Jerry Colangelo didn’t need the headaches of lifting the Philadelphia 76ers from the bottom of the barrel — some would say tank — three years into General Manager Sam Hinkie’s unapologetic strategy of trading established players for draft picks to pile up money and assets for an overhaul of the roster.
But Colangelo was intrigued when principal 76ers owner Josh Harris appealed that he share his wisdom and bring gravitas to a team that had become a joke. Colangelo, an energetic 76, was excited enough by the idea to say yes, putting aside duties that include executive posts at USA Basketball and the basketball Hall of Fame and advising Grand Canyon University’s business school and basketball team.
“I’ve been a lifer in basketball. I owe so much to the game,” said Colangelo, who was introduced to Harris by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “I remember when I was inducted into the Hall of Fame in ’04 I told the story that when someone handed me a ball when I was 7 and I smelled the leather, it was the beginning of a love affair that has lasted my entire lifetime.”
That relationship took a turn a few weeks ago when he became chairman of basketball operations for the 76ers, who bring a 3-31 record to their game against the Lakers on Friday at Staples Center.
Colangelo has had an impact in his brief tenure: the 76ers have won two of three games since they hired former Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni as an associate coach to work with Brett Brown, and since they acquired point guard Ish Smith from New Orleans for two second-round draft picks from their stockpile
“There is a plan in place that’s been going on for three years and I think you continually look at a plan and see if it needs to be tweaked, and there was a little bit of tweaking that’s taken place,” Colangelo said.
“Ish Smith was someone Coach Brown had great interest in because he had him for a while and they let him go. ... He’s the kind of player who helps other players play better. He’s a good teammate on the floor and in the locker room. To me, that’s a tweak.”
It will take a lot of heavy lifting to make the 76ers competitive, but the process could be accelerated by the possibility of having four first-round picks in June. One is the Lakers’ pick, which is top-three protected in 2016 and 2017 but is all Philadelphia’s in 2018 if the Lakers keep it the next two years.
Hinkie’s strategy has tested fans’ patience. “But people who get upset with the Sixers for what they’re doing, I think you have to look more at rules of the NBA. This is allowable. And they make money,” said Jeff Van Gundy, former coach of the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets and now an ESPN analyst.
“To me, being this bad should cost you money, but in fact, in Philadelphia’s situation, it made them money. They get the same TV revenue as everybody else. They keep a very low-paying product on the floor. This starts out at the ownership level. People make this out to be a Sam Hinkie plan.
“Sam Hinkie got hired to put this plan into action. If there’s anger, it should start at the top.”
The 76ers’ fate hinges on drafting well, which isn’t guaranteed.
Point guard Michael Carter-Williams, chosen 11th in 2013, was voted rookie of the year in 2014 but they traded him to Milwaukee for that Lakers draft pick (through the Phoenix Suns) in a three-way deal last February. Center Joel Embiid, the No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft out of Kansas, has undergone two ankle surgeries and hasn’t logged a minute in the NBA.
“His foot is healing. He hasn’t played yet. Who’s to say whether he will?” Colangelo said. “If he did, he could be a real difference-maker, for sure.” In addition, center Jahlil Okafor, drafted third last June out of Duke, has played well but was involved in some off-the-court incidents and was suspended two games by the team for a scuffle outside a bar.
The 76ers were 0-18 before they beat the Lakers Dec. 1 and were 1-30 until they beat Phoenix last Saturday. They narrowly lost at Utah on Monday before winning Wednesday at Sacramento, fueled by Smith’s floor leadership.
Before that uptick, their sad state prompted a lament from Larry Brown, who counts Philadelphia among his many stops.
“I’m sick of what’s going on there,” Brown, who coaches at Southern Methodist, told the website Sheridanhoops.com. “You know I care about the Sixers. It’s an unbelievable basketball city and I had a great experience there. I don’t want to get on them when they’re struggling, but they don’t have any veteran leadership. I want to help. I could straighten it out in five minutes.”
Brown wasn’t asked to help. Colangelo was, and that could be a turning point for the franchise.
Van Gundy said that while the 76ers probably overpaid for Smith, the move made sense for them. “At least they have a guy who gives them a reasonable chance at the point guard position, which I think helps the other players,” Van Gundy said. “You always talk about player development, but who you put around a player like Nerlens Noel or Okafor or whoever you’re trying to develop, you get a guy who’s a pass-first point guard who has quickness and the ability to push in transition, that goes a long way in helping to developing other, better players.”
Van Gundy also praised Brett Brown, saying Philadelphia’s coach and the team can benefit from D’Antoni’s experience and attitude. “People talk just about his offense, but I think he also has a wonderful outlook on basketball and life and I think that spirit will make him invaluable,” Van Gundy said of D’Antoni. “Because, listen, if you don’t have that type of spirit, this type of season can just eat you up.”
Colangelo, who committed to a three-year term and will work mostly from his Phoenix home, calls himself an eternal optimist but is realistic about the road ahead.
“What I like is that there are a lot of options available. There are assets that could be used that could really turn relatively well,” he said. “But I keep using this expression: The stars need to be aligned. You need to draft right, you need to get people healthy and you add one or two key pieces. ...
“You know, there are a lot of teams in the league who I would say are not really good teams and they don’t have any assets to speak of and it’s going to be very difficult to do any better. You kind of get locked into a situation. I think Philadelphia’s future is pretty good as it relates to the assets in place and what might take place in the future.”