On one hand, it is completely insane to imagine that Bryan Colangelo, president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, would seriously create multiple burner accounts on Twitter that would allow him to vent his spleen about his players, his predecessor, his critics and his critics’ criticisms about his collars, as it was alleged Tuesday night in a fascinating and mind-blowing piece by Ben Detrick of The Ringer.
On the other, people talk wild spicy and mad reckless on social media all the time, especially when they think they’re operating under the veil and protection of anonymity. And Detrick’s investigation — kickstarted by an anonymous tipster who noticed a “bunch of weird tweets” aimed at people who write about the Sixers — made a compelling case that the five accounts’ “combination of tweets, retweets, and follows creates a Venn diagram that suggests one person behind the account.”
It’s compelling enough that the 76ers announced Wednesday morning they’d “commenced an independent investigation into the matter.” The team termed the allegations — which included multiple digs at current and former Philadelphia players like Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Markelle Fultz, attacks of former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie (whom Colangelo replaced in 2016) and Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri (who supplanted Colangelo in 2013), among other things — “serious.” And while this whole thing certainly is bafflingly, shockingly hilarious … yeah, you’re damn right it’s deathly serious for Philadelphia.
The Colangelo saga halts the Sixers’ momentum
Just one month ago, the 76ers were celebrating their first postseason series victory in six years and preparing for extremely big things in the very near future. Now, mere weeks away from the 2018 NBA draft and the start of free agency, the Sixers must get to the bottom of an absurd drama surrounding social media sniping and the alleged sharing of highly sensitive team information. And they must do so in a fashion that restores order and projects calm ahead of the most important summer since ownership OK’d Hinkie’s organizational reboot in 2013.
It’s one thing to be embroiled in some nonsense that leaves you looking like a laughingstock when you’re bad. When an agent tweets out a photo of his client signing a contract in front of the whiteboard on which the team’s general manager has written a detailed list of all of his potential free-agency targets, everybody laughs and laughs, and yes, there are consequences, but it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, because it’s the Orlando Magic, you know? There’s only so much at stake when there’s nothing at stake.
Five years ago — hell, two years ago — the Sixers were in the same submarine as the Magic, trawling the NBA’s depths in search of the kind of treasure that could get their heads back above water. Now, though, they’re there and breathing free, with two bona fide stars — All-NBA second team center Joel Embiid and Rookie of the Year finalist Ben Simmons — at the head of a 52-win team that just made the second round of the playoffs. Now, there are stakes, and that makes everything that came out Tuesday, and everything that comes next, much more significant and much more complicated for Colangelo and company.
This is a massive summer for the 76ers
The 76ers were one of the five best teams in the NBA this season. They’ve got an opportunity for significant internal improvement with healthy summers full of development work for Simmons and Embiid, and a chance for a hard reset for 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, whose lost-in-the-wilderness freshman year and late-season return seemed like a sure bet to the weirdest damn thing about this Sixers season … until Tuesday.
They’ve got the Nos. 10 and 26 picks in June’s NBA draft, as well as four second-rounders. They’ve got about $25 million in salary cap space, and the possibility of creating an estimated $32 million — a near-maximum-salaried contract slot for a veteran — to go big-game hunting for roster upgrades in a summer where LeBron James and Paul George could be on the unrestricted free agent market, and Kawhi Leonard could be available in trade.
There’s a lot of really big, important stuff on Philadelphia’s docket this summer, is the point. Stuff that will require the careful management of multiple relationships, both inside and outside the 76ers’ facility. Stuff that necessitates the ability to sit across the table from agents, players and other executives and instill faith that there’s a steady hand directing the organization.
The 76ers have to be able to engender trust that what’s being discussed at that table will remain in confidence. They have to be able to convince everyone involved that the particulars of their negotiations won’t wind up being sprayed around Twitter in 280-character bursts if and when things don’t turn up sunny for the Sixers. And it seems impossible to imagine peers, players and prospective partners looking at Colangelo now and feeling confident about any of that.
How damaging it is for the Sixers if this is all true …
In a statement furnished to The Ringer, Colangelo admitted to firing up @phila1234567, but claims that he “never posted anything whatsoever on social media,” and that he has no knowledge of or relationship to the since-gone-private @HonestA34197118, @Enoughunkownso1 and @s_bonhams, or the somehow-still-unlocked @AlVic40117560. He has reportedly said the same to the players, coaches and executives name-checked in the tweets in question: stuff running the gamut from ragging on Embiid’s dancing shirtless at a Meek Mill concert and his “lazy,” “selfish” play, to suggesting that Fultz’s longtime trainer Keith Williams was involved in “some really traumatic family personal experience” in the rookie’s life at the heart of Fultz’s absence, to pinning the 2017 trade of Nerlens Noel on head coach Brett Brown (“Once again Colangelo protected coach and got sh@t on for it”), to claiming on multiple occasions that another 2017 deadline deal that would’ve shipped out Jahlil Okafor got scuttled due to a failed physical.
If the independent investigation reveals that he’s lying about that, and that he was the author of these tweets, it would almost certainly mark the end of his tenure with the team. After all, how could the Sixers continue to employ a chief basketball executive who would, under the cover of anonymous troll accounts, crap on the play and conduct of their most important employees, reveal details of trade negotiations and internal strategy, and spread gossip about the players who constitute the on-court product that the organization’s trying to sell? (And if Colangelo’s found to have been lying, and the league itself decides to get involved, both he and the 76ers could face significant penalties under the NBA’s constitution and bylaws, as detailed by Michael McCann of Sports Illustrated.)
… and how damaging it can be, even if it isn’t
And if Colangelo is telling the truth — benefit of the doubt, innocent until proven guilty, etc. — that matters, but it only improves the situation by so much.
Maybe there’s an IT person who can prove it wasn’t Bryan Colangelo, but here’s one of his biggest problems in disputing Ringer story: Those tweets reflected not only private team biz, but launched personal beefs/jealousies/frustrations that he’s shared inside and outside 76ers.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) May 30, 2018
Even if the independent investigation winds up finding that he legitimately had nothing to do with the tweets sent by the four other accounts Detrick highlighted, the sheer amount of detail and specificity included in the cited tweets make it staggeringly unlikely that their information didn’t come from somewhere inside either the Sixers organization or Colangelo’s circle. And if that’s true, whoever wrote them had to get the information from somewhere. If Colangelo’s not typing the words, but he is providing the copy, wittingly or not, doesn’t that amount to a distinction without difference when you’re talking about such sensitive stuff?
“How can anyone […] trust the Sixers with medical information if there’s any truth to Sixers’ upper brass tweeting out confidential information through freakin’ burner accounts on Twitter?” asked Derek Bodner of The Athletic. “If it’s found out that somebody close to Colangelo’s sphere ran the accounts, and that person was removed, does that even change anything? Can this front office regain the trust they would have already lost in such a case? Can they convince anyone that this fiasco won’t happen again?”
Even personal vindication for Colangelo wouldn’t accomplish that goal. Barring a resolution that proved this entire thing was, say, an elaborate and completely fabricated years-long deep fake — perpetrated by, I don’t know, a supervillain with the extremely specific and comparatively modest endgame of changing a basketball team’s management structure? — it doesn’t seem like anything can.
These accounts existed. They sent these tweets. They communicated these bits of information and these gripes, which reportedly dovetailed with stuff shared privately inside and outside the organization during Colangelo’s tenure.
This stuff happened, and that points to a titanic, glaring issue within the Sixers organization, whether or not Colangelo is the one who pushed “send.” And whatever the results of the investigation, it’s an issue that ownership would seem to have to address emphatically and in no uncertain terms before the 76ers go on the clock on June 21, or start lining up free-agent visits for July 1.
“I talked to him and he said that he didn’t say that,” Embiid told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. “He called me just to deny the story. Gotta believe him until proven otherwise. If true, though, that would be really bad.”
Embiid’s wrong on that, though. It’s really bad either way, and it could prove to be a devastating roadblock on the path to the Sixers’ expected rise to championship contention.
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