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Three management lessons Josh Harris may have learned from owning the 76ers

Hope springs eternal

Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Washington Commanders new managing partner/owner, Josh Harris, first dipped his feet into the pro sports ownership space in 2011, with the purchase of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. In the 12 years since first purchasing the team, he’s rolled through six different general managers, with the longest tenured serving a mere three year stint (the 76ers current GM, Daryl Morey just passed three years in November).

The early years of Harris’ ownership in Philadelphia were very lean, as the 76ers - led by GM Sam Hinkie at that point - executed “The Process,” essentially tanking from 2013 through 2016 in order to align themselves for high draft picks. Hinkie - a devoted believer in the power of analytics - resigned before he could see the fruits of his labor. Nevertheless, his successors would enjoy the sweet bounty, as several of the high picks netted in those post-tank drafts - including Joel Embiid (2013, pick 3) and Ben Simmons (2016, pick 1) - would lead the 76ers to six straight playoff berths from 2017-2023.

That said the road to consistent relevance hasn’t always been smooth, and there’s hope that as an owner in Philadelphia, Harris has overseen some mistakes that he won’t need to make again in his time in Washington. My top three are below:

Sacramento Kings v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Don’t Be Afraid to Trade Vet Talent Going into a Re-Build

Early in Hinkie’s tenure, as the tank was in full effect, he made several high profile trades of existing vets on the 76ers for potent draft capital. Prior to the 2014 draft, Philly traded Jrue Holliday and the draft rights to Pierre Jackson to the Pelicans for the draft rights to Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first round pick. Holiday was coming off an NBA All-Star selection during the 2013 season and Jackson would spend the rest of his career in developmental leagues. It should be noted that Holliday was traded as he was coming off his rookie deal, and as his salary was about to quadruple.

Noel would spend his rookie deal in Philadelphia, being named to the All-Rookie team in 2015, and would eventually be traded to Dallas as part of a package. The 76ers would use their 2014 first round pick to select Elfrid Payton, and would immediately trade him to Orlando for Dario Saric, a future first round pick (their own, returning), and a future second round pick. Saric would be named All-Rookie First Team in 2017, and would later be included as part of a trade package to the Timberwolves in 2018.

The 76ers future second round pick became Richaun Holmes in 2015, who would become a mid-roster “fixture” for Philadelphia before eventually being traded to the Suns in 2018.

The way Hinkie is remembered in Philadelphia is very mixed, but the complexity with how he was able to play the value-exchange game still has fervent admirers:

While NBA teams treat the draft like a drive up window, Hinkie used it like a grocery store: buying ingredients to a exquisite banquet. One draft set up Hinkie’s hand in the next draft. Always with an eye to tomorrow, he used the value of the draft like an investor in a hedge fund, always doubling down, playing with house money, and walking away with an even stronger hand the following year.

It’s very hard not to see echoes of these early moves in the pre-deadline trades of Montez Sweat and Chase Young earlier this season. The idea of re-couping value, and moving large contracts before they go into effect clearly aligns with elements of Philadelphia’s early process. Will that continue into the 2024 offseason?

Trading Up Early in the Draft is a Fool’s Game

After Hinkie stepped down in 2016, the father-son duo of Jerry and Bryan Colangelo quickly succeeded him. Jerry held the GM position for two days before passing the baton to Bryan in April of 2016. That June, the 76ers “won” the draft lottery and held the number one overall pick in the draft. Colangelo would select Ben Simmons from LSU, which was largely a success.

Thus far in his career, Simmons was named Rookie of the Year, has been a three-time NBA All-Star, and was a key piece of the 76ers competitiveness from 2017 through 2021 (he was traded to the Nets in 2022).

In Colangelo’s second draft (2017), the Sixers held the number three overall pick in the draft to start. Prior to the draft, they traded #3 and a 2019 first round pick (#14) to the Boston Celtics to move up to number one overall. The 76ers ended up taking Markelle Fultz at that position in what would end up becoming an abject disaster of a deal for Philadelphia. Fultz ended up “one of the worst top picks in recent memory,” playing only 33 games over two seasons with the franchise before being traded to Orlando in 2019.

Meanwhile, with the #3 pick, the Celtics selected Jayson Tatum, who has been a 4-time NBA All-Star, and helped lead Boston to the NBA Finals in 2022. In 2019, the Celtics used the other pick from the trade to select Romeo Langford, who was eventually packaged in 2022 as part of trade that netted Boston Derrick White, a defensive stalwart for the team.

At this point, it’s become an annual ritual of mine to post this pre-draft cautionary message from Ravens’ GM Eric DeCosta. Consider this the 2024 installment a bit early:

We look at the draft as, in some respects, a luck-driven process. The more picks you have, the more chances you have to get a good player. When we look at teams that draft well, it’s not necessarily that they’re drafting better than anybody else. It seems to be that they have more picks. There’s definitely a correlation between the amount of picks and drafting good players.

For a GM, indulging in the hubris that you know the talent so much better than the rest of the league that you can afford to gamble high-value draft capital in the service of your hunch is one of the quickest ways to go astray.

In early 2018, after having been implicated in a scheme to create dummy twitter accounts to criticize 76ers’ players - including Fultz and Embiid - Colangelo resigned his role as GM.

It’s Not Enough to Have Numbers on Your Side, You Have to Humanize the Process

By most accounts, what Josh Harris and Sam Hinkie did in Philadelphia - eventually - succeeded. Through draft and salary-shifting arbitrage, they got the 76ers into a spot where they’re one of the more consistently competitive teams in the NBA. Even so, Hinkie lost his job, the prolonged tanking pissed off other owners in the league, and “metrics-uber alles” approach created unnecessary friction for the franchise:

Yet Hinkie’s aggression, coupled with the sense agents and other general managers seem to have of him as an analytics smarty-pants who often won’t so much as return their phone calls, has burned him. The Sixers insider says, “When Hinkie was in Houston, agents didn’t want their players drafted there, because he’d overnegotiate every contract. He doesn’t have a feel for people, for when to push and when to back off. If he has a slight advantage, he’ll try to turn the knob the whole way.” A rival GM says, “Other general managers roll their eyes when there’s a call coming in from Sam,” because his trade offers are often aggressive to the point of insulting.

At the end of the day, Harris’ hiring of the Colangelos - consummate “basketball men” - was ultimately an overreaction to the heat he was getting from fans and others about Hinkie’s aloof approach.

But that alternative didn’t necessarily pan out either. All that said, Harris seems to have learned from his experiences in Philadelphia:

“Mike Tyson once said that ‘everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’ and that is also true in sports. Sport is a great teacher. There are winners and losers in sport, and there is a lot to learn from losing, as long you create from it grit and tenacity.”

Certainly analytics and data is increasingly playing a major role in sports, but obviously it goes beyond the numbers. I still think that the man-management part of it and creating that chemistry and the intangible strength of the team is critical. Increasingly science is being applied to sports, but it can only take you so far.

Conclusion

Theoretically, there should be significant value to having a team owner with prior pro sports ownership experience, and with Harris having owned the 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils for the better part of the last decade, he certainly meets that bill. There are strong indications that he’s seen the good and the bad of various - very different - approaches over that timeframe.

One interesting development is the hiring of Eugene Shen earlier this offseason. From my vantage point, Shen is Harris’ Hinkie in DC. He’s likely to have an outsized role in certain types of personnel decisions, but I expect it largely to be behind the scenes.

The question then becomes, who does Harris hire as the GM to serve as the “softer face” of the organization?

A recent conversation with Ryan Bainbridge of Niners Nation offers an interesting option:

A great quote from an anonymous agent: “Good, bad or ugly, Adam (Peters) does it the right way. He treats people with compassion, even when it’s a bad situation. He’s always honest. You know where you stand. I’m surprised he has not gotten a general manager job to this point. I think that if you’re a team looking this year, to put it bluntly, you would be dumb to look anywhere else. I think he is the best in the business.”

A pairing of Shen and Peters - who is no intellectual slouch in his own right - sounds very nearly like a match made in heaven. I’ll be curious to see if Harris feels similarly.

Poll

Are you confident Josh Harris will be able to find the right blend of data and interpersonal skills in his next GM?

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  • 88%
    Yes.
    (521 votes)
  • 11%
    No.
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