We’ll start here: I have no idea if Elton Brand is going to be a good general manager, a bad one, or somewhere in between. And I don’t think you do, either. At least, not with anything approaching confidence or certainty, if for no other reason than we just don’t have a whole lot of evidence to point us either way.
After a 17-year playing career that included parts of five seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, Brand retired in October 2016. Two months later, he joined the 76ers as a player development consultant. Eight months after that, he was named the general manager of the 76ers’ G League affiliate, the Delaware 87ers (later renamed the Blue Coats). And now, barely a year after that, he’s the newly minted general manager of the big-league club, taking the reins of a franchise teeming with talent and possibility, but also one that finds itself in a very precarious position.
Brand has seen the NBA from just about every angle over the past two decades. He’s been a blue-chip collegiate prospect tapped with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to revive a once-proud team in Chicago, and a rising star stunningly flipped, after just two years, to the long-moribund Clippers. He’s been a legitimate linchpin helping do the seemingly impossible job of lifting that franchise back to respectability, even while dragging an impossible anchor, and a great talent struck down in his prime, forced to try to come back from perhaps the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer.
He’s been a high-priced could’ve-been, never able to get back to his pre-injury heights and earmarked for the axe of the newly instituted amnesty provision, and a veteran forced to make do with the skills that hadn’t left him and the smarts that never would. He’s been a retiree returning to the game to serve as a stabilizing veteran mentor for a wildly young roster in the throes of one of the most remarkable stretches of losing in league history, a fast-rising executive riding along as Philly’s fortunes turned dramatically … and now, he’ll see it all from a new, and very interesting, vantage point.
Tuesday’s news caps a meteoric rise for the 39-year-old Brand, whom Philly’s owners brought into the fold as part of the GM-by-committee project that steered the team after Bryan Colangelo’s nearly unbelievable burner account flameout just before the start of the offseason. As the team’s general manager search stretched on through the summer, Brand earned a promotion, to the rank of vice president of basketball operations; now, with the Sixers set to open training camp next week, he’s earned another, outpacing a handful of other internal and external candidates by reportedly selling ownership “on vision, preparedness and the ability to grow into the role at a crucial time for the organization.”
And make no mistake: this is a critical moment in Philadelphia.
The Sixers entered the offseason riding high, coming off a 52-win season led by two of the sport’s most exciting young talents: All-NBA center Joel Embiid and Rookie of the Year jumbo point guard Ben Simmons. On top of one of the NBA’s most talent-rich young rosters, Philadelphia also had the cap space and trade assets to go “star-hunting”. But while several Eastern Conference rivals made notable improvements, Philly’s pursuit of landscape-tilting superstars came up empty.
Whether or not that had anything to do with the franchise’s uncertain management structure — or whether or not it means a Sixers team with Embiid, Simmons, Dario Saric and a post-summertime-reset Markelle Fultz has been lapped in the East — the fact remains that Philly’s first shot at grafting game-changing talent on top of their existing infrastructure missed. This year presents another, with a slew of high-profile free agents potentially on the market, but the Sixers will have to move quickly to fit in a difference-maker before the financial picture gets more complicated, with extensions for Embiid and Covington kicking in, Saric becoming extension-eligible next summer, and the option-year cap hits for former No. 1 picks Simmons and Fultz rising fast.
Navigating that contractual thicket and selling top-shelf talents on buying into an on- and off-court structure already built around Embiid and Simmons promises to be a tricky job. The Sixers are betting that Brand, just two years removed from his playing days, is the right man for it — for a gig that Philly managing partner Josh Harris told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski last month has “many facets, and [is] a learned skill,” one in which “management and very strong relationships are important.”
They’re betting that Brand built enough of the latter during his 17-year playing career, and developed enough of the former during his one-year apprenticeship in the G League. They’re betting that, in an industry where it can be exceedingly difficult to determine how much or how little assistant GMs or VPs have had on the success of their previous organizations, they know enough about what Brand has brought to the table, and can bring in the future, to hand him control of one of the most promising rosters in the Game.
“Elton Brand can connect with Fortune 500 business leaders, and he can connect with players in a locker room,” wrote Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY Sports. “That ability to command the respect of NBA owners with his business savvy and relate to players due to his long career in the league is why the Philadelphia 76ers hired Brand as their new general manager.”
It’s a biiiiig bet to make at this stage in his career, and at this stage in the franchise’s development.
“It’s fair to talk to people who have worked with Brand and assess him as an up and coming star, an executive with a bright future in the league who may very well be GM material down the line,” wrote Derek Bodner of The Athletic after Tuesday’s news broke. “But it would be almost unfair to expect Brand to have the institutional knowledge you would typically expect from the lead executive tasked with putting the finishing touches on a team many hope, if not expect, to seriously contend in the future.”
There’s also the question of whether Brand will actually be the one “putting the finishing touches” on the Sixers.
The franchise repeatedly emphasized the strength and value of its existing front-office infrastructure this summer, promoting multiple executives from the post-Colangelo klatsch up the org chart alongside Brand; “collaboration” has been, and remains, the watchword emanating from Philly. While Brand’s now technically at the top of the food chain, you’d expect several other figures — executive vice president of basketball operations Alex Rucker, assistant general manager Ned Cohen and senior vice president of player personnel Marc Eversley among them — to continue to play major roles, too. Maybe that’s just what the doctor ordered for a GM with little on-the-job experience. Then again, maybe that’s a recipe for undercutting a newly installed leader without much of a front-office resume to lean on.
There’s also Brown, the head coach who served as the Sixers’ interim lead decision-maker during the offseason, pulling the trigger on the draft-night deal that sent hometown prospect Mikal Bridges to Phoenix in exchange for ZhaireSmith and an enticing 2021 first-round draft pick. Brown’s been adamant that he didn’t want to pull double-duty full-time — a wise choice, considering how the gig’s gone for the likes of Doc Rivers, Stan Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau in recent years — but after a summer of calling the shots, how much will he be willing to take a back-seat in the decision-making process?
A team source told Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice that Brand would have “ample authority, which, if you’re scoring at hme, isn’t the same thing as full authority. If GM and coach butt heads over a personnel decision, will Brand really carry the day over the coach who’s built more equity in the organization, who just led the team to its first playoff trip in six years, and who just got a new contract extension? And if he won’t — if the new lead exec won’t necessarily hold sway over the incumbent coach and his immediate predecessor — then what, exactly, are the Sixers doing?
Taken together, the choice of Brand comes across as an attempt to maintain a status quo with which ownership felt comfortable rather than striking out in pursuit of the kind of experienced, vetted leader Harris had just last month spoken of seeking; as Sixers blog Liberty Ballers put it, “it seems like the Sixers were satisfied hiring the best general manager available who fit their very specific set of criteria.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Brand won’t be the best choice for the job. It just means that Philly has somehow managed to simultaneously make the safest choice possible and take the biggest risk on the board. Which is perhaps fitting, considering the franchise got to this point by embracing an extreme rebuilding plan centered on losing as much as possible to pursue the highest-level draft talent possible and gambling on prospects coming off torn ligaments, back injuries and broken feet.
Through one lens, all those risks seemed insane. Through another, they were the best bets possible in a world full of longshots, the ones most likely to help the Sixers become who they wanted to be. Now, two regimes and a lifetime later, with that goal seemingly within arm’s reach, they’re taking another chance, banking on Elton Brand to be the one to bring The Process to its conclusion.
“This life that we’ve all lived with Sam [Hinkie] and Bryan, it’s been interesting to say the least,” Brown said during a media luncheon with reporters on Tuesday, hours before the Brand news broke. What comes next, if nothing else, promises to be similarly compelling.
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