The story has been retold several times, but it is worth retelling given the current state of the Sixers’ front office heading into draft night.
It was 2011, and the Spurs were coming off a season in which they’d fallen short of the NBA Finals for a fourth straight year. They were a good team, thanks in part to the contributions of a third-year guard named George Hill. The No. 26 overall pick in the 2008 draft, Hill was a fan favorite whom many considered to be the heir apparent to Tony Parker. But he was also a year away from a contract extension that would not be able to co-exist with Parker’s salary.
According to various retellings of the story, including one by ESPN’s Zach Lowe several years back, the Spurs arrived at draft day having reached tentative agreements with several teams to trade Hill in exchange for a draft pick, contingent upon certain players being available or unavailable when the teams in question drafted. When the Pacers went on the clock at No. 15 and a wing named Kawhi Leonard was still on the board, everyone in the Spurs draft room knew the deal had to be made. There was consensus that was months in the making. All that was left was a phone call.
This was more or less the environment that Josh Harris described one week ago when he explained why he would not hurry to hire a new general manager.
“The way we’ve run the draft process and free-agency process pretty much forever since we’ve owned the team is that we hire really good people and we allow them to voice their opinions,” the Sixers’ majority owner said. “We almost have what would, in my day job, be an investment committee: There’s a lot of dialogue and debate around the table and there’s a consensus we try to develop.”
>> READ MORE: David Murphy’s NBA mock draft
Although we tend to romanticize moments of bold individual decision, the reality is that, in a well-functioning organization, most choices end up making themselves through a series of collective, deliberate actions conducted over a long period of time within the context of a philosophy to which each member of the process subscribes. The draft room is a simple example of this, the culmination of a year’s worth of scouting and cross-checking and debating until players are ranked and tiers are assigned. Once the official clock starts, the proper course of action is evident to all.
Individual opinions may vary, and if one such opinion belongs to the man in the chair where the buck stops, then the consensus may not matter. But that one opinion can be just as wrong as that of the lowest person on the totem pole. Granted, it helps to have the person with the right opinion in that chair. But having no opinion is better than the wrong opinion. Good decisions are not made on the basis of authority. They are made on the basis of valid premises, sound logic, and the accurate projections of short- and long-term futures, both internally and externally. If any one of those are flawed, a decision is just as well left to chance. If a decision is substantiated on any other grounds, it did not deserve to be made in the first place.
Which is why Harris made a lot of sense when he explained why he did not feel compelled to expedite a search for Bryan Colangelo’s replacement.
“There’s no reason to rush,” he said.
With or without Colangelo, this offseason was going to be a test of the organization that he built in his two years at the helm. The question, then, is this: Is the organization he built a well-functioning one? Are the player evaluations solid? Are the market valuations accurate? Is the common understanding of the nature of the short- and long-term potential of the Sixers roster and the short- and long-term future of the environment in which they will compete a reflection of the realities within which they will attempt to win an NBA title?
It’s this last question that is the primary responsibility of a general manager, and, thus, it is the one that raises the most questions about the wisdom of moving forward without someone in that role. The best leaders are synthesizers, sense-makers, big-picture-seers. Brett Brown, the interim buck-stopper, is a basketball coach, a position whose nature is often the opposite of these things. He knows this, which is why he was adamant about his desire to occupy his new role for as short a term as necessary. It isn’t always the case that the head coach and the GM end up forming the id and the superego of the organization, but it is very much the natural order of things.
The thought carries considerable weight when you entertain it within the context of the potentially franchise-altering decisions that can present themselves on draft day.
Back in 2011, the Spurs faced such a decision. In hindsight, it was the kind of opportunity that comes around once every decade or so, the difference between winning a ring and not. When Gregg Popovich tells the story, as he has more than once, the longtime coach mentions the words that he spoke as everybody realized what needed to be done. Before picking up the phone to call Hill, he looked at Spurs CEO Danny Ferry and said, “Are we really going to do this?”
Perhaps the Sixers have a George Hill on their roster. Perhaps their draft board will have a Kawhi Leonard. Two questions that are impossible to know with the Sixers:
1. Will the proper course of action be self-evident?
2. Who will look at whom?