On August 25, Elton Brand held a press conference to discuss potential personnel changes and what lies ahead for the Philadelphia 76ers after an incredibly disappointing season. Brand said that he believes the Sixers organization needs to improve from top to bottom, and that front office changes would be necessary. For now at the very least, Brand has taken on more responsibility as a decision-maker. He made it clear that he’s in charge of these changes, and emphasized that he wants to bring in more “basketball minds” to help the front office.
It’s now been almost three weeks, and nothing has happened.
While there have been increased rumblings that Tyronn Lue and the Sixers share “strong mutual interest” as the team’s head coach search continues, and that Billy Donovan and Mike D'Antoni have also emerged as candidates, there’s been no real development regarding the front office.
The only thing we’ve heard is that executive vice president of basketball operations Alex Rucker isn’t expected to return next season, according to Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
“I’ve taken a hard look at our shortcomings and recognized hard changes in the offseason are necessary to get this team back on track,” Brand told reporters during last month’s press conference. “As uncomfortable as it may be, it’s truly necessary.”
“As I’ve been taking a deep dive in where we failed, what went wrong, and how we can get better, I felt like we need to strengthen our organization from top to bottom, and that starts with the front office. Balancing our strengths and analytics and basketball strategy with more basketball minds, and whatever happens. My goal, with whatever happens going forward, is making sure we are in position to truly contend.”
Brand is correct that the front office has to be addressed. But it’s one thing to say what everyone wants to hear, and another to actually take action. Inactivity is the last thing the Sixers need.
Brand was also asked whether CEO Scott O’Neil would be involved in the search for new personnel, and explained that he doesn’t think the collaborative front office approach worked. “To be clear and frank, we feel that the collaboration days didn’t work too well, so I will be leading the search.”
“I don’t want to pinpoint Alex [Rucker] as a scapegoat or anything like that,” Brand added when talking about the front office. “Our group has to get stronger, we know that. So I’m taking time to assess where we are and how we get better. We failed and we’re not happy about it. We’re actually pissed about it.”
There have been countless issues with the Sixers’ front office and the damaging influence of ownership over the last few years. The Sixers traded Landry Shamet, two first-round picks and two second-round picks in their overpriced deal for Tobias Harris a few months before he was set to enter free agency. They failed to do all they could to re-sign Jimmy Butler last summer, both financially (they only would have been prepared to offer him a max contract if he agreed to not take recruiting visits with other teams, per Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes) and personnel wise in terms of trying to iron out any issues with Ben Simmons. They doubled down on overpaying for Harris by handing him a monster five-year, $180 million contract in free agency last year. They continued to throw too much money in the wrong place by signing Al Horford to a four-year, $109 million deal, and failed to add the kind of complementary shooting and perimeter creation that's essential alongside Simmons and Joel Embiid. They’ve sold (wasted) too many second-round picks instead of taking shots on young, cheap talent or packaging them together as assets. They even made it so obvious they wanted to draft Matisse Thybulle in 2019 that the Boston Celtics were able to coax an extra second-round pick (No. 33) out of them in a trade to move up.
That’s just a handful of the Sixers’ recent mistakes — I'll spare the emotions of fans and won't go any further.
Now, to both strengthen their front office in general and to ensure this situation is sorted before they hire a new head coach, it's important the Sixers start making changes now.
Other teams aren’t waiting around. For instance, the Sacramento Kings’ search for their new head of basketball operations is well underway. On Saturday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Kings are already moving to a second round of interviews, which will include Timberwolves executive vice president Sachin Gupta, Rockets assistant GM Monte McNair, and former Hawks GM Wes Wilcox.
Maybe a Sixers front office shake-up is coming. But the apparent hesitancy is understandably concerning for those who see the need for improvement. It suggests that the front office moves may not be as significant as Brand implied. Or, more troublingly, that nothing much will happen at all.
Even if an overhaul does come, taking too long could be costly if top candidates are snapped up by more proactive teams. Some of the “basketball minds” that Brand has said he wants to bring onboard might become unavailable.
One quality candidate who needs to be considered is Sachin Gupta. He worked as a software engineer at ESPN before entering the NBA, and honed his knowledge of the NBA’s CBA while he developed ESPN’s trade machine. He got started in the league in 2006 by spending a few years with the Rockets, first as a basketball technology developer then as their basketball operations salary cap analyst. Next, he became a part of Sam Hinkie’s front office in Philly as the Sixers’ vice president of basketball operations from 2014-15 to 2016-17. Gupta was second in command to Hinkie, and played a key role in the Sixers’ accumulation of assets and financial flexibility. Beyond his work behind the scenes, Gupta was also involved in trade negotiations at times, too.
According to Derek Bodner, writing for Philly Mag in 2017, “there wasn’t a trade of significance that Gupta didn’t have his hands in, an aspect of the Sixers’ rebuild even their most ardent detractors would almost universally admit was well executed.”
Gupta often conjured up possible trades and helped find creative ways the Sixers could load up their treasure trove of assets. For instance, the Sixers’ trade with the Kings in 2015, when they took on Nik Stauskas, Jason Thompson and Carl Landry into their excess cap space in exchange for an unprotected first-round pick in 2019 and the rights to swap first-round picks in 2016 and 2017. All it cost the Sixers was the rights to 2015 second-rounders Arturas Gudaitis and Luka Mitrovic.
After leaving Philadelphia, Gupta went on to work as a special advisor for the Rockets for one season in 2017-18. He was hired as the Pistons’ assistant GM in 2018, then joined the Timberwolves in July, 2019.
Essentially, Gupta has a much longer track record of basketball operations experience and success than Brand. If the Sixers want to hire someone to lead them in this area, then Gupta is a great candidate.
Maybe taking on the challenge of fixing the Sixers’ weird roster — rather than returning to a well-run organization or rejoining Hinkie — isn’t appealing to someone like Gupta. But he’s still the kind of candidate the Sixers should pursue. Even if Brand is going to stay in place with some say in transactions and serve as more of the public face of the front office, the Sixers should offer someone like Gupta the chance to lead their basketball operations.
Gupta is just one of the potential candidates the Sixers could miss out on if they either take too long or don’t make any hires at all. The same applies to their head coach search. The Sixers shouldn’t be rushing to hire a coach before their front office situation is settled, their ideas for the near future are established, and the team has more stability. The longer the delay, the more time coaches have to accept positions elsewhere.
The Sixers need to part with the executives who have helped put them in this mess through years of mismanagement with poor trades, ugly contracts, and squandered assets. The team’s ceiling is going to be far more limited moving forward without new, experienced, intelligent decision-makers leading the front office.
Change is well overdue, and the Sixers shouldn’t be waiting around.