It was quite a sight. Adam Aron led the way, cutting through the thick assembly that had packed the National Constitution Center on a hot summer afternoon. Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson, the team’s newest acquisitions, marched into the public press conference right behind Aron, following the path left in his wake. Aron smiled wide as he parted the crowd. What an indelible scene.
That was last August. The Sixers were a much different organization then.
Less than a year later, Rod Thorn is no longer the team president. Tony DiLeo is no longer the general manager. Doug Collins is no longer the head coach. And the man who triumphantly paraded his merry band of basketball players through a phalanx of adoring fans? Like so many others, he’s also out.
On Monday, the team officially replaced Aron with new CEO Scott O’Neil. Aron -- who will remain one of the team’s minority owners -- said he’s off to head a new investment venture that will include majority owner Joshua Harris and some of the other minority partners. Aron said jumping to the new project was his idea, adding that “it’s exciting” and “big fun.” Maybe you believe him. Maybe not.
How Aron was moved out, and why, matters less than this: The Sixers have plotted a decidedly new course for the organization. A year ago, there were essentially three faces of the franchise -- Collins, Aron and, to a lesser extent, Jrue Holiday. For various reasons, they’re all gone.
While these Sixers don’t necessarily have someone to position out front or put on billboards, they do have something else, something important: structure. The top of the organization is clearly defined now. There is new president and general manager Sam Hinkie, who handles the day-to-day basketball operations. Then there is O’Neil, who handles the day-to-day business and marketing operations. They both report to Harris. That’s it. That’s the top-tier triumvirate.
The changes represent a significant shift in approach. A year ago, on the basketball side, there were a lot of voices shouting for control with Collins’, arguably, as the loudest. It wasn’t chaos, but it did lead to some questionable decisions (Nick Young, Spencer Hawes and Kwame Brown, among others).
These days, all of the basketball maneuvers funnel through (or start with) Hinkie. In his limited time on the job, Hinkie has already traded a 23-year-old All-Star for a highly regarded rookie big man and a future first-round pick, drafted a replacement point guard, cleared cap space, acquired two new players via trade and set the Sixers up for the future. Hinkie may or may not make the right choices, but he’s made it clear who’s in charge on the basketball front.
The business side of the organization has undergone a similar overhaul with the transition from Aron to O’Neil. Aron was almost omnipresent for the Sixers, making news for everything from building the world’s largest T-shirt cannon to (in)famously asking fans, via Twitter, which Sixers they wanted to trade.
While Twitter was an effective tool at times for Aron and the organization, it also caused frequent problems. During parts of last season, while the team struggled, it felt like Aron was courting criticism. Toward the end, while the Collins drama drowned the organization, Aron began tweeting less. Then he all but disappeared for a few months. And now he’s out.
O’Neil called himself a “straight shooter” and promised to “engage fans quite a bit.” But don’t expect him to be as overexposed as Aron or other former Sixers executives.
“I like to say I knew Pat Croce,” O’Neil said. “When I was with the Eagles [as vice president of sales], Pat Croce was kind of the face of the Sixers. I used to marvel at him. This guy is scaling buildings and climbing a bridge. That’s not me. I’m not climbing any damn bridge. I’m scared of heights as it is. But you’ll find a friendly face. I’ll engage fans and business partners. I’m a salesman by trade. I’ll be in and around and available. I do tweet, but not, maybe, at the level others do. I’m engaged. I stick to kind of the inside world. I’ll do my own thing. I’ll have my own identity.”
O’Neil, who graduated from Villanova and then Harvard Business School, most recently served as the president of Madison Square Garden. He resigned from that position last September after more than four years on the job. During his time in New York, he was heavily involved in marketing MSG, the New York Rangers and, notably, the New York Knicks.
At the time he joined the organization, the Knicks were busy cleaning up the industrial-sized mess that former president and coach Isiah Thomas spilled all over the court and everywhere else. The Sixers' situation isn’t quite so bleak – which doesn’t mean O’Neil’s new job is absent challenges.
“This team is in a place where we’re going to need to some help,” O’Neil admitted. “We’re going to need the fans to try us out, have them come and give us a test drive. The challenge is can we get enough fans there to create a home-court advantage. That’s the biggest challenge there is.”
Overhauling the roster and winning games are pretty big challenges, too, but you get the idea. The Sixers have a lot of work to do. Now you know who will do the heavy lifting. You know their styles. And you know the collective approach is appreciably different than it was a year ago.