CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) Bryan Colangelo is not masking inferior basketball with a snappy nickname. The only banner he wants raised is one for the next Philadelphia 76ers’ championship.
The effort toward a title – OK, let’s face it, anything near .500 – could get the breakthrough the organization needs with the No. 3 overall pick and four second-rounders in next month’s NBA draft.
For some fans, though, their opinion of Colangelo won’t be affected much by what comes next. Their trust is placed elsewhere.
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Sam Hinkie was hired as 76ers general manager to light the match and torch the team to rubble, a course that led to his resignation in April 2016. Colangelo took over not long after, and armed with potential cornerstone players Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, he is 13 months into a job as team president where shaping the Sixers into Eastern Conference contenders is the only suitable destination.
Relaxed in his chair, overlooking three championship banners inside a state-of-the-art team complex, Colangelo realizes he has a more curious task than most team executives. Not only must he win, Colangelo must win over a zealous sect of Sixers fans peculiarly devoted to Hinkie. Even with a championship parade under Colangelo, the group would use some sort of Venn diagram to credit – and credit only – what’s known around the league as The Process .
”I’ve never really addressed that word,” Colangelo said in a wide-ranging interview this week with The Associated Press.
”I think Joel said it best recently; everything is a process. Team building is a process. His own development in his return from injuries is his process. I don’t think there’s reason to really focus on that particular word. But it’s catchy and it’s obviously been something that people grabbed on to. But I will say, if The Process was about losing before, it’s now about winning. And winning in a sustainable way.”
The 76ers have had one of the worst stretches of any organization in NBA history over the last four years and bottomed out with a 10-72 record in 2015-16. Hinkie quit suddenly that April via a rambling 13-page manifesto to ownership. Colangelo, one of three men to win NBA executive of the year with two different franchises, was hired and entrusted with molding Team Tank into winners.
Colangelo didn’t take long to realize more than the roster needed a complete overhaul.
”I think it was a much bigger project than I realized,” he said. ”We completely transformed our infrastructure with respect to analytics. I think we completely transformed our approach to decision making and inclusion throughout the organization.”
Let others work under mystery.
Colangelo has stressed open collaboration with everyone from scouts, the medical staff and, especially, coach Brett Brown. Brown (75-253 in four seasons) raved this season about his tag-team with Colangelo. While some front office heads want to work with previous connections, Colangelo said he found a kindred spirit in ”basketball DNA” with Brown and admired how he had molded a team with the characteristics of its coach; unwilling to quit even in steady defeat.
”How he kept his head high, how he maintained a positive focus throughout,” Colangelo said, trailing off. ”I think I got him at the tail end of it all. I saw a tired and weary person who was longing for something better. We connected on the notes about turning the corner.”
The glimmer of feint hope for better days on the horizon came with a 10-5 January that showed there just may be three or four players worth keeping as the Sixers keep rebuilding. NBA rookie of the year contenders Embiid and Dario Saric, along with No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons, could form a capable trio worthy of multiple All-Star appearances and playing big games in late May.
But keeping core players healthy in Philly has been about as impossible as finding local foodies to settle on a favorite Jose Garces spot. The Sixers have gone five straight years – five! – with a starter out for the season with injuries (Andrew Bynum, Nerlens Noel, Embiid, Embiid, Simmons). Embiid, the Shirley Temple-chugging social media darling, played just 31 games last season and needed left knee surgery. Simmons sat out with a broken right foot .
”What Joel has proven to be when healthy, and what we anticipate Ben becoming, we’ve got two transformational type players that don’t come around that often,” Colangelo said.
Embiid has already come back from two significant foot injuries and battled a balky back at Kansas. The Sixers slapped a minutes restriction on him and would not play him in back-to-back games in an effort to ease his brittle body into the NBA grind.
”Despite the notion that everybody wanted him to play more minutes, we were very diligent in our approach to him coming back,” Colangelo said. ”As much as that drove, sometimes, anger in the market place and questioning our thought process and decision making, even allegations that we were trying to hurt the fans in some way, that’s never been the case. It’s always been about trying to put Joel in the position to succeed and maintain his long-term health.”
Embiid said last week when he represented the Sixers at the draft lottery that he expected to participate in 5-on-5 drills this offseason.
”Everyone takes every word said so literally that we need to change the narrative,” Colangelo said. ”When he’s back on the court, it means it’s part of his progression toward returning to play organized competitive basketball. I just look forward to him being healthy and on the court when training camp opens next year.”
So who joins Embiid and Simmons on the roster? The Sixers have plenty of options at three – KU’s Josh Jackson is enticing – and Colangelo said he spent time overseas evaluating ”at least six prospects for a potential draft-and-stash.”
”If someone really wants No. 3, we will look at that,” Colangelo said.
Colangelo’s celebration in New York at the lottery was somewhat overshadowed by a draft party thrown in Philadelphia by fans who raised a banner of Hinkie’s image to the rafters inside a sports bar across the street from the Wells Fargo Center. The Sixers had the third pick because of a steal-of-a-deal orchestrated by Hinkie two years ago that caused owner Josh Harris to blurt out once the envelope was opened, ”Thank you, Sam Hinkie!”
The Cult of Hinkie is like a fog that won’t lift in Philly.
”I can’t concern myself with that,” Colangelo said. ”Not dissimilar to my opening press conference, I was asked about that and I credited Sam with doing a very good of setting up this organization for the future.”
While shrewd with dismantling a roster, Hinkie was criticized for distant relationships with agents, the media and the front office.
”One of those things that I think I needed to do was help change the image, per se, of the organization,” Colangelo said. ”Build back some relationships that were required to conduct our business in a way that was more conducive to a successful formula. But without question, Sam did great things for this organization. I’m sure he will forever be thanked by fans, ownership, management alike.”
Sure, a tip of the cap may be in order.
But the man calling the shots for the Sixers in New Jersey is indifferent toward the past or needing credit for the future.