In a move no one saw coming, the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday hired former Suns owner/GM/coach Jerry Colangelo as chairman of basketball operations and special advisor to the managing general partner.
The question now is why didn't the Phoenix Suns think to do this?
This move will certainly benefit a languishing Sixers franchise that has netted just 38 wins over two-plus seasons under GM Sam Hinkie, who will remain in that capacity and continue to have final say on personnel decisions. Colangelo can offer Hinkie a wealth of experience to draw upon in his new role, but his reputation as a "fixer" will be his greatest impact on the team. For a franchise whose brand has been damaged by this protracted rebuild, that can't come fast enough.
"There's nobody there, and nobody will go there. Nobody," an anonymous player agent recently told Ken Berger of cbssports.com about the perception of the Sixers. "Cap space won't matter. You know who'll go there? Guys that are trying to steal money."
Colangelo knows how to fix wreckages. He took over USA Basketball after the 2004 debacle in Athens, where Team USA finished with the bronze medal. He immediately set out to re-establish what it meant for players to wear USA across their chest, setting new standards for commitment to the program and etiquette on a national stage. Surprisingly, players bought in left and right. Stars subjugated their individual games to be part of the team. Michael Redd even drove from Milwaukee to Chicago just to meet with Colangelo for a spot on the Team USA roster. It was a staggering culture shift but one that proved successful, leading to a 75-1 international record since 2006 and earning Colangelo a great deal of respect from the greatest players the NBA has to offer along the way.
Now he will be parlaying that influence into mending relationships with agents and recruiting free agents on behalf of Philadelphia this summer. "I went through four and a half decades of basketball on handshakes with agents and players," Colangelo said in his introductory news conference, according to Tom Moore. "My job is to be here to help."
If only the Suns had thought of that.
Colangelo served in an advisory role to the team for seven seasons after selling the Suns — a role that ended in 2012 — but hadn't been called upon in that role for quite some time according to Paul Coro. During the summer of 2014, the idea was floated that Colangelo might be able to use his considerable clout to sway LeBron James into signing with Phoenix as a free agent. However, there were questions at the time whether his advocating on behalf of the Suns would constitute a conflict of interest, with him being paid by all 30 teams as managing director of USA Basketball. Ultimately, James passed on Phoenix, and Colangelo's name hasn't been brought up as a free agent lure since.
This has to be one of the front office's greatest mistakes. For all these years, the Suns have had Colangelo hanging around the desert, looking to keep himself busy by taking on various roles with USA Basketball, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and Grand Canyon University but never thought to bring him back into the fold by creating some sort of special advisor role for him like the Sixers did this week. It was a huge miscalculation by the team, especially considering Colangelo's past willingness to help. "I was hopeful that, if asked, there could be a role to contribute [to the Suns], which I was more than ready to do and still am," Colangelo previously told azcentral.
Granted, bringing Colangelo back into the Suns organization would have brought about a number of issues, not the least of which being the appearance of undercutting current GM Ryan McDonough. No matter how vehement Colangelo or Sixers managing owner Josh Harris were in their press conference about the safety of Hinkie's job, the fact remained that another basketball voice had just been brought in that reported directly to ownership.
But setting aside ego and outside perceptions for a moment, having Colangelo at free agent pitch meetings would hold massive appeal for players looking for a new playing address. Just as the presence of a respected veteran like Tyson Chandler at LaMarcus Aldridge's meeting this summer helped push the Suns into Aldridge's top two, having a respected executive like Colangelo there as well could very easily have provided the impetus necessary to turn things squarely in Phoenix's favor. After all, Aldridge himself said it was the words of another venerated basketball executive — Pat Riley — that helped him decide on San Antonio over Phoenix.
The addition of Colangelo would have guaranteed nothing for Phoenix just as it guarantees nothing for Philadelphia. It would not have made the Suns instant favorites in this summer's Kevin Durantapalooza or made Al Horford pine to wear purple and orange, but it would have returned some of the luster to a franchise tarnished by recent player strife and a half-decade absence from the playoffs.
Now, just as with Steve Nash's hire by the Golden State Warriors earlier this season, another team is reaping the benefit of having a Suns legend on its payroll, and this time, it's a legend who just so happens to have the ear of every important figure on the NBA landscape.