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The Sixers are dangerously close to becoming like the Knicks: here’s 5 reasons why

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From asset mismanagement to Scott O’Neil, there’s too much #LolKnicks stuff going on in Sixers land lately

2018 Summer League - Las Vegas - Los Angeles Lakers v New York Knicks Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Lately there are Knicks fans and Sixers fans who keep noticing these glaring similarities between both team’s weird management structures. It’s getting harder for fans to separate a 50 win team from a perennial bottom-dweller all because of stuff that happens at the top. Yes Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are true superstars. They’re still in Philly so this isn’t a lottery team, don’t get it twisted. The Sixers can win a title with a better front office around. They’re still talented. But they have to reverse course from the terrible decision making that’s stricken this franchise for years now.

What’s worse, they’re veering dangerously close to lots of well...Knicksy behavior! Let’s look at the 5 main reasons the Sixers are starting to remind people of the Knicks.

5) Churning Churning everywhere, but still no title on the brink

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics Photo by Chris Elise/Getty Images

Ever talk to a Knicks fan about Pablo Prigioni, Phil Jackson, Joahkim Noah or Kristaps Porzingis? Any Knicks fan will get that same glazed look in their eyes a Sixers fans might get if you remind them that Markelle Fultz started for the team 27 years ago back in 2018. The look is a visceral, palpable blend of nausea and nostalgia we might call naustalgia.

Here was how Zach Lowe of ESPN put it recently in the Lowe Post podcast, when Yaron Weitzman, author of “Tanking to the Top” mentioned the Sixers’ CEO Scott O’Neil and the team’s weird power-structure:

Per Lowe:

“The power structure [in Philadelphia], I’m glad you said that because it’s just a mess. There’s too many people in the room. There are too many people with decision making power. And that’s why it’s so hard to parse like ‘who made this decision?’”

Knicks fans have heard for years about too many voices making bad decisions. Later more from Lowe on Sixers management:

“...and this is back to ownership. These guys are private equity guys and they like to make trades. I think that mindset has permeated the whole organization....”

The Sixers are reportedly working towards forming their 7th different iteration of a front office power structure spanning about nine years under current management, the latest today from Shams Charania, for The Athletic:

“Philadelphia remains intent on building and adding talent under Brand to further strengthen the front office.... In addition to leading the head coaching search, Brand is having conversations with multiple NBA front-office personnel to bolster his staff. For the 76ers, Brand continues to be the leader of basketball operations.”

Not bringing in a new President of Basketball Operations to perhaps work above Brand and others responsible for what’s occurred in Philly over the last few years feels... pretty Knicksy:

4) Case studies in asset-mismanagement

Isaih Thomas Introduced as New Knicks GM Photo by Ray Amati/NBAE via Getty Images

If the Sixers were known for once collecting assets at an insurmountable rate during The Process, they made a 180 when Sam Hinkie left. And while it may have been the right decision to begin utilizing some draft picks to improve the team, no fan could have expected the cascade of sold picks and wasted assets that has ensued across the Bryan Colangelo and “collaborative” years.

An abbreviated but horrific summary of what Rights to Ricky Sanchez co-host Mike Levin refers to as ”death by a thousand paper cuts” eventually snowballing into “crimes against humanity” basketball-decision making:

Nobody knows this stuff better than Knicks fans who lived through the Isiah Thomas years. The details are sordid and gory, peruse history at your own peril. But know this: somewhere Isiah is smiling at the Sixers for turning so much gold into garbage. The Knicks’ waste landed them in the basement. The Sixers waste might well cost them a couple of titles.

3) Foisting failed execs upon newcomers

New York Knicks Announce Phil Jackson As Team President Photo by James Devaney/WireImage

Ah yes, the Dolan Special. The Sixers seem content to continue foisting execs from previously bad regimes onto whomever they next onboard.

Isiah Thomas was one of the worst Team Prez’s ever and was even found guilty of sexual harassment by a Garden employee, yet continued to advise James Dolan, and was later allowed to run New York’s women’s basketball team, the Liberty. The dude who hired Thomas was Steve Mills, and he has received similarly curious devotion from the Garden Chairman.

As if the Thomas years weren’t enough, to #fireeverybody per Marc Berman of The New York PostAccording to sources, keeping Mills on as GM was the requirement [Phil] Jackson had to make to take over the Knicks presidency for $60 million.”

And after all that, after Isiah Thomas failed, even after Phil Jackson failed, with Mills along for the entire heinous ride, the dude gets a promotion to President himself.

Mills tried to hire title-winning GM David Griffin while saddled with the newly minted Tim Hardaway Jr. Griffin wisely ran from that blue and orange dumpster fire.

The Sixers run their own versions of this play. Remember their GM “search” in 2018?

Here was what Weitzman reported on that in “Tanking to the Top:”

“Others pursued by the Sixers were wary of the team’s existing management structure. For one, Harris made clear that he expected whoever was hired to inherit the executives Colangelo had left behind. Harris and his partners expected to be involved and consulted in basketball decisions, and that the power vacuum created by the absence of both Jerry and Bryan Colangelo had provided them even more room to operate.”

The Colangelo group wasn’t very good in Toronto. They were arguably even worse in Philadelphia. The Sixers likely cost themselves an elite GM because they felt compelled to retain a mediocre-at-best front office.

Just one year after the Knicks turned David Griffin off, the Sixers turned their noses up at Griff:

Not long after reports like these, Weitzman’s book reports, “Josh Harris had been more involved in the team’s basketball operations than ever before. He’d negotiated the Jimmy Butler trade.”

Hmmm, team owners taking on a larger and larger say in b-ball ops? That might sound familiar to Knicks fans.

Nothing makes fans more nervous than hearing stories of a Managing Partner pulling a James Dolan and hopping on the line to execute a massive deal, only to then learn the team was “out of the Jimmy Butler business” months later.

But the Sixers are apparently back at the well again this time.

It’s going to be a major challenge to hire one of the best front office candidates in the NBA like a Mike Zarren, an Adam Simon, or a Bobby Webster if the offer is “come work below the people who traded Jimmy Butler to the Heat then gave Al Horford $109M.” It all feels needlessly weird and limiting. Super Knicksy.

2) Scott O’Neil Marketing Exec and much more

The Sixers didn’t simply want to model the Knicks’ “let’s hire an NBA League Office dude as our next marketing wiz then let him have way too much basketball say” move. They wanted the same exact person even after it didn’t work out in New York!

Steve Mills wasn’t the only one who went from NBA League Office to MSG Business Exec to eventually running the Knicks’ basketball operations. Well once upon a time there was yet another dude who did as well, Scott O’Neil.

Per Weitzman’s book:

“In his previous job, as president of Madison Square Garden Sports, [Scott O’Neil] helped draw up the Knicks’ 2010 free agency pitches to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh (which were unsuccessful), and a year later pushed MSG Chairman James Dolan to trade for Carmelo Anthony.”

From Frank Isola, then with The New York Daily News:

“... the Daily News has learned that Anthony still has two formidable allies in his corner; Dolan, the Chairman of Madison Square Garden and MSG President Scott O’Neil, who both played significant roles in bringing Anthony to New York.”

No doubt keen on the idea of marketing a superstar like Carmelo Anthony, O’Neil was apparently even more persuasive (or powerful) than acting Team President Donnie Walsh. Walsh reportedly preached caution in dealings with Denver’s then GM Masai Ujiri; Anthony was a pending free agent, they not Denver had leverage. Dolan reportedly hopped on the horn himself and hashed out the terms of a blockbuster deal he’d reportedly regret down the road. [1]

But there are shades of the Tobias Harris trade, right? O’Neil as Sixers CEO apparently had a seat at the table as that decision was made too, again courtesy of Weitzman’s book; paying way too much for a pending free agent again. [2]

Eventually Dolan tired of O’Neil.

Howard Beck of The New York Times, 2012:

“O’Neil, 42, had a tenuous relationship with James L. Dolan, the Garden chairman — a fact that was well known among people with ties to both men. Young, ambitious and driven, O’Neil was constantly pushing to expand his influence in the daily operations of the Knicks and the Rangers, as well as on the business side, creating some tension with Dolan....

Hired for his business acumen, O’Neil gradually increased his involvement in the Knicks’ personnel decisions, often to the annoyance of the basketball operations staff. O’Neil was in the room for the Knicks’ presentation to LeBron James in 2010, and he was involved in the trade talks for Carmelo Anthony in 2011.”

Josh Harris and David Blitzer wasted little time in scooping up O’Neil in July of 2013. He may have found an ownership group even more receptive to his charms than Dolan was and (it seems) eventually ascended to the position he once craved with the Knicks.

First by pushing out not-so-collaborative Team Prez Sam Hinkie.

Per Weitzman’s book:

“The relationship between O’Neil and Hinkie was tenuous from the start. 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.”

Hinkie’s notorious tanking provided the perfect opportunity for O’Neil’s big move. Per Weitzman, there was that now infamous incident regarding a marketing campaign designed by O’Neil, featuring point guard Michael Carter Williams, that went live days before the former Rookie of the Year was traded for a lottery pick.

Weitzman writes on O’Neil’s reaction to one of the Sixers’ best trades in recent memory:

“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.”

Here is some audio of O’Neil recalling his big mistake.

O’Neil reportedly played a factor in Hinkie’s subsequent loss of power to Jerry Colangelo (by bringing in his old colleague Adam Silver to “help”) and eventually his resignation. The maneuver allowed O’Neil a much larger voice.

Per Derek Bodner, Senior Writer for The Athletic, then writing for PhillyMag:

The Sixers’ ownership group doesn’t have anybody with real experience in the game, and the job search was headed up by Scott O’Neil, a marketing guy who wants to play the part.”

O’Neil reportedly spearheaded the GM “search” that led to Jerry Colangelo slyly getting his son Bryan hired:

His power may have only grown with each front office change.

O’Neil reportedly got to help determine Bryan Colangelo’s fate, when he disgraced the organization by allowing his spouse to disclose confidential team secrets and make fun of the team’s young players on Twitter. Indeed, “Burnergate” was something that would have surprised no one had it happened to the #LolKnicks, but it happened to the person O’Neil recommended his bosses let run the team. For a full month, it was #LolSixers, even LeBron James who the Sixers were pursuing got in on it.

But instead of limiting O’Neil’s say, it may have even increased.

O’Neil reportedly got to help oversee yet another GM search in 2018, that eventually led to Elton Brand being awarded the position, in part because Brand would tolerate collaborating and not having final say, per Keith Pompey.

That last decision O’Neil helped oversee, to promote Brand and form an asset-vanquishing multivoiced Voltron, which led to not offering Butler a max, then devoting $289M to Tobias Harris and Al Horford, may be Philadelphia’s grand opus of Knicksyness.

For what it’s worth, Elton Brand addressed CNBC’s Jabari Young, who recently asked if O’Neil would be triggering a coaching search, this off season and Brand denied it.

Per Brand’s most recent press-conference:

“There’s basketball operations, there’s business operations, Scott does a great job you know with his role...but like he doesn’t mettle in the basketball side as someone might think or as you’re trying to insinuate.”

Young might have remained skeptical of Brand’s statement. Despite Brand’s comments he reported:

“According to two former NBA executives, team CEO Scott O’Neil has long wanted control of basketball operations since his days with the New York Knicks, leaving some around the NBA to believe O’Neil is in charge....

“The new coach will also need to work with Brand and/or O’Neil to reconstruct a roster that wasn’t good enough to advance past the first round this season despite a $109 million investment in Al Horford and $180 million to re-sign forward Tobias Harris.”

To that end, Young linked O’Neil, a Villanova alum, to Nova’s Coach Jay Wright. Folks like Spike Eskin of WIP have as well. But Wright has since removed himself from consideration of the Sixers gig.

O’Neil has long been an admirer of Houston’s Coach in Mike D’Antoni, dating back to their Knicks days:

Not surprisingly, D’Antoni has emerged as a possible front runner for the Sixers coaching vacancy, per Pompey. Charania today names D’Antoni as one of three candidates expected to be part of the next round of interviews, along with ex-Thunder head coach Billy Donovan and Clippers assistant Ty Lue.

So maybe Young is onto something here? Could O’Neil be in charge, or at least one of the top voices still?

All of which would beg the $289 million dollar question: how many times do the Sixers Senior members have to be led astray before they question those providing the guidance?

Again, Weitzman’s book “Tanking to the Top” offers clues: “[Josh] Harris had always been susceptible to persuasion as an NBA owner....”

Derek Bodner, on my recent “No Particular Hurry” podcast struck a not dissimilar chord:

“I think there are in some ways I think Josh [Harris] might be a little too trusting and I think there’s a lot of voices that he listens to and trusts and bringing in, it’s a complicated structure to bring in an established GM like Daryl Morey into….”

James Dolan eventually reached his breaking point with Scott O’Neil. [3] Harris and Blitzer have had more tolerance. Quite Knicksy.

1) ‘Inexplicable loyalty’

Milwaukee Bucks v New York Knicks Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

In this podcast, Ben Detrick, of The New York Times and “The Ringer” uses the phrase “inexplicable loyalty” to describe the Sixers allegiance to failed execs.

Say what you want about Jim Dolan, he’s loyal, Knicks fans sometimes joke about the Garden Chairman’s incomprehensible devotion to the different inner circles he’s maintained over the years. There is genuine reason for optimism now in New York under new Prez Leon Rose. But the point remains, this Sixers management group has at times demonstrated a similar “loyal to a fault” trait.

The Sixers aren’t exactly the Knicks. There are superstars involved. This management group once hired the former team President who landed said stars. To be clear, they deserve much much much more credit than Dolan, who never hired Sam Hinkie, should get.

But since 2015 it sure does feel like they’re running some similar plays, doesn’t it? And if they’re truly on the precipice of wasting the primes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, as Derek Bodner recently warned they could be, there will be little doubt where it all started to go wrong when history judges this team.

Never model the Knicks’ worst run years. I thought everybody knew that one.

Footnotes

[1] You remember guys like Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari but also pick swaps that led to Denver selecting Jamal Murray in 2016. Per Isola: “Dolan didn’t want to get fleeced again by Masai,” was how one Knicks source put it.”

[2] Per “Tanking to the Top” a peak inside the Sixers war room back in 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…. The group went around the room. ”

Brett Brown, the book notes, would recall “…[trading for Harris] was a unanimous thumbs up.’

[3] Of course, it wasn’t a clean break for Dolan. He may have been scarred. He reportedly pulled out of a trade that would have landed him Toronto’s Kyle Lowry for a bag of nothing because he so deeply regretted his past-dealings with Masai Ujiri; one of those dealings, of course we now know, O’Neil has been linked to. The impact of past mistakes could remain ongoing in Philadelphia the way they did in New York.