MURPHY: Elton Brand has consolidated his power, and now the Sixers are his mess to own

The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Elton Brand

If Michael Corleone had held a Zoom call after having Emilio Barzini knocked off on the courthouse steps, he might have looked a lot like Elton Brand on Tuesday morning.

Sitting in a neutral-colored interior room, an arched bookcase and heavy wooden door visible behind him, the Sixers general manager bore the cool yet engaged countenance of a man whose moment had only just begun.

“To be frank, we feel that the collaboration days didn’t work too well,” Brand said as he fielded questions from reporters for the first time since the Sixers’ season ended in a four-game sweep by the Boston Celtics on Sunday.

He might not have meant them as such, but those 13 words served as a damning and near-incomprehensible indictment of the Sixers’ power structure over the last two years. With one stunning sentence, Brand confirmed what outsiders had long suspected and what insiders were all but certain had been the case. The Sixers had entered and exited the most pivotal and irrevocable stage of their quest to build a championship roster without anyone in charge.

Even after the haphazard and contradictory flurry of trades and signings and reconsiderations that we have witnessed in the years since Sam Hinkie went out in a blaze of glory and Bryan Colangelo set the fire to himself, the admission still comes as a shock. Loaded with a war chest of draft picks and cap room and desirable young trade pieces, the Sixers arrived at their moment of action and decided to form a committee.

First came coach Brett Brown’s summer-long stint as assistant general manager, a stretch that saw them draft Mikal Bridges and then trade him away for Zhaire Smith and a first-round pick. Then came Brand’s appointment as Colangelo’s full-time successor less than two years after his career in personnel management began. While managing partner Josh Harris spoke glowingly of his belief in his former player’s roster-building aptitude, he did so in a way that offered more questions than answers about the true source of the vision that would be guiding the organization.

Lack of vision: Turns out, there was no vision. There was the old front office, minus Colangelo, and a cabal of C-suite executives who nominated the man with the most political capital to be the group’s designated spokesperson. If that sounds like an imperfect recipe for a framework that produces internally coherent decisions, well, congratulations, detective. Your crime scene is the 2019-20 Sixers.

Given the grisly nature of the roster that all of us discovered this season, as well as the unmistakable footprints that were circled around it, the team’s ownership had little choice but to confess. Harris, the group’s general managing partner, did so in a statement to ESPN in which he promised “a real assessment of how we got here” and said that he expects “more changes will need to be made in order to get this organization back on track.”

Brand now in charge: Brand seems to have little doubt about the nature of those changes. We might never know the extent to which his own strategies and evaluations drove each individual decision that led the Sixers to this point. To some, that’s the appeal of collaboration — it shrouds responsibility. But what we do know is that, according to Brand, he will be the man in charge of the Sixers’ search for Brown’s replacement. And he will also play a leading role in the restructuring of the front office.

“I’m doing a thorough assessment of our front office,” Brand said. “Our group has to get stronger. We know that. So I’m taking time to assess where we are and how we get better. We failed and we’re not happy about it. We’re actually pissed about it.”

Rucker's future? Central to that assessment will be the future of executive vice president for basketball operations Alex Rucker, a former Colangelo lieutenant with an analytics background who was mentioned as a candidate for the GM job that Brand ultimately landed. Asked specifically about Rucker, Brand declined to discuss specifics. But he is clearly under the impression that he has been given the green light to build a front office in his own image. Brand spoke of a desire to bring in more “basketball minds” to an organization that has become increasingly data-driven since the start of Hinkie’s tenure.

“As I’ve been taking a deep dive on where we failed, what went wrong, and how we get better, I felt like we need to strengthen our organization from top to bottom, and that starts with the front office,” Brand said, “balancing our strengths with analytics and strategy with more basketball minds, or whatever happens.”

Dysfunctional team: No doubt, this whole rigamarole will sound more than a little frustrating to Sixers fans who have spent the last two years watching one of the more exciting offensive teams in the NBA become more dysfunctional with every move. There has been a lot of talk about accountability with regard to the players, and it is enough to scramble your mind to think that the general manager can’t be held similarly accountable. The Sixers are at a precarious moment that can easily see them return to the ranks of perennial also-rans within the next couple of seasons. Equally precarious is ownership’s apparent decision that the man to fix a problematic front office is that front office’s current leader.

“I’ve grown as a leader; I’ve grown as a general manager,” Brand said. “I was put in the fire, had some of the tough decisions to be a part of, but now I’m looking forward to putting my stamp on this thing and taking full accountability of whatever comes next.”

We've seen this before: It might not make sense. But, then, these are the Sixers, and they have thought this way before. They pulled the plug on Hinkie. They removed Colangelo but not his team. And now, two years after awarding Brand a general manager’s title, they apparently will give him the authority to go with it.

Perhaps we are best off taking Michael Corleone’s advice. Don’t ask them about their business.