The Sixers are expected to fire a prominent voice in the front office.
When the Philadelphia 76ers fired Bryan Colangelo, not much changed. Sure, Elton Brand was appointed GM, but none of Colangelo’s cabinet was ousted alongside him. The Sixers became an organization focused on “the collaborative,” with decision-making powers granted to far too many individuals.
One such individual was Alex Rucker, who was named Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations after Colangelo’s departure. Before that, he was the VP of Analytics and Strategy, hired in 2016 after seven years with the Toronto Raptors.
It now appears Rucker will be one casualty of the Sixers’ offseason soul-searching. According to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Rucker is not expected to return after the Sixers’ disastrous 2019-20 campaign. Elton Brand promised thorough evaluation and change to the front office structure in Philadelphia.
This is probably the right move, and hopefully other Colangelo cronies — Ned Cohen, chief among them — are also shown the door. With that said, the reasons put forth in Pompey’s report are not the right reasons. And it’s important to draw a distinction between right and wrong when it comes to Philadelphia’s front office.
Pompey’s article blames “analytics,” an ever-vague term that is seldom given proper context, for the Sixers’ failure during “the process,” another increasingly vague term. For my two cents, the process ended when Sam Hinkie resigned. The gratuitous squandering of assets that took place afterward were in no way tied to such a revolutionary and creative manner of team-building.
As for “analytics” — and the sizable role Rucker had in establishing Philadelphia’s analytics department — it’s downright foolish to blame the Sixers’ failure on analytics. Analytics do not make decisions. Analytics do not hand out contracts, or pull the trigger on trades. That falls on the individual.
Analytics are simply numbers. Numbers that, when interpreted correctly, can provide necessary and essential context for why certain players succeed in certain areas on the floor. Analytics are not used in place of on-court evaluation. They are used to enhance that evaluation.
So, when Pompey’s report singles out the Sixers’ need for “more basketball minds,” he is missing the point. It is also clear that the Sixers front office, Brand likely at the helm, is attempting to pin Philadelphia’s misfortune on the analytics department, rather than shoulder the blame themselves.
I can promise no intelligent wielder of basketball analytics would advise you to build a starting five comprised of four big men, no high-level shooters, and a complete absence of perimeter shot creators. No analytics department would justify Tobias Harris’ contract on the grounds of statistics or impact on winning. Harris has never been favorably viewed in the “analytics” community.
To pin blame on analytics is to ignore the enormity of human error that has driven Philadelphia into the ground. Everyone in the front office deserves blame. And sure, you can criticize the analytics department for not properly using analytics. But to say analytics are the problem — or that “basketball minds” are separate from analytics — is to fall prey to a half-baked narrative that shifts blame onto a few, rather than the whole group.