The big problem for Sixers and Bryan Colangelo: Perception matters | David Murphy

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Bryan Colangelo, Sixers team president, sits with first overall pick Markelle Fultz after the 2017 NBA draft.

And with that, the Sixers have surpassed the late-2000s Mets as professional sports’ all-time leader in You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.

It happened Wednesday morning, just before business hours, with a press release announcing the team’s decision to launch an investigation into whether its general manager was using a series of anonymous Twitter accounts to defend himself and, at times, blast his players and colleagues. The achievement capped a remarkable two-year run in which the Sixers continued to bombard us with mind-scrambling headlined stories despite their hiring of a general manager whose chief qualification was his ability to enhance the organization’s credibility around the league.

This, mind you, is the same general manager who ended Tuesday night as the butt of jokes across the league after The Ringer published a report that suggested he had been moonlighting as the Keyser Soze of the NBA’s Twitterverse, highlighting five accounts with suspicious and near-incontrovertible ties to him or someone in his inner circle.

>>READ MORE: Whether its now or later, Colangelo with the Sixers is over

Forget, for a moment, whether Bryan Colangelo was actually the person publishing tweets from the accounts in question. Reality is not always the thing that matters most when it comes to the tasks that the Sixers president was brought here to accomplish. Perception is a significant factor in attracting the level of free-agent star that the Sixers want and perhaps even need to add to their roster to compete with the likes of the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics and Cavaliers. Given the NBA’s fiscal structure, and the ability for many teams to offer a prospective signee an identical amount of money, a free agent often makes his decision based on concerns that would be secondary in other sports. Among those concerns are a franchise’s prestige, and its ability to contend for a title, and its management, and its ability to attract other quality players.

It’s too early to say what the long-term ramifications of this latest bit of ridiculousness will be within that context. But as players and executives across the league took to Twitter on Tuesday night, their immediate perception of Colangelo was clear. Among the players who made direct or veiled jokes about the situation were the Portland Trail Blazers’ C.J. McCollum, the Indiana Pacers’ Trevor Booker, and, of course, the Sixers’ own Joel Embiid.

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Embiid later said in a television interview that Colangelo had contacted him and denied ownership of the Twitter accounts, which featured several messages that were critical of the big man. Embiid later said on Twitter that, all jokes aside, he believed Colangelo because the other option was too ridiculous.

Indeed, there are plenty of tweets from the accounts in question that stretch the bounds of reason to think that they represented Colangelo’s honest thoughts at the time.

Here’s one from the “Eric Jr” account on Feb. 11, 2017: “alternative fact: Joel is not the future of the franchise, so who cares if he is not 100%, let’s exploit him.”

The notion that an NBA general manager would think this way about a player who had spent the previous four months establishing himself as a consensus future superstar is almost too detached from reality to take seriously. One explanation is that Colangelo is unhinged enough to think this way, yet clever and collected enough to conceal it for two years. Say what you will about his player evaluation or macro strategies, he is a guy who presents well, and it would be quite a feat for him to pull off the Italian-suited, nothingspeak lawyer charade while secretly harboring a Trumpian inner monologue and lack of impulse control.

There is some really damning stuff, of course. First and foremost is the fact that three of the accounts in question went offline shortly after The Ringer contacted Colangelo about the other two accounts (without mentioning that it also knew of the other three). With all of the other circumstantial evidence — the followers of non-household names with Colangelo connections, etc. — there is a conceivable world in which a diligent and clever (and disturbed) individual could be authoring the ultimate long con. But if we assume that the only people who knew that The Ringer contacted the Sixers were the reporter and a Sixers media relations staffer and Colangelo and whomever Colangelo told inside the building, then the potential of a con would seem to be eliminated.

What hasn’t been eliminated — at least not according to my reading — is the possibility that one or all of the accounts in question belonged to a confidant of Colangelo: father, son, wife, etc. The only evidence The Ringer offers to the contrary is the opinion of its unidentified source, who reached out to the site unsolicited and claimed to have used his computer expertise to analyze and link the five accounts (the story sheds no further light on his exact methodology).

Again, though, what matters most is that we are even discussing this. You thought it couldn’t get weirder than Joel Embiid’s first three years, and then it did. You thought it couldn’t get weirder than Jahlil Okafor, and then it did. You thought, surely, Markelle Fultz losing his jump shot was the climax. Yet, here we are.

There are enough unanswered questions that it’s wisest to reserve any judgment about how the team should proceed. There are enough dots to connect or discount that a team-led investigation should yield a definitive answer. There is more than enough there that an employer should be able to A) determine conclusively whether Colangelo really was tweeting from the account, or B) lay out the reality of the situation in such a way that is beyond dispute.

Either way, when the final report lands, it will make for some interesting reading. Not to mention, another great headline involving the NBA’s most bat-crap crazy team.