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“Tanking to the Top” offers clues as to why so many Sixers fans no longer trust the process

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Washington Wizards v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

I finally got to reading Yaron Weitzman’s new book Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. In case you missed it our own Steve Lipman got the chance to interview Weitzman, a reporter for Bleacher Report, back in mid-March. The book was an awesome read. I may have originally opened it excited for juicy tidbits about Sam Hinkie and Joel Embiid. But one of the book’s most fascinating surprise themes is about the team’s Managing Partner, Josh Harris, and the braintrust he’s assembled for key b-ball decisions. After I’d read those parts I asked myself: wait, did the Sixers actually get to “the top” of anything? If not, why not?

So many fans have lost trust in the team’s “process” recently. Our former writer Adam Aaronson put it bluntly: incompetence personified, it starts at the top. Now Weitzman’s book also casts an ominous spotlight at “the top” of the Sixers org chart.

Here are 12 quotes and my takeaways on this theme from Tanking to the Top:

1) The days of [Josh Harris] describing the Sixers as ‘a really exciting business opportunity,’ like he had during his introductory press conference after buying the team in 2011, were long gone.”

Weitzman’s book describes an evolution where Harris, a private equity mogul, may have originally seen his team as just another “business opportunity” in a greater portfolio. But then he seems to “step out from the shadows” and transition into the much more hands-on role he has now.

2) “Josh Harris had been more involved in the team’s basketball operations than ever before. He’d negotiated the [Jimmy] Butler trade. He often met with [Elton] Brand after games.”

Now I loved the Jimmy Butler acquisition. I know some people are not fans of his. But landing Jimmy was probably the best decision the team made since the Harris-Blitzer era began in 2011, if we exclude the Sam Hinkie years; certainly better than any big moves the duo made before Hinkie (like Andrew Bynum) or after (like Bryan Colangelo or Al Horford). Still, it can be unsettling for fans to hear an owner is personally engaging in big trade negotiations. Right Knicks fans? More on that later in point 5.

3) The book describes Harris as a “data-driven” executive who is “infatuated” with the Spurs. Maybe Harris’ goal was to try to create a blend of Daryl Morey’s analytically-sound Rockets and Gregg Popovich’s exemplary-in-every-facet Spurs when the team hired Sam Hinkie as Prez and eventually Brett Brown as head coach. These are truly great models, so what got in the way? Point 4 is a clue.

4) Weitzman also talks about how “Harris had always been susceptible to persuasion as an NBA owner.” And this trait, the book implies, may have led to some key decisions that are...erm… anything but Spurs like.

5) Speaking of Harris being impressionable, one executive, who really seems to have Harris’ ear is team CEO Scott O’Neil. From the book:

“O’Neil, meanwhile, held aspirations of being more than just a marketing guru. ‘He wanted to be the guy that could run both basketball and the business side,’ said a well-connected NBA Insider.”

Weitzman even traces O’Neil’s days back to his time with the Knicks when he designed some (failed) pitches for free agents like LeBron James and lobbied team owner James Dolan to trade for Carmelo Anthony. Dolan ignored his own team Prez Donnie Walsh who preached patience, and negotiated the deal himself. Not surprisingly, Denver’s Ujiri Masai fleeced Dolan, who would later come to regret his decision. Surely the Sixers wouldn’t actually model the Knicks “owner-plus-O’Neil-as-marketing-wiz-making huge-b-ball-decisions” model, right?

6) On O’Neil vs. Hinkie: ahh yes, the infamous Michael Carter-Williams trade! The book discusses how O’Neil had recently designed a marketing campaign featuring MCW days before he was traded. Weitzman writes: “O’Neil was embarrassed. Furious too. Whatever semblance of a relationship that had once existed between him and Hinkie was now broken. O’Neil began voicing his displeasure- to Harris, but also to the NBA.” [1]

7) Now Hinkie’s days were numbered. “Harris had been drowning under the complaints for months, from O’Neil, who wanted a more linear path, and from others throughout the league as well, and he began pushing Hinkie for markers of progress.” [2]

Here marks a pivotal Sixers cross-roads. Does Josh Harris stick with his vision for a Rockets-Spurs modeled team or does he listen to the business exec who was reportedly upset when the team traded a fringe NBA player for an unprotected lottery pick? [3] What’s the perfect emoji for ‘you know how this part goes’? Insert here.

8) Weitzman discusses how O’Neil’s relentless “complaints” paid off and he was able to convince Harris to open a dialogue with O’Neil’s long-time colleague and friend, League Commish, Adam Silver. Silver, being very persuasive, suggested they bring on Popovich’s number one enemy at the time, Jerry Colangelo. I think any dreams of modeling the Spurs were probably toast around that point. Jerry certainly wasn’t going to recommend they hire any Spurs’ executives.

9) Jerry Colangelo was probably the most persuasive of all. Miraculously, he was somehow able to persuade Harris to hire his son Bryan, who had been fired in Toronto in part, the book points out, for fielding the league’s least efficient payroll.

Had Harris tuned out O’Neil, tuned out Silver, and tuned out Colangelo and continued his original idea to try to model and hire people from Houston or San Antonio, who knows.

The book reminded me of the Zach Lowe report that the Spurs and Warriors back then were literally campaigning for teams to hire Sean Marks over Bryan Colangelo!!! So the Nets listened to those executive dudes who now have the combined 8 rings. Harris listened to the dudes suggesting he hire Jerry Colangelo’s unemployed son. Whoops. Spurs disciple Marks has turned a lot of nothing into something in Brooklyn. Bryan Colangelo went on to become a case-study in asset-squandering and Twitter mismanagement.

This cascade of heeding horrific advice has made for some pretty painful memories for fans. BUT some really entertaining reading. Check out the chapters on Bryan Colangelo, meniscus-gate, Markelle Fultzgate, Burnergate…. This stuff is still all so surreal! I’m trying to spoil as little as possible here and stick to stuff you probably knew about already.

10) OK so where do we stand now? As fans we often hear that the Sixers current front office “has a lot of voices.” So who the heck are they? You remember how Keith Pompey of The Inky put it just before Elton Brand was hired as GM:

“...they want a name general manager. But they’re also looking for someone who doesn’t have the final say, so to speak. They want to do it all like a group decision.”

It sounded extremely Knicks’ like at the time. Remember how New York couldn’t land David Griffin because Dolan wanted to foist his own guys (from previously failed regime’s) onto a GM who wouldn’t have total power? Yeah, not the most enticing offer if you want the best candidate available from an exemplary organization.

Tanking to the Top goes there too: “Unlike Hinkie and Colangelo, Brand was not given the title of team president. Harris made clear that Brand would be reporting to him.” Hmmm did Harris just give himself a whopping promotion at that point?

11) And at another point in the book:

“Brand would be the face of management and officially billed as the team’s top decision maker, but [now Executive Vice President of B-Ball Ops, Alex Rucker] would also have Harris’ ear.” Some fans have suspected that Rucker, with an analytics background, has had plenty of say when it comes to team decision making.

With every report we slowly get a clearer picture of how this team makes decisions. Here was how Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN described the Sixers front office structure a summer ago (basically the same front office that Woj said was “out of the Jimmy Butler business” but, we can infer, all in on the Al Horford business):

“…There are a lot of voices in Philadelphia. Elton Brand is a General Manager and he is in charge but you’ve got multiple owners, you have other strong voices in the front office and on the business side, and sometimes this conversation goes round and round there because there isn’t an easy answer….”

12) More clues. Weitzman offers a description of the scene before Tobias Harris was acquired in February of 2019:

“After the game [Brett] Brown was pulled into a room in the Wells Fargo Center. Brand, Harris, his partner David Blitzer, CEO Scott O’Neil, and Rucker were already seated.”

This is pretty intriguing stuff. This group of Harris and Blitzer, the private equity billionaires, O’Neil, (likely who Woj means when he says strong voices “on the business side”) then Elton Brand, Brett Brown and Alex Rucker appear to be the team’s top voices today. Brett went on to reveal the room reached a consensus on the decision to bring on Tobias Harris.

When we hear Josh Harris use buzz words about a collaborative or mosaic front office that builds towards consensus it sounds like this is their core. [4]

And so here we are. The voices most responsible for teaming up Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Robert Covington, (plus tons of great future lottery picks from other teams) are now pretty much all gone. They wouldn’t collaborate with the business side and that was no fun. Now most of the folks in the current war room either hired a Colangelo or were hired by a Colangelo.

Tanking to the Top helps obsessive fans like me get a clearer picture of how this happened. From originally hoping to model the Spurs, to heeding poor advice from people whose incentives may not have been the Sixers winning a title, but instead been things like: marketing, or PR and preventing blatant tanking, or getting my son hired....

I don’t get the sense that this particular room has the track record of success to outwit the likes of a Ujiri Masai, Bob Myers, Gregg Popovich, Daryl Morey, Danny Ainge, Jerry West, Sam Presti or Pat Riley and whichever team of very smart people those guys choose to collaborate with. And that’s why it’s pretty hard for fans to trust this current process.

Footnotes

[1] Here is what WIP Radio and Rights to Ricky Sanchez Pod Spike Eskin had to say a year ago on this same subject in his “Enemies of the Process” pod:

“Within the Sixers’ organization [Scott O’Neil] is the single most responsible person for Sam Hinkie not being in charge of the Sixers anymore....he is more involved in basketball operations than he should be…. the window from ownership to the front office is him….he is very important to ownership….the minute that Sam decided to trade [Carter-Williams] after the season-ticket packages had come out and [O’Neill] told the owners it would cause “armageddon in Philadelphia” ... was the minute that Sam Hinkie wrote his ticket to not being in charge of the Sixers anymore.”

[2] Ew. Markers for progress?! Our sibling site at SB Nation for the Spurs is called Pounding the Rock. It’s not just a fun hoops pun. It’s from the ole stonecutter’s creedo that Gregg Popovich is famous for sharing with his dynasty. The team’s doctrine is literally about how you don’t need visible markers of progress to win big:

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.

-Jacob Riis

[3] That pick would come from the Lakers who lost more games than any team in the NBA over a 5 year period (start of the 2013-2014 season through the end of the 2017-2018 season) that includes the Sixers’ brutal Process seasons. It was a truly great pick to nab for a guy like MCW. It may not have been the best move for marketing and PR at the time but it was the best basketball move.

[4] They recently added Rob Newson with a military leadership background, whose name comes just below Assistant GM Ned Cohen’s on the team’s NBA.com leadership page.