For Joshua Harris and Sixers, optics are just plain ugly


For Joshua Harris and Sixers, optics are just plain ugly

Joshua Harris didn’t want to answer the question. He had his talking points ready and he clutched them to his chest the way someone clings to a flotation device when the water starts rising and the situation starts sinking.

Before Sunday’s game, Harris and the Sixers introduced Bryan Colangelo as the team’s new president of basketball operations. In a related move, Bryan’s father, Jerry, relinquished his role as the team’s chairman of basketball operations. During the press conference — held in the same room where, just a few months ago, Harris announced Jerry as a new hire and swore he didn’t anticipate any “radical changes” to the organization — Harris said he was “sad” that Sam Hinkie had resigned last week and added that he “didn’t lose faith” in Hinkie.

That’s an interesting position to adopt, and it dovetailed with reports that ownership thought Hinkie would go along with adding “another high-level executive on a level plane with him.” It’s hard to imagine that Harris, who is a successful man and a smart man, would think he could bring in two different Colangelos — first Jerry and now Bryan — and Hinkie would be fine with it, that he wouldn’t see it as a significant threat to his job security and/or an attempt by management to marginalize him or force him to quit. At the very least, Harris had to anticipate it was a possibility that Hinkie would react poorly to those moves. At the very least. That was essentially the question put to Harris: how could you make those moves and seriously say afterward that you’re surprised that Hinkie resigned? And, beyond that, after promising no radical changes would be made, doesn’t this shift in front office structure represent radical change?

Harris didn’t answer the questions. Not really. Instead, he launched into a prepackaged answer thinking maybe he could lose people with some verbal loops along the way.

“Just to be very clear, Jerry is an asset and a talent and someone who we were very excited to add to our franchise,” Harris began. “Really an advisor…”

He kept on like that for a while, hitting all the expected notes about “collaboration” and “adding pieces” and building “a basketball culture.” And so on. Politicians do it all the time. It generally doesn’t matter what the question is, just pivot to whatever answer was preselected. Except that only works if people aren’t willing to ask follow-ups. Unfortunately for Harris, he got asked a lot of follow-ups.

Question: If you were in Sam’s position, after you two sat down and decided to put The Process in motion, for you to bring in one Colangelo and now another, from Hinkie’s perspective, couldn’t you see how that would seem like you’re pushing him toward the door?

Harris: “It’s hard for me to speak for Sam. You’d have to speak to him. I don’t know."

Q: So you don’t think you were pushing him toward the door? You fully expected him to stay?

Harris didn’t answer that one, either. Bryan Colangelo jumped in and saved him from drowning in his talking points. Colangelo said, “There was always an intention that Sam was going to be part of this.”

“I understand the optics of it,” Harris eventually said, trying to regain footing in the conversation. “The reality is, Bryan was head-and-shoulders above every other candidate. The reality is, the optics of it are something we’re now managing with you all.”

He used that word quite a bit. Optics. Yes. Let’s talk about the optics. By all means.

The optics here aren’t good for the organization in general and Joshua Harris in specific. Harris hired Hinkie. Harris commissioned him to put The Process in motion. Harris repeatedly urged patience. Harris — on the same day he issued the “no radical changes” remarks — swore he remained committed to Hinkie and the plan. That’s a strange way to show commitment — to bring in one executive and then another. Those are bad optics.

And that’s why all this really started, isn’t it — because of bad optics and external pressure? Because the Sixers had become a divisive debate topic within the NBA and among outside observers? There were reports that NBA commissioner Adam Silver and other NBA owners urged Harris to bring in Jerry Colangelo. At his introductory press conference, Jerry Colangelo flat out stipulated it, saying he got a call from the commissioner and from Harris “pleading for some help.” Hinkie, in his 13-page farewell manifesto, wrote that there had been “much criticism of our approach” and essentially hinted that ownership was tired of taking the heat. Hence the shift in philosophy and the front office reshuffling, right?

Harris insisted “none of that is true.” He said it was a “no-brainer” to work with Jerry Colangelo — the same guy who just “relinquished” his duties as chairman. Maybe it’s also a no-brainer to work with Bryan Colangelo. Harris didn’t say. But it seems Bryan Colangelo might not feel the same about Harris and the Sixers; there were reports that Bryan Colangelo actually wanted the Nets job and only landed in Philly because he didn’t land in Brooklyn first. But that doesn’t matter, because Harris expected Bryan and Jerry and Hinkie to all work together, right? Except, when pressed on how they would all function together and who would report to whom, Harris said he didn’t think it was “worth getting into all that.” Not on the talking points, perhaps.

About those: Harris swore the Sixers are “not taking any hard-left turn” in approach. He said, “there are no shortcuts to the top, only shortcuts to the middle.” He said “Bryan is not a departure” from that. And, as is standard operating procedure at these things, he thanked Sixers fans, too. That part was especially interesting considering, in his letter, Hinkie took a shot at ownership and assured them they’d still “ably and efficiently separate the good people of the Delaware Valley from their wallets” moving forward.

Harris was asked about that part of the letter and about whether ownership really only cares about the bottom line. Harris said “we’ve just demonstrated consistently that we’re prepared to spend to actually win.” He was ostensibly serious that the Sixers — who have lost a bunch of games on purpose, and who were always hovering near the salary cap floor — “demonstrated consistently” that they’ll spend to win. Perhaps realizing the absurd statement, he mentioned the practice facility as evidence. That didn’t keep noted Hinkie-hater Howard Eskin from practically laughing out loud at Harris’s assertion about the Sixers spending to win. It was a fantastic exchange.

If you’re anti-Hinkie and anti-Process, you were unlikely to change your position because Harris stumbled his way through the press conference. If you’re in that camp, you’re likely thrilled by what’s recently transpired. But even so, ask yourself if you trust that Harris and ownership have picked a real and lasting direction this time. There was a time when Harris was all about Rod Thorn and Doug Collins and Tony DiLeo — until that didn’t work out. Then he was all about Hinkie and The Process. And now, after pulling the ripcord and parachuting out of The Process, Harris seems to be very much about Bryan Colangelo. Which is good for Bryan Colangelo, at least for now.

“The process of going through free agency and creating credibility within your organization, it starts at the top,” Bryan Colangelo said. “And what you’ve got is an ownership group committed to that. We’ve explained that.”

It wasn’t that long ago when Bryan Colangelo’s predecessor trumpeted ownership's commitment too. Hinkie gave a similar explanation once. And now he’s gone. And now the optics are awfully different.

Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

USA Today Images/Bill Streicher

Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

The Sixers had so many options heading into free agency last July.

We don’t know yet exactly when free agency will begin this year because of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the suspended NBA season. Whenever it does happen, though, the Sixers won’t have as many possibilities. 

The decisions to give Tobias Harris a five-year, $180 million contract and guarantee Al Horford $97 million over four years are the two clear, primary reasons the Sixers won’t be in an especially flexible position. In Year 1, those moves haven’t panned out as GM Elton Brand and the front office would have hoped.

In one major way, Horford has actually provided what the Sixers expected. As a backup center, he’s been quite good — the Sixers have a plus-5.2 net rating when Horford is on the floor and Joel Embiid is off it. He’s been much better than a hodgepodge of Amir Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe and Jonah Bolden. 

However, many of the reasonable concerns that came with signing Horford have come to fruition. The Horford-Embiid pairing has the worst net rating of any two-man Sixers lineup that’s played at least 500 minutes together. If you want an idea of just how poor the offense has been when the two have shared the floor, consider this: Their 100.6 offensive rating together is almost six points worse than any of the Sixers’ two-man pairings last season (minimum 500 minutes). 

Though Brett Brown was talking about aiming to further develop Horford and Embiid together as recently as the day before the season was suspended, that combination is a problem. It’s not what the Sixers would have planned when they signed Horford, but the decision to move him out of the starting lineup in February was very sensible.

Horford has shot more three-pointers than ever in his career, but not at an efficient rate (33.7 percent, his worst mark since the 2014-15 season). We thought he’d likely decline in the later years of his contract and be costing the Sixers money at 35 or 36 years old. To put it bluntly, he’s cost the Sixers money in his first season, and has not fit well. 

Harris, in his ninth NBA season, has improved defensively, is second on the Sixers in scoring (19.4 points per game) and, after an 0-for-23 nightmare of a stretch, has shot 39.1 percent from three-point range. He’s the only Sixer to have played in every game, and younger players like Matisse Thybulle and Marial Shayok have praised his mentorship. All of that matters and is positive, but Harris has not been worth $32.7 million this season.

The main question now — outside of when basketball will return, of course — is whether the Sixers can repair their mistakes.

Is there a team out there that would be willing to take on Horford’s contract and give up any value in return? The Kings, who reportedly were expected to make a “massive offer” to Horford in free agency, are one team it would make sense to engage. Sharpshooter Buddy Hield would presumably be the name of interest.

Trading away Harris looks much less likely, although we’ve learned not to rule anything out during Brand’s brief tenure. It’s difficult to imagine the Sixers receiving a worthwhile return, and Brown and Brand have often portrayed Harris as being an emerging player. They believe he’s going to get more and more comfortable and effective as a primary scoring option.

Josh Richardson, who’s suffered a variety of injuries in his first year a Sixer, is on a team-friendly deal. He shouldn’t be untouchable, but his perimeter defense and shot creation are important for this team, and they come at a good value.

Ben Simmons and Embiid are not what’s wrong with the Sixers and should not be traded at this stage. The pieces around them are the issues. Of course, judgement of whether those are issues the Sixers can overcome is incomplete. We don’t know yet how this roster would fare in the playoffs, and Brand has insisted his team was built with the postseason in mind. 

The Sixers would currently have a first-round pick in the draft — the top-20 protected Oklahoma City Thunder pick they acquired in the Markelle Fultz trade would convey — and that’s one of the ways they should be able to improve their roster. They’ve hit on Landry Shamet, Shake Milton and Thybulle in the draft over the last couple of years. With how Brand has constructed the team, targeting a perimeter player who can shoot, capably create his own shot or do both would appear an obvious priority.

Fundamentally, nobody envisioned this NBA season unfolding the way it has. Whatever is next and whenever the offseason eventually begins, the Sixers will have to discern the best methods to address the unpleasant surprises of this season. 

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Matisse Thybulle is a much better defender in real life than in NBA2K


Matisse Thybulle is a much better defender in real life than in NBA2K

Matisse Thybulle is known for his defense in real life. In NBA2K, that is definitely not the case.

With the NBA season suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak, Thybulle and the Suns’ Mikal Bridges played each other in 2K on Friday night and streamed the action on Twitch.

Though Thybulle gave Bridges a little bit of a scare with a big third quarter, the virtual Suns beat the virtual Sixers, 75-64. 

While the intensity obviously didn’t compare to a typical game night at Wells Fargo Center, both Thybulle and Bridges — a Villanova product and a Sixer for about 20 minutes before a draft-night trade two years ago — were very into it.

Thyulle decided to sub himself into the game after just 28 seconds, and Bridges did the same 30 seconds later. 

“Which one’s shoot again?,” he asked. “Square?” 

As his team fell behind, Thybulle had some stern words for his players.

“Al, you’re better than that,” he said when Al Horford bit on a pump fake. “You’ve been in the league too long to be making those mistakes.” 

When Ben Simmons had a floater blocked, Thybulle wasn’t thrilled. 

“Ben, you’re 7-foot,” he said. “Just dunk it.” 

And a Mike Scott lay-up early in the third wasn’t what Thybulle was hoping to see. 

At one point, he tried begging for mercy from Bridges.

“Stop running pick-and-roll, I don’t know how to guard it,” he said. “Please. Come on, man.” 

Unfortunately for Thybulle, Bridges did not stop and the rookie left with a loss, albeit an entertaining one.

“I apologize to the Sixers, to my family, my friends, the people of Philadelphia,” he said. “This is not acceptable.” 

After personally finishing with no points on 0 for 3 shooting, Thybulle promised he'll be practicing.

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