IF YOU'RE one of those people who likes your branding action hot and heavy, Sunday was a day for you. For 25 minutes they sat behind a conference table and attempted to reprogram your mind. It was a magical 25 minutes. By the end of it, the Sixers were no longer tanking, but "measured rebuilding." Their focus was no longer shaped by the economic realities of the NBA, but by the narratives that had come to define the 76ers franchise. Jerry Colangelo was no longer chairman of basketball operations but a mere adviser who'd recused himself from the team's search for a new chief executive as soon as he learned that, well, whaddaya know, his son Bryan had emerged as the team's top target.
It was as pertinent a reminder as any that history is written by the victors, and that legacies are defined as much by positioning as merit. Take Bryan Colangelo, who on Sunday was introduced as the Sixers new president of basketball operations: On a couple of occasions, the 50-year-old former general manager of the Suns and Raptors declared that the Sixers were one of the most attractive situations in the league for a personnel executive like himself. While Colangelo made sure to credit his predecessor for accumulating the young talent and cache of future draft picks that will aid his future endeavors, he did not mention perhaps the greatest benefit of the job, which is that it will be nearly impossible to fail. If the Sixers continue to struggle - if Joel Embiid never plays, if Colangelo is unable to flip Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor for a better-fitting cornerstone piece, if Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram or whoever the Sixers draft turns out to be a bust - it will serve only to underscore the fool's errand Sam Hinkie embarked on with his "Process." If they return to competitiveness, it will underscore the necessity of the change that owner Josh Harris effectively made when he began discussing a spot in the front office with the younger Colangelo at the beginning of this year.
As you listened to Colangelo talk, you understood why somebody like Harris might decide on the need for change. Colangelo's message centered on the notion that the Sixers must rebuild their image if they hope to attract or retain talent via free agency.
"We need to start to change the narrative," Colangelo said. "This is a relationship business."
There is some surface-level logic in that.
While realities are rarely black and white, narratives rarely are not. It's a lesson that Hinkie would be wise to carry with him to whatever franchise has the intestinal fortitude to bring him aboard. His demise was not so much a failure of concept or execution but one of messaging. One need only look across the street to the baseball team to understand the role that semantics and a friendly media have in facilitating a process such as the one Hinkie envisioned. The big difference between rebuilding in the NBA and rebuilding in Major League Baseball is the market for talent: In the NBA, losing games is the means by which the end is achieved, while in baseball it is more of a necessary byproduct. Yet it is worth noting that the Phillies could finish 2016 as the worst team in the sport for a second straight season, something that not even Hinkie managed to accomplish in his three years at the helm. Rebuilding in the NBA is different from rebuilding in MLB. But the standings are the standings, and there does not seem to be nearly as much angst about the Phillies' current position as there was with the Sixers.
For all of the talk of the Sixers finally bringing in some real basketball men, the truth is that people like the Colangelos are, first and foremost, salesmen. They are billionaire whisperers, adept at convincing really rich people to entrust them with their capital. In 1999, Jerry published a book titled, How You Play the Game: Lessons for Life from the Billion-Dollar Business of Sports.
The elder Colangelo clearly succeeded at selling Harris and his partners on the need for a leader with a skill set that just happened to line up with the one his son offered. Bryan's biggest theme during Sunday's press conference was the need for the Sixers to build relationships throughout the league, one of many tacit references to Hinkie's greatest perceived weakness.
Yet the logic starts to fall apart when you think about the fact that Ed Stefanski and Billy King were respected, personable executives who nevertheless were forced to overpay to keep their own players (Andre Iguodala) and to sign new ones (Elton Brand). Fact is, the Sixers are not an NBA destination, just like the Raptors weren't when Colangelo was there (and when Chris Bosh left for the Heat).
Again, though, it comes down to messaging. As GM of the Suns, Colangelo "lured" Steve Nash away from Dallas in 2004, which sounds great, except "luring" really meant paying him $20 million more than any other team, including the Mavericks, who declined Nash's request that they match the deal. When Colangelo attempted to bring Nash to Toronto in 2012, Nash leveraged Toronto's three-year, $36 million offer into a three-year deal with the Lakers.
But, hey, it's a relationship business, right?
Ironically, the failed pursuit of Nash is one of the reasons Colangelo has seen his legacy improve over the past few years as the Raptors have blossomed. Once he lost Nash, Colangelo traded a first-round pick for Kyle Lowry, who is now an anchor on one of the Eastern Conference's top teams. Nash, meanwhile, was an unmitigated disaster with the Lakers.
That's not to say the Sixers' new president will destroy whatever foundation Hinkie has laid over the past three seasons. Both Colangelo and Harris repeatedly insisted that the change in leadership would not result in a change in vision.
"This is not about a departure from a process," Colangelo said.
What was it really about? Let's answer in a form Hinkie might appreciate. As Plato once said, "One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors."