During Elton Brand’s season-ending press conference in late August, the Sixers’ lead executive promised to lead a thorough search to upgrade the basketball team, starting with the head coach but not stopping there.
“We’ll begin a search for a new head coach immediately, I’ll also be conducting an evaluation of the front office and that infrastructure, ways to strengthen that, I’ll do the same thing with the roster. Again, change can and will be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary,” Brand said in August. “We owe it, I owe it to these fans, I owe it to this city, to deliver on our goals. I still believe in our dynamic young core we’ve assembled, and I’ll spend the coming months figuring out how to best complement them and get over this hump. It’s time to get better, and that time starts now.”
Sitting here today in early October, the Sixers have a new head coach, and a good one in Doc Rivers. But what still remains unclear is exactly what’s changing from the top-down, inviting further speculation about how this power structure will work.
Hiring Rivers over another one of the qualified candidates in the mix does that on its own. Of the three men who made it to the final round of the process, it was Rivers who has shown the most desire to run the whole show in the past. Even after dropping his President of Basketball Ops title in L.A. in 2017, the man who took over, Lawrence Frank, was a former assistant coach under Rivers who he promoted to VP of Basketball Ops in 2016.
Team sources insisted at the time of his hiring in Philly that Rivers would not be taking on front office duties as part of his hiring, but Rivers appeared to push back on that claim at his very first press conference:
REPORTER: At the end of the season, Elton said the collaborative approach in the front office the Sixers had didn’t work. Has he explained to you how that might change now that you’re on board? And as someone who had an executive title before, how involved do you think you’ll be in the decisionmaking moving forward?
RIVERS: We’ll work together. That’s one of the things that was so exciting about this job, to have that opportunity with Elton. I think we have a chance to build something great here. Not just on the court. I actually think it starts off the court, and we have to get that part right. So that’s exciting. I think Elton and I will have a chance to form an amazing partnership together, and we’ll grow from there.
How deep will that partnership go? That’s the million-dollar question. A big reason Rivers was hired at all comes down to cache. This is a man the organization feels can lead in a way that will get their stars to follow, and any coach with his stature is going to have plenty of open dialogue with their front office about what they have, what they think is missing, and where they don’t need help.
But when you’re set up like the Sixers, with an inexperienced lead executive with finger pointers underneath and around him, it creates an opportunity for a man like Rivers to influence things more than is healthy. There have still been no firings at the executive level since the season ended, in spite of Brand’s claims about the collaborative days not working, and with rumors suggesting there may not be a single head to roll, only potential demotions and “restructure” moves.
On the team side, they have insisted that any questions about the speed of these moves come down to leaguewide trends, teams paralyzed by the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.
Their rapid courtship of Rivers suggests otherwise, as do other moves made recently around the league. Within hours of Rivers accepting the Sixers’ job offer, Alvin Gentry was floated as a potential lead assistant under the new Sixers coach. By the following Tuesday, Gentry had come to an agreement to become the associate head coach of the Kings.
All offseason, sources say, power brokers of all sorts have tried to lobby the Sixers to hire their clients. The team has repeatedly denied interest in hiring a big name above Elton Brand, whether that’s the oft-rumored name of Daryl Morey or any number of other name brand executives around the league, insisting they are searching for upgrades below Brand. But agents and middlemen connected to high-profile execs have tried to canvass the Sixers anyway, using back channels to avoid getting clients under contract elsewhere in trouble.
In some respects, this is a good thing. Ownership has the reputation of being willing to spend in a big market with a talented core in place. But the subtext is this: when people in the NBA have an opportunity to come into more money and power, they take it. And the Sixers, it seems, have been viewed externally as a place where that might be possible.
Brand, it must be said, has certainly taken charge in a lot of respects this offseason. Sources familiar with the coaching search were clear that it was Brand on the ground (perhaps not literally, in the times of COVID) contacting and interviewing various candidates up until the team narrowed the search down in the end, with ownership only getting involved at that point. Being well-liked isn’t necessarily the mark of a good lead executive, but if nothing else, Brand does seem to be respected for his work ethic and intelligence in many corners of the league.
The question is whether he has the standing, the conviction, and the experience to gut the front office the way it ought to be and draw a firm line between what he does and what Rivers is meant to do. Hiring a coach makes doing that first part difficult. Any hires or replacements made now will consist only of people who are comfortable with the size of Rivers’ voice, however large or small that might be beyond the hardwood.
Rivers is beloved among his peers, so maybe they get it right anyway. But when new and important hires have to be comfortable with people who are supposed to be working underneath them, it leads to the exact disarray that put the Sixers in their current position. They are no longer in a strong enough position to survive those mistakes a second time.
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