You can consider this an open letter to Comcast, at least the Comcast employees who are directly responsible for decisions concerning the Sixers. You can consider this a plea from a fan, or perhaps a segment of fans who love this once proud franchise. But more importantly, consider this as a business plan for not only returning the Philadelphia 76ers to prominence in the NBA, but filling the seats at the Wachovia Center.
Let's start with a quick recap of the current situation. You are failing. Attendance dropped to 26th in the league, despite desperate measures to salvage the season including heavily discounted tickets to all home games, ticket giveaways and re-signing Allen Iverson as a pure financial move. None of these measures were able to sway the fans, because none of these measures addressed the underlying reason for apathy, the direction of the franchise. Ticket sales, and I mean sustained ticket sales, aren't about hype, smoke & mirrors or theater of the absurd. Selling out NBA basketball games in Philadelphia is about one thing and one thing only. Winning, sustained winning.
The situation is dire right now, but trust me, it can get worse. You have fired your coach, but your general manager is left twisting in the wind. Recently he's mentioned the possibility of trading this year's draft pick for a veteran. He has been talking about getting back on track and immediate improvements to the team. Statements like this reek of desperation. To me, it seems like Ed Stefanski's head is on the chopping block and he's going to do anything and everything to move the needle in 2010. This is a terrible idea on a number of different levels.
First, there is no magic bullet deal Stefanski can make which will transform this team into an instant contender. At best, he will mortgage the future to get this team a low seed in the playoffs next season, and you, more than anyone, know that small wins like that do not translate into season ticket sales. Look at your books for 2007 through 2009. If Stefanski is operating under an assumption that he needs to show results in the form of a playoff appearance next season by any means necessary, you need to either replace him or tell him directly that you are taking a much longer view. Right now, he's acting like a CEO who is doing everything he can to boost his company's share price before he steps down, perfectly content to let his replacement clean up the long-term mess he leaves to achieve his short-term gains.
There needs to be a sea change from top to bottom in this organization. The first step is for you, the owners, to set the course. If you still believe Ed Stefanski is capable of making smart decisions, keep him. If not, replace him. Either way, the edict from ownership absolutely must be a long-term plan to build a winner. It may be painful in the short term, but you need to let your basketball decision makers know that you are willing to invest in a future for this team. That investment will be paid both in dollars for roster development and patience for the men you entrust to enact the plan.
When you've settled on your general manager and set the "building" tone for the franchise, the next step is to find the right coach. If a coach with an impeccable track record like Jeff Van Gundy can be had, you have to get him. If not, the search should be long and thorough to find a coach who will install a sound basketball philosophy, provide guidance and leadership to your young roster and grow with them as the team is built to contend. We cannot have another failure here. We cannot have another one-and-done head coach. If a coach has failed elsewhere, he's not worth the risk. If he has head coaching experience, he has to be a winner. If this is his first job, you have to be 100% confident that he's your man. I'd prefer either an assistant who has learned under one of the great coaches in the league (Sloan or Popovich, preferably). The team needs coaching stability to fully reach its potential. If you do not have faith in Ed Stefanski to make this decision, he must be removed. The "building" philosophy must flow directly from you to your general manager, to your coach.
From here, it's an iterative process. Before any personnel moves are made, the players on the roster must be comprehensively evaluated by fresh eyes. Strengths and weaknesses must be identified and used to make an informed decision about the identity of the team. The strengths of the team will create the team identity, and that will dictate the direction going forward. From that point on, any personnel move must be to enhance the team identity. No longer do you trade for misfit pieces. No longer do you hope a player can fit. Your coach is going to coach this team to a certain ideal, each new player must fit.
If you use your current roster to define the vision for the team, you've automatically got pieces in place. The goal is to keep adding pieces, and only subtract when you can add a better piece (or pieces). Personally, I think the team should be built to defend and run, meaning you have two ideal pieces right now in Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala. Every personnel move needs to achieve one of three goals: (1) Add a new piece that fits with the current pieces (2) Remove a current player who does not fit (3) Create an opportunity to add another piece that fits down the road. This can be accomplished by either creating cap space or collecting extra draft picks. If a trade does not fit those criteria, you do not make it. If a free agent does not fit, you do not sign him.
At the same time, you as owners have a financial responsibility. You cannot start the team down this road then deny your general manager the tools to get the work done. In the past the edict has been that you are willing to pay the luxury tax if that year's team has a chance to contend. You're going to have to change that logic. Getting this team on the right path may require paying the luxury tax to add a long-term piece, without immediate contention. There can be no financial constraints if the move fits with the plan. The mid-level and bi-annual exceptions should be tools at the GM's disposal this summer, provided he only uses them to add pieces that fit. He should also have the leeway to trade expiring contracts for long-term contracts, if the players added fit and move the team closer to the ideal identity. It's also vital that the GM have funds to buy draft picks.
This isn't a complex idea. Simply put, your fans are passionate, they are smart and they want to root for your team. They want to buy your product. You need to open communication with them, share your plan, do not deviate from it and build a team they can get behind. Build an identity they can call their own, choose a man to lead them who they can call their own, and build a roster of players who fit. This city will rally around a group of young players who grow up together and play hard on a nightly basis. If you lay the proper foundation and create your own luck along the way, this city will rally around you just like they've rallied around the Phillies for the past several years.
If you choose to stay on the current path. If you choose to try to pull the wool over the fans' eyes and mortgage the future for a pointless short-term run you're only going to further alienate the fan base. The long line of failed head coaches will grow longer, players will come and go and you will never create something this fan base can sink its teeth into. Instead of Sixers jerseys, Philadelphia kids will continue to buy LeBron jerseys.
Give us a light at the end of the tunnel. Give us a plan that makes sense. Give us a coach who not only inspires his players, but inspires us as well. Hope. I don't think that's too much to ask for. The irony in this situation is that if you have the courage of your convictions, the product on the floor will probably be better in the short term than if you continue to use these half measures and desperate moves to create the illusion of relevancy.