The latest wrinkle came Thursday afternoon. The biggest public relations crisis in recent Sixers memory seemed headed toward an inevitable conclusion. In the midst of what the organization announced as an “independent investigation” into a series of Twitter accounts that seemed connected with Bryan Colangelo, the general manager was absent from the predraft workouts he’d been attending in California. According to NBC Sports Philadelphia, he arrived back in the city on Thursday afternoon, still denying any knowledge about the origin of the accounts despite considerable evidence that the perpetrator was, at the very least, a member of his family or inner circle.
In the midst of all of this, the Sixers released a statement officially announcing a contract extension for head coach Brett Brown that had been previously reported. Included in the statement? A congratulatory statement from president and general manager Bryan Colangelo.
Because of the Sixers’ underwhelming track record in the realm of crisis management, it is impossible to interpret the news release as a signal of Colangelo’s future. There is a chance that the thing had already been scheduled for future publication at the time The Ringer’s Twitter story dropped, and that the organization did not consider the peculiarity of sticking to its previous time line in spite of the dramatically altered context.
Whatever the case, Colangelo’s inclusion in the Brown announcement underscores the unprecedented nature of the situation the Sixers now confront, as well as the difficulty they will face in the near-term future regardless of how they proceed.
One thing is clear: They have two options, and they need to pick one of them fast, because either one will serve as the jumping-off point for a pivotal month that could very well determine their long-term viability as a championship contender.
From 20,000 feet, Colangelo’s remaining in the fold seemed even less tenable than it had been 24 hours before. Of all the circumstantial evidence that the Ringer outlined connecting him to accounts that had been critical of his team, the one inescapable fact was that three of those in question went dark shortly after Colangelo had been made aware of the website’s investigation. Even if, as amateur sleuthers on the Internet were suggesting, the source of the tweets was not him but his wife, his continued professions of ignorance regarding their potential origins left him isolated in that familiar territory where the cover-up is indistinguishable from the crime.
The context of the last couple of years is what makes his continued employment seem so hard to fathom. The Sixers hired him because they thought his predecessor had left them with a credibility deficit that only a league-approved lifer could overcome. Colangelo himself had said it on the day of his introduction. The NBA is a business where things like trust and relationships and reputation matter, and the Sixers are at a point in their Process where they need to ensure they are operating with the maximum amount of human capital in each of those departments. In that light, their necessary course of action seems self-evident, regardless of the individual culpability of the collateral damage.
Yet it’s important that we do not undersell the potential complexity of the situation. It has been three weeks since the Sixers’ offseason officially began, and one can only assume that Colangelo and his lieutenants have spent that time carefully greasing the wheels for the plan of action they will follow once July 1 arrives and the free-agent signing period begins. He was hired in large part because of his network of executives and agents and a belief on ownership’s part in his ability to leverage that network to facilitate the addition of talent.
There is a possibility that, before the current scandal broke, the Sixers had already developed a blueprint that is now just awaiting execution. Trades could be lined up, or soon-to-be free agents who have signaled their interest through back channels. The conventional wisdom that Colangelo cannot possibly survive this hit to his reputation does not take into account the possibility that much of the heavy lifting has already been done. And, if it has, a regime change at this juncture could result in the Sixers’ starting again from zero.
For instance, let’s say the Sixers have already engaged the Spurs in dialogue about a trade for superstar Kawhi Leonard. And let’s say there was momentum toward a deal before this current plot twist. That’s purely a thought experiment, with no inside information one way or the other. But it is a conceivable scenario, and if Colangelo was on the verge of orchestrating such a deal, how would the Sixers navigate his departure? On the flip side, how can they be sure what impact his continued presence might have on the willingness of free agents such as LeBron James or Paul George to play in Philadelphia? Colangelo and his staff are the only ones in position to take such temperatures.
At this point, the only definitive word we can offer is that they must move fast. A decision to move on will yield a future succession of decisions. Colangelo has spent the last couple of years remaking the front office in his image, including the installation of three new vice presidents beneath him. Do they promote one of those three? Hire someone from the outside capable of heading the rest of the chain of command as it already exists? Target an in-demand up-and-comer who will want to assemble his own crew around him?
There are no easy answers. This is an organization that has been perpetually engulfed in crises of leadership. The Sixers have long known that they would spend June charting the way forward. Now, they must first confront a question: Which way is that?