On Sept. 20, the day Elton Brand officially became the Sixers’ general manager, analytics chief Alex Rucker was promoted to executive vice president of basketball operations. That seemed odd.
Brand had been the general manager of the NBA G League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats. The Sixers had been unable to land their first choices, former Cavaliers GM David Griffin and current Rockets GM Daryl Morey. They struck out in their second round, too: Warriors assistant GM Larry Harris, Jazz assistant GM Justin Zanik and Rockets vice president Gersson Rosas.
In the end they promoted Brand, a Hunger Games survivor who outlasted the other in-house candidates: player personnel VP Mark Eversley, assistant GM Ned Cohen, and, apparently, Rucker.
But did he, really? Or was Rucker promoted to hold Brand’s hand?
Who, exactly, is in charge?
That question lingered in NBA circles all season. It lingered through the complex trade for Jimmy Butler in November. It lingered through the trade that landed Tobias Harris and a cache of veteran depth in February.
The draft is Thursday. Free agency begins in two weeks. With Butler and Harris facing free agency, and with Ben Simmons eligible for a 5-year, $168 million contract extension, the question needed to be answered. So, during the Sixers’ four-week playoff run and in the month since, that’s what we set out to do.
The answer: After a season spent immersed in often-frenetic on-the-job training, Brand now is fully in command.
Yes, managing partners Josh Harris and David Blitzer had a hand in the big deals during the season. They will continue to sign off on the biggest decisions; but then, most owners in every sport do that.
Yes, there were times when Brand needed a hand making the numbers fit and understanding the byzantine rules that govern NBA transactions. But then, almost no GM in any sport operates independent of his aides -- especially not a first-year GM.
More significant, it was Brand who sat at the right hand of Josh Harris two days after the Sixers lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal in Toronto. It was Brand who attended the dinner in New York City with Harris and Blitzer when the managing partners affirmed to Brown that he would continue to be the Sixers’ coach. It was Brand, said Brown, who assured him during the series against the Raptors that his job was safe.
Brand, and no one else. And everybody knows it.
In the past two months, six Sixers executives speaking to The Inquirer referred to Brand as the unquestioned boss -- the person who has the complete endorsement of ownership.
He’s the GM, and he will act as a GM should.
Brand declined to comment on most of the issues at hand, but, of course, if things are happening as they should, he really doesn’t have much to gain by commenting.
If this feels like we’re dialing 911 to report there’s no fire, that’s understandable. However, over the past eight month’s there has been plenty of smoke.
Who did what? Who does what now?
Those questions had interesting answers.
Eversley often speaks with the press, but his role as a talent evaluator has virtually evaporated, league sources said. Instead, senior director of scouting Vince Rozman is the loudest voice in Brand’s ear. This is logical; after all, Eversley was consigliere for deposed GM Bryan Colangelo, undone by his connection to Twittergate.
Eversley also has little involvement in cap management. That still falls at the feet of Cohen, who spent 12 years in the NBA offices before joining the Sixers as Colangelo’s chief of staff in 2016.
Colangelo’s exit and Brand’s promotion resulted in Rucker’s alarming ascension from analytics chief to executive VP of basketball operations. It’s a lofty title, but the job generally entails management of the basketball staff rather than granular decision-making.
One of the conspiracy theories cast Rucker as the man behind the curtain, perhaps acting in the interests of ubiquitous limited partner Michael Rubin.
Rucker is not the man behind the curtain. For that matter, there is no curtain. As for Rubin’s influence, he is not involved in decisions more important than inviting celebrities like Robert Kraft or Meek Mill to share his courtside seats.
It’s important to note that Rucker himself, at every pass, asserts that Brand is, in fact, running the show. Of course, if Rucker was running the show, that’s exactly what Rucker would claim; but there appears to be no deception involved. Rucker remains strongly connected to the analytics department, though the title of senior director now belongs to Sergi Oliva. He’s the bearded guy who always seems to be at Brown’s elbow, sits behind the bench, attends all meetings, and travels with the team.
If there was any question who’s making the decisions at the Sixers’ facility in Camden, they were answered two weeks ago when the team lopped off the heads of their medical staff.
It was Brand who identified the issue between Dr. David Martin and Dr. Daniel Medina. Two team sources said that when Medina was hired in 2017 as vice president of athletic care (or, the top doc), Martin, the existing director of health and sports performance and research (or, the sports science chief) incorrectly believed that Medina would be an equal. Medina was hired to be Martin’s boss. Martin resented that, and the departments never developed the necessary synergy.
This led to a bigger problem. Medina was overwhelmed by suffocating daily pressures, transparency, and criticisms of big-time American sports. Medina also was taken aback by the ingrained insubordination of NBA players, who act like independent corporations. He never asserted himself as Martin’s boss and never seized control of the medical department. As a result, team sources said, “key players" and staff members often ignored Medina’s directives.
Was one of those “key players” Joel Embiid, who spent the past two seasons in questionable shape? The sources did not deny that assumption.
Regardless, Brand decided both Martin the Machiavellian and Medina the Meek had to go.
“He’d had his [authority] cut off,” one league insider said of Medina. “He couldn’t get it back.”
This is relevant to Brand because one story making the rounds says that Brand himself didn’t fire Medina.
That was the one assertion Brand addressed directly for this story.
“No. I fired Danny. I met with Danny,” Brand said. “We had our discussion.”
Brand was brief. To the point.
Like a boss.