have a day. You don’t have hours. After all the intelligence we’d done, we were comfortable with Frank. But now you have two minutes to decide if you make this trade, who you’re gonna take at no. 16, or maybe no. 20, and we haven’t been focusing on that range. In fantasy basketball, it sounds great: ‘Oh my god, they could have gotten all those picks.’ But in the real world, I’m not sure it makes us better.
If the Hornets had prepared for that portion and the draft, determined the trade proposal wasn't going to make them better in the long run, and turned it down, that would have been sound reasoning. But that's not why they turned it down. They turned it down because they weren't prepared to draft in that range. They hadn't "been focusing" on the players they might receive in that deal, and were forced to turn it down because of a lack of confidence, not because they preferred their own situation.
And that is exactly the type of situation I worry about Colangelo running into. By limiting his options and sharing his opinions with the media, he lowers his knowledge of the draft as a whole, and prevents the Sixers from taking advantage of potentially rash offers like the Celtics' to the Hornets. He reduces his leverage in trade talks with competitors and closes the door unnecessarily early on possibilities that could eventually help the Sixers over the long whole.
It's entirely possible that the Sixers' big man problem will resolve nicely, and that we'll be pleased with the results of the Sixers' roster building. But if I'm judging Colangelo by the same standards to which I held Sam Hinkie, I'd be worried about his thought process. Until he shows the sort of attention to the draft as a whole necessary to take advantage of underprepared trade partners, I'll remain anxious about his guiding of this franchise.