The Colangelo and Brand Era: The Good Moves
It wasn’t all bad.
Adam Aaronson, whose legal name is Sixers Adam (@SixersAdam on Twitter), covers the Sixers for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez. He has been legally banned from covering the team in person, but that ban will be lifted in March of 2020. He is brought to you by the Official Realtor of The Process, Adam Ksebe.
We have entered uncharted territory over these last few weeks, living in a socially-distanced world that has most of us sitting at home. More time at home leads typically to more time thinking and reflecting. Because I am who I am (an insane person), for me this leads to more time spent wondering about the Sixers. In recent days I’ve taken a bit of a trip down memory lane, and I decided that since nothing else is going on, I might as well take you all with me.
This may shock you, but I’ve been thinking about this team’s leadership group since Sam Hinkie’s resignation -- Bryan Colangelo, Elton Brand, Alex Rucker, Ned Cohen, Marc Eversley, etc. Now that we have some off time (and are about to mark the four-year anniversary of Hinkie’s exodus), it seems right to take a more comprehensive look at everything this group has done.
So, here’s how this will work: I wrote down every notable transaction / decision made by the Colangelo and Brand front offices (I left out the summer of 2018 because it remains unclear who truly wielded the power). In this piece, I’m going to take a look at all of the moves I deem to have been wise. Early next week, I’ll get into the ones I view as mistakes. I have a feeling next week’s column will be longer than this one. Let’s get started.
2016 NBA Draft: Ben Simmons, Furkan Korkmaz
The first task for Bryan Colangelo in his new gig was, well, a layup: he owned the number one overall pick in the draft, as well as two picks in the latter portion of the first round (#24 and #26). At number one, he selected Ben Simmons, who the front office envisioned as the surefire centerpiece of their rebuild. With the other two first-rounders, the Sixers selected Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot and Furkan Korkmaz. Luwawu quickly flamed out in Philly (though he seems to have turned himself into a legitimate NBA player for the Nets), and Korkmaz seemed destined for a similar resolution before returning to the team this season and emerging as a high-quality offensive player. Anyone could have made the Simmons pick, but finding a rotation player late in the first round is enough for me to count this as a success -- at least relatively.
2017 Free Agency: JJ Redick
Notice that the first point in the timeline of front office successes is in June of 2017, where the best I could do is say “at least relatively a success,” and the second point is in July of 2018. But the negative commentary is for next week, so let’s continue.
After Joel Embiid teased his superstar potential in 31 games as a rookie, Colangelo and co. entered the summer with a bevy of cap space and hopes of surrounding Embiid and Simmons with enough complementary talent to vie for a playoff spot. They made use of their many millions in cap space, sticking to one-year balloon deals that did not risk any sort of future opportunity cost beyond the 2017-18 season. They got their primary target in JJ Redick, who turned down three-year offers to sign with the Sixers for one year and $23 million. This summer did not go perfectly (more on that next week), but Redick provided floor spacing and gravity that was of massive importance, and helped facilitate significant offensive growth for both Embiid and Simmons. Redick has never been a $23 million player, but this was absolutely a reasonable management of resources.
2017 Season: Robert Covington
In the early months of the 2017-18 season, Robert Covington was solidifying his standing as one of the league’s premier wing defenders while getting off to a blazing start from beyond the arc. This emergence came at the perfect time for Covington, who became eligible for a contract extension that November. And because of the unique contract Hinkie had signed him to, it was not a typical extension. The Sixers could renegotiate-and-extend Covington -- I’ll save most of the nitty gritty CBA details, but this meant they could alter his current salary in addition to extending his contract. The Sixers and Covington agreed on a four-year deal worth $62 million, but part of the agreement was that Covington’s 2017-18 salary would skyrocket to $16 million. That meant once the extension actually kicked in, it would be for four years and $46 million, easily one of the most valuable non-rookie contracts in all of basketball. This made him an elite trade chip, which they soon cashed in on (we’ll get there).
2017 Season: Buyouts
The 2017-18 Sixers frequently showed signs of promise, but just didn’t have enough players. They were simply giving too many minutes to guys who could not be trusted against NBA competition -- namely Luwawu-Cabarrot and Trevor Booker. When the Sixers stood pat at the Trade Deadline, failing to make a single trade, many were confused as to what their plan was. But when the Atlanta Hawks bought out sharpshooter Marco Belinelli, the Sixers swept in and added him to the fold, with the promise of a significant role coming off the bench that Belinelli ultimately succeeded in. In a slightly more surprising event, the Hawks then also freed Ersan Ilyasova, who did not need much convincing -- after his positive experience in Philadelphia the year before, plus his teammate already having taken their talents there, it was likely an easy call to rejoin the Sixers. Belinelli and Ilyasova, two prototypical role players who could space the floor, helped spark the Sixers’ offense transcendence to a much higher level, which led to their 16-game winning streak to end the season.
2018 Season: Jimmy Butler trade
And here we have the first major decision of the Elton Brand Era. This is the only inclusion on the list of good moves that I’m expecting any pushback about. It makes sense why that would be -- the Sixers traded an elite role player on a great contract in Covington and a fan favorite in Dario Saric for a player who left on bad terms at the end of the season. But when you look back at the situation, it isn’t unreasonable to say this was a risk they had to take. With Simmons nearing a contract extension, the team’s time to acquire a third legitimate star to pair with Ben and Joel was running out -- more specifically, a perimeter creator who could be trusted with the ball in their hands. The team promised to go “star-hunting,” and even if Jimmy turned out to not be the right fit for several reasons, I still think the Sixers had the right idea. It was later on in this season where they really did themselves in. Oh god, next week’s column is going to be so long.
2018 Season: Markelle Fultz and James Ennis trades
Most on the outside view the Sixers trading Fultz to Orlando for Jon Simmons and a protected first-round pick as another example of their mismanagement of the entire ordeal surrounding the former top overall pick. But when you have a deeper understanding of Fultz’s situation, it becomes clear that they needed to cut bait. First of all, the team had just gone all-in, acquiring Tobias Harris in a deal from the Clippers. Having Fultz eat up $9 million in cap space in a year you’re trying to win a championship is counter-productive. Additionally, if Fultz came back, his role had to be small: as we saw in the early part of the season, the pairing of Fultz and Simmons was simply untenable offensively because of their shared refusal to take jump-shots. So even if Fultz did make some improvements aside from his jumper, he was only going to get limited action. Getting an actual contributor instead of Jon Simmons would have certainly been nice, but the Sixers netted an early 2019 second-round pick that they used to trade up for Matisse Thybulle and the 2020 top-20 protected Oklahoma City first-rounder that is seemingly going to convey this season. For a guy who wanted no part of the team and did not fit in in either the short- or long-term, that’s a good deal.
The Sixers don’t really deserve much credit for the Ennis trade -- they were lucky that the owner of the Houston Rockets didn’t want to pay a luxury tax bill -- but it should at least be mentioned that they acquired someone who contributed in a second-round playoff series for a 2021 second-round pick swap.
2019 Free Agency: Furkan Korkmaz
Who would have thought that in a summer where the Sixers dished out a contract worth $180 million and stole a star from their biggest rival, the team’s best signing would be… Furkan Korkmaz. After failing to recruit Kyle Korver to return to Philadelphia, they pivoted to their Plan B, which was to bring back Korkmaz on a minimum contract and hope he could fill a role with his shooting prowess -- and did he ever do that. Korkmaz has been one of the team’s best offensive players, all for the veteran’s minimum salary. Here’s the best part, and one where the Sixers might have been the beneficiaries of some luck -- Korkmaz was an early bird free agent, and because of rules in the CBA, if a team re-signs an early bird free agent to a one-year contract, the player receives a no-trade clause. In order to avert this rule, the Sixers gave Korkmaz a non-guaranteed second year. At the time, it seemed to me like purely a machination to avoid one of the league’s cap stipulations. But now, the Sixers will have Korkmaz for an additional year at a miniscule salary. And as we all have discussed more times than can be counted, this team needs low-cost contributors to surround the top-end of their roster.
I hope it perked up your mood a bit to remember what this team has done right. Even more, I hope it maintains until next week’s column, where I am sure to make you hate the Sixers once again.