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Interview with ‘Tanking to the Top’ Author Yaron Weitzman

This interview has been condensed for our readership.

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Philadelphia 76ers V Utah Jazz Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Midday on Monday, March 9, 2020, Bleacher Report scribe and newly minted author Yaron Weitzman was kind enough to make time to speak with me on the phone. At this point, the NBA’s league office, board of governors and collective ownership counsel were merely in the fact-finding stage about what (if any) precautions needed to be taken as the virus COVID-19 (coronavirus) gradually spread. There were disparate murmurs of the potentiality of NBA games taking place without any fans in the crowd, if the virus continued to spread and large group gatherings became strictly prohibited. This was long before the Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder game was halted moments prior to tip-off, long before Rudy Gobert and then Donovan Mitchell were diagnosed with coronavirus, long before this:

Every major sport was still in session or on schedule.

A week ago, a 45-minute conversation about the NBA could take place without total ignorance of the next time a game in the league would be played.

It is in that space and time that I spoke with Mr. Weitzman.

Tomorrow, Yaron’s book, Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports becomes available for purchase. The book is a compendium of the writer’s years of digging, researching and investigating the inner-workings of the Process-era Sixers. Within the book — which, if you’re reading this article on this website, you will absolutely love — Weitzman shines unprecedented light on Sam Hinkie, Josh Harris, Joel Embiid, Brett Brown and any other recent Sixers hero or villain of consequence.

In our chat, he shared with me some behind-the-scenes details of the process of writing the book and a few exclusive pearls prior to its release.

Can you compare this [book] to anything else in your writing career? How this is so polarizing within the organization you were writing about?

That’s a good question. I’d done things before where people are not interested in talking to me. Sebastian Telfair — when the first news of ... stuff came out with him, I did a kind of ‘what happened here,’ ‘where are they now?’ kind of story, and he was not interested in talking at all. After the story went up, he sent me an Instagram message. I’ve had people like that before. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a thing I was working where a person/organization in this case told people who are involved not to speak with me. That’s pretty rare.

They [Sixers FO] didn’t go as far as to try to revoke your credential or anything, right?

No, and that’s what I’m trying to be careful about. I’m being critical of Sixers PR in a lot of these interviews I’m doing, but I’ve gotta be very fair. I was there, they let me do my day job. I never had my credential revoked and they allowed me to come and do my day job and report as I wanted.

You were around the team a lot the past few years and I think one thing that I haven’t heard — did you do any research or investigation on the team’s gastroenteritis problem?

(laugh) I did not, no.

I need you to turn over some rocks, get back in there and figure it out. Because it’s a rampant problem, they are all shitting constantly, and I don’t know what to do about it.

Maybe it’s the Chick-fil-A.

Is there a nugget [from the book] that hasn’t been coming up in interviews that comes to mind that you’d like to share?

(Weitzman scans through his notes of excerpts he had prepared for promoting the book)

I love how Bryan Colangelo sort of helped sell Jimmy Butler on the Sixers.

What happened?

“Lee” is Bernie Lee- Jimmy Butler’s agent, friend of Bryan Colangelo. Courtesy: Yaron Weitzman, Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.
Courtesy: Yaron Weitzman, Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.

So, there’s two ways to think about this. One is that Colangelo had confidence that Butler would come in and erode the team within it, sort of a ‘long game.’ The other way to think about it is that it’s because his entire staff still remains with the Sixers that he would speak highly of them.

Yeah, and I’m sure he still probably viewed — this is pure conjecture — that his legacy would be tied somewhat to the Sixers, right? Even if the Butler story never gets out, maybe the Sixers win the championship and he thinks, ‘I’ll be part of that story.’

Sure, he would get his own parade float for talking to Jimmy Butler. After Colangelo was ousted — they do this investigation that, I think, was two weeks that felt like a year — how unprecedented is it that after this GM leaves in disgrace, that the owner [Joshua Harris] puts down this mandate that the new GM cannot hire their own people?

That’s pretty unprecedented, I would say. That’s not common. [Most executives] bring their own people. I feel like, there’s so many different things going on in that front office — it’s a different setup — and I do believe, this is an educated guess, that [this was] Joshua Harris [saying] ‘I can make basketball decisions with everyone that’s here. We’ll just move forward like this. I have these basketball guys I trust. Elton Brand’s the NBA guy, Alex Rucker’s my numbers guy, Brett’s been here forever. I’m smart enough, I know what I’m doing now.’

That sounds like it. So, after Hinkie resigned, [Jerry] Colangelo’s already in-house, [the Sixers] put out a lie about how they interviewed 75 people within, like, a 36-hour span, and instead they choose the nearest relative of Jerry, which is Bryan. Were you able to hear about anybody they actually did interview in that period of time? Was it all a farce? There was a report that they were planning to interview Danny Ferry.

Josh Harris almost hired [Danny Ferry] before Hinkie, because he liked the idea of emulating what the Spurs had — Ferry was a Spurs executive. Danny Ferry knew Brett Brown from the San Antonio days. So Brett wanted people selling Ferry to ownership, because Brett really wanted the Sam thing to work out. He knew Sam had great value but also knew he was in trouble, and thought Ferry could come in and help. Ferry was interested, him and Hinkie knew each other a little bit, they had respect for each other. He didn’t want to take Sam’s job, he wanted to make sure that Sam would be okay with it. They wanted to do two GMs, basically. It would be Sam and it would be Ferry. They spent a lot of time working over org charts, who would be reporting to who, stuff like that. Ferry, Sam considered. The Bryan thing, he did not. I think he thought, ‘the co-GM thing, if one of us is the president’s son, [it’s] not a co-GM thing.’ With Danny Ferry, he was willing to listen [and] hear it out. But Ferry ended up taking too long. They couldn’t work out the details. I’m guessing what happened in the end was like: co-GM is fine, but someone’s gotta get the final call.

Steve Nash Press Conference Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Right, ‘who has final say,’ that’s the big thing.

So, yeah, the Ferry thing was a real thing. That was real.

What about when the Sixers brought in Mike D’Antoni as an assistant for Brett? And you talk in the book about Brett’s failures as a disciplinarian— do you know if they were close at any point to firing Brett in favor of D’Antoni?

I don’t know — so, [Adrian Wojnarowski] got the report, after Burnergate that [firing Brett in favor of D’Antoni] was Colangelo’s plan. I was told that was never the plan. Mike D’Antoni did not take that job expecting to be named head coach in six months. That’s not how it was explained to him. It wasn’t like some master plan being pulled. Does that mean it isn’t what [Jerry and Bryan] wanted to do? I don’t know. D’Antoni had a funny disposition. He was walking around the locker room after they won a game saying ‘Man, I’m good at this, guys!’ Being sarcastic a little bit. But was this a plan to undercut Brett somehow? I don’t know, it could’ve been. It was never explained like that to me.

What about the Okafor pick? This was a Hinkie pick but he just doesn’t seem like a Hinkie player. As a Hinkie apologist and devout follower, I look at it through rose-colored glasses and say this is a [Joshua] Harris thing, encroaching on [Hinkie’s] control. Did you have any reporting on that?

No, I think it was mostly a Hinkie pick. The draft wasn’t great, right? They wanted [D’Angelo] Russell. I know they weren’t ecstatic about Okafor, they wanted D’Angelo Russell. Because they wanted a point guard, they had a couple bigs. They had questions about [Kristaps] Porzingis.

And Porzingis wouldn’t work out for them. (Note: In other interviews to promote the book, Yaron revealed a story about Porzingis and his agent going to great lengths to ensure the Sixers did not see him up close and become tempted to draft him.)

And they knew that. [But] Okafor didn’t work out for the Sixers either and they still took him. It’s hard because Hinkie didn’t have a great relationship with Andy Miller, who was [Porzingis and] Nerlens Noel’s agent. And even if Hinkie knew he was being given the runaround a little bit by Porzingis not working out for them — one of Hinkie’s big things is that everything’s a data point — maybe if Porzingis worked out for them, they are wowed. It doesn’t mean they didn’t consider him, it just means it took away the ability for them to learn something else, too. Which is something that he values. The Okafor pick — I think Hinkie would always say, ‘we have three guys, we have three bigs, if we get Hakeem [Olajuwon], [Tim] Duncan and [Karl] Malone that’s a good problem to have.’ I think it was a value pick. ‘We’ll take him and deal with it later’.

San Antonio Spurs v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The problem with Okafor really ended up being that Sam resigned and then they sort of sit on their hands with Nerlens and Jahlil and they don’t trade either of them until their value is so low that they basically get nothing for the two of them. So I think that, if anything, Hinkie would have moved off of Nerlens or Okafor sooner.

For sure. And Okafor — the off-court stuff makes it harder. If he didn’t have off-court stuff maybe you can trade him. There’s something there, right?

Yeah. Those reports about Jahlil just sort of, one came after the other, and it just started to look like it was all stacking up against Hinkie and the whole culture around it.

Yes, that’s pretty much the straw that broke the camel’s back. All these other rumors were swirling around, and the Okafor saga just kind of broke the dam, that was it.

Do you have an opinion on a sliding doors timeline if Sam had stayed on and nobody in the Colangelo family had come in? In terms of the big moves like [Jimmy] Butler, and [Tobias] Harris and [Al] Horford, do you have an opinion on which of those he would’ve followed through with?

That’s a good question. It’s impossible to say. It’s hard to imagine him making the [Markelle] Fultz deal, just because he traded two picks. Obvious awful deal. I do think, to be fair to Bryan Colangelo, if Markelle Fultz turned out to be the player that literally everyone, it seems, except for Danny Ainge and the Celtics thought he would be, that’s literally the player the Sixers need. A big, scoring point guard who can shoot a little bit.

It’s Shake Milton.

The process, in a way, was not off in that. The results were bad. But they pinged the right [type of] guy. But in terms of using those assets, using an extra lottery pick to move up in the draft was probably not something Hinkie would have done. His whole idea was [that] it’s a crapshoot, I want more swings at the plate. Horford and Harris were so far past [Hinkie’s tenure] that it’s impossible to say, it’s so far through the sliding doors. It’s almost a separate question, right? What would have happened had Hinkie not resigned in 2016? And then it’s, if Hinkie was re-hired in this magical scenario this [past] summer, what would he have done? I don’t know the answer to that.

The Markelle thing — as much as we criticize Colangelo, I don’t know how anyone could have predicted what ended up happening. The players and the coaches were outwardly very supportive of him, even when he was sort of stomping his feet in public and on social media. Were there any players or coaches who went after him [behind] closed doors, or was he as supported in the locker room as he was publicly?

No, the players all had his back. They kind of recognized what was going on. JJ Redick, remember, he yelled at the media. They knew that it was a weird situation and the players had his back. Brett was frustrated. I have a story [in the book] where [Sixers executive] Marc Eversley called [Fultz’s trainer] Keith Williams and goes ‘That’s not the fucking kid we drafted.’ Brett was frustrated about what was going on, for sure.

Even to the media, at one point Brett was asked, ‘When are you going to put Markelle on the floor?’ And in a rare moment of, I think, public frustration was like ‘I’m going to put him on the floor when he can shoot a basketball.’

Yes, Brett does that. Every now and then he’ll give a glimpse of what his real feelings are, and then he hides and goes back to doing really good PR work. And then he’ll kind of say ‘No, I never said that.’ I think they were frustrated by the way it was handled by the Fultz team. If you remember — this is the next year — Raymond Brothers, who’s Fultz’s agent, I think they told David Aldridge of The Athletic that Fultz would be missing time again for whatever. And the Sixers learned it via The Athletic. And you saw Elton Brand, he comes out for a press conference in the Sixers practice facility and you could just see on his face, him saying ‘I’m done with this shit. We don’t agree with this.’ He didn’t say that, but it was very clear that he did not agree with what Raymond Brothers and Fultz were saying and not happy with how it was playing out.

Phoenix Suns v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

I mean, at one point, Brothers put out a report that they were putting fluid into the shoulder and it was actually them taking— it was just a nightmare. So, Colangelo, or Barbara [Bottini, Colangelo’s wife] whoever you choose to believe, was going after Fultz and [they] also went after Embiid. Do you know much about Embiid’s reaction, personally, when the Burnergate thing happened? He obviously replied in the way that he does on Twitter, but do you know anything about how he reacted amongst the team?

In the moment, no, I don’t have anything separate other than was reported already. I have a few extra details here [about Burnergate], like about how Colangelo kind of learned — well, he knew it was coming — but the story went live while he was at something in LA and other executives could see him cueing up the story on his phone. [They could see] the green background of The Ringer. People could see him reading [the piece] and then walking out.

Do you know how much, if any, acrimony exists between Joel and the owners for everything that’s happened?

That’s, like, a thing people have been saying, right? Where does that come from?

I think a lot of where it comes from is that he’s said a lot of times who his best friend is on the team. When Nerlens was here, Nerlens was his best friend on the team— they traded him. When Justin Anderson was here, those guys were best friends— he’s gone. He talked a lot about how Redick was his favorite player to play with— Redick’s gone. And then Jimmy [Butler] was his best friend — and even bleeding into this year, Joel’s talking about how much he loves Jimmy — and they don’t get him back. And then when you loop in that Joel and Hinkie clearly had some level of kinship, dealing with what they dealt with personally together, and then Sam’s gone. And then this guy comes in who is privately talking shit about him and his injuries and telling him to get on the court and being completely ridiculous— and then he leaves but his whole staff stays. I think a lot of people connect the dots and say, ‘I wonder if Joel has a real problem with the people at the very top.’

So, I have never heard anything of significance about that. The other way I go— him and Michael Rubin are very close. As of my writing of my book — and Michael Rubin, I know, is a minority partner — but that’s as close as any player and owner can get. Like, they go on vacation together.

And you have mentioned about Joel and Ben [Simmons]’s relationship— and there are fans who will say it’s nothing, and then people on the other end of it saying they need to be separated because they’re not friends — the read that I have, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, is that they’re not best friends and they have very different personalities, but they generally seem to like each other and enjoy playing with each other and understand how good the other one is. Is that basically where that lines up for you?

Yeah, I think the people who are most wrong are the people who will tweet a clip of them slapping five after a game and be like, ‘Imagine saying that these two can’t play together.’ And it’s like, that’s ridiculous. You’re ignorant to what’s going on. But is it the kind of thing where there has to be a breakup? I don’t think so. And it does stem from the on-court fit, and that’s a legitimate conversation to have. I think one of the things that happened this year is that, as a basketball fan and as someone who’s devoted so much time to this story and thinking about those two, I’m kind of frustrated that the roster construction has not worked so much that it’s almost like we’re not even at the point where we can talk about Ben and Joel. Like there are five steps they have to get to for them to end up playing well [together]. They’re the two best things [the Sixers] have going. I almost feel like [their relationship] is like the college roommate you don’t love, but you grow to have respect for. You live with a person, they follow you around sometimes, some of their habits can drive you crazy, he might be passive-aggressive a little bit. But later on you’ve gone through a lot so you grow a respect for each other. It’s really funny, the two of them have made so many passive-aggressive remarks about each other, that [in New York] it would be on the back page of the [NY] Post. But then it’s after a game and Simmons says, ‘I think we’re going through one guy too much’ and no one bats an eye. I was in Miami this year, it was that weird overtime loss [December 28] and I think Simmons said something about them not giving full effort early on, I don’t remember exactly. And then a reporter asked Embiid and Embiid said, ‘Who said that?’ And they said ‘Ben’ and he kind of rolled his eyes. And it doesn’t turn into a story. So it doesn’t mean that they hate each other, but there’s stuff, right?

And Embiid has mentioned a couple times, like, ‘I’m shooting more 3s than I want to, we all have to shoot’ with a wink toward, ‘Ben oughta shoot.’

Right, so it’s been explained to me that they’re not best friends but there’s no big fight, no one’s in there throwing punches or shoves or whatever. I do think, this year, maybe they’re coming together a little more given all the dysfunction around them.

Right and maybe what’s been happening is that they can look around at so many other reasons that the team isn’t what it should be before they get to each other. They are so far down the list on reasons that they’re not title contenders today.

Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Josh Harris was at the Sloan Analytics Conference. Outside of his magnetic charm and charisma, do you have any comment on what Josh said? He made a quip about Markelle, which is, just, really reading the room. And he also talked about how people need to have more patience than, oftentimes, they do— which must be another joke.

(laughs) The thing that struck me going back and looking at the whole timeline together is like — and I use this example a lot — when Josh Harris bought the team in 2011, he referred to it as ‘a unique business opportunity’ at his introductory press conference. It kind of fit his business model, private equity model: finding value where others don’t see it. Buying low, essentially. And then, last year, he’s on the podium introducing Tobias Harris and Al Horford. Josh Harris is in the middle of the dais talking about how the starting five fit together from a basketball standpoint. That’s a big transformation for a guy who thought this was a good business opportunity. So I think he’s greatly enjoyed owning an NBA team and running an NBA team.

I’ll give you one more and it’s a hypothetical. You can ask one question and get a truthful answer from any of these people: Sam Hinkie, Bryan Colangelo and Josh Harris. Who would you ask and what would you ask?

That’s a good question, I have so many. The first one is just the Burnergate question for Bryan Colangelo.

That came to my mind. Like who exactly was running @enoughunkownsources?

Right, or just: why? The problem is that would almost be torturous if I could only get one about Burnergate. To be honest, Josh Harris? I think I have a good read on him. I don’t have much I need to add. I guess, I’d love to know the order of operations of someone like Jimmy Butler leaving. I feel like I know [enough about] Josh Harris and I’m not so curious about him.

The other two are much more reclusive, especially now.

Yeah. Bryan would be — if you put it on any NBA writer — the guy, if you could write an all-access profile on any single person, I think Bryan would be at the top of my list. Anyone in the NBA universe? He might be number one. [As for] Hinkie, he talks about getting different views and different perspectives. You don’t want people who [all] think the same way in the room. And he didn’t do that [with the Sixers], and I would love to know why. The main group was him, Sachin [Gupta] and Ben Falk. And those are three guys that come from — they’re different, obviously — but they think about the game in a specific way. And, an Elton Brand type, to throw him in that executive suite to talk about the draft or trades, I think it would’ve been useful. And I don’t know why — I feel like Hinkie’s preached a lot about different perspectives and they didn’t have it. I would’ve loved to hear why not.

Philadelphia 76ers V Detroit Pistons Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

My immense thanks to Yaron Weitzman for taking the time to speak with me. His incredibly illuminating book, Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports is available Tuesday, March 17. You can buy the book here, here, and here.

Follow Yaron’s work at Bleacher Report and @YaronWeitzman on Twitter.

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