Collars and Deadlines

As the final seconds of a basketball game tick off on a muted TV playing in mansion’s dark living room in Phoenix, AZ, a scared boy pokes his head meekly through the spindles of a staircase. His face, which looks like Brody from Homeland if his torture had been decades of crushingly unmet expectations instead of, well, torture, is obscured by a shirt collar worn exaggeratedly high, a habit formed in childhood to obscure the Rudolph-like redness with which his ears light up when he’s embarrassed. He was, and is, often embarrassed. He used to use it fuel him, to push himself towards the greatness to which he felt destined; lately, his ears shine constantly, a reminder of the mediocrity to which he is entitled.

The boy addresses a form in a recliner. The form is humanoid, somehow horrifically desiccated by the dry desert air and bloated like a rotting whale carcass simultaneously. “Boy,” he sleepily wheeze-whistles, “you may have your phone back.” The boy army-crawls to the side of the recliner and retrieves the cellphone that had been confiscated from him for sending emails full of contradictory lies at supper. Father and son perform a complicated and lame-looking handshake that ends in a tongue kiss and the son kissing the father’s conspicuously ringless hand before the boy army crawls back up the stairs. Upon reaching the summit, he dusts himself off, takes a deep breath, whispers his mantra (“You are daddy’s sweet, good boy”) to himself, and checks his phone. He reads: “Sacramento Kings F/C traded to New Orleans Pelicans for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, and an unprotected 2017 1st round pick.” He gasps and drops the phone. Bryan Colangelo knows his time is coming.

The Philadelphia 76ers came into the 2016–17 season with a well-documented logjam at the center position. Joel Embiid, the team’s great hope, was blocking fellow lottery picks Jahlil Okafor, a lumbering oaf whose ceiling stands no taller than a hunched-over old lady who is as good as he is at defense, and Nerlens Noel, a bouncy rim-runner who was the team’s longest-tenured player and whose acquisition at the 2013 draft was the beginning of the team’s controversial Process era.

Noel’s game, low-usage and defense-first, is more well-suited for the modern NBA than Okafor’s low-efficiency post maneuvering; Okafor, for his part, is under a favorable rookie-scale contract for two years after this one, and his teams in high school and college always won, which dumb people think matters. By today’s trade deadline, Noel had proven himself to be a far superior player. This was no so at last year’s draft, the logical time to deal one of the two, but with his control of the team still smelling of new car, Colangelo stood pat rather than make what might be perceived as a bad deal. Given the the deals that were reportedly on the table (Noel, Robert Covington, and 2 firsts to he Celtics for the number 3 pick) were bad, and coming out of the night with Ben Simmons, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Furkan Korkmaz, Colangelo came out of the night looking pragmatic. Maybe, skeptical fans began to think, he wouldn’t be so bad.

Bryan picks his phone up off the floor and takes a deep breath. He had thought he was getting somewhere. He had thought the center the Pelicans wanted to pair with Anthony Davis was Jahlil Okafor. He had told coach Brett Brown to tell the press Okafor was being held out of games due to trade talks to try to get the Pelicans to relax their requested lottery protections. Had they seen through the ruse? How? The move, he was sure, was tactical genius, gleaned directly from the illustrated children’s book edition of Sun Tzu he kept under his pillow. Now all they did was drop the protection and throw in a 27 year old rookie and they got Boogie Cousins?

Two ideas begin to rage inside his head, jockeying for a foothold. On one side: if all it took was a bad rookie shooting guard who was older than half the league’s coaches and some dropped protection to move up from acquiring Okafor to Boogie, that must mean Okafor is truly valuable. On the other: if all it took was an upgraded version of the package that was offered for Okafor to get Boogie, the big man market must be absolutely wretched. He drops his phone again as the two ideas battled (on very elementary fashion, due to the whole children-version-of-the-Art-of-War thing), his red ears giving light to the dark hallway.

The season began better than could have been expected. Joel Embiid was clearly a superstar right off the bat. Noel, upset about the team’s lack of action, underwent a voluntary surgery as an attempt to force a trade, but returned to an immediate standing ovation from the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center. Okafor was awful, as always, but at least he didn’t get pulled over for speeding or fight any opposing fans. Dario Saric looked fine and occasionally flashy as he adjusted to the NBA.

With 4 months to go until the trade deadline, all Colangelo had to do was wait until injuries established a need for one of his young bigs, and pounce. Then: the Rockets’ Clint Capela went down; none of the Blazers back line options panned out; the Celtics continued their trend of now being able to rebound or defend the rim; and Colangelo still stood pat, paralyzed by his fear of a fan base that never wanted him.

What looks to be an elderly woman rounds the corner in the hallway as Bryan sucks his thumb and fumbles for the phone. Bryan recognizes it as his aunt, his father’s sister. He had always felt a stronger maternal connection to her than he did to his mother. His aunt had mysteriously had a ninth-month miscarriage on the day of his own birth; he didn’t ask too many question. Some images of forbidden photo albums flash through his mind as his aunt asked “Bryan, dear, what’s the matter?” He breaks into tears.

“All I want to do is make daddy proud, and now DeMarcus is on the Pelicans, and, and, what am I going to do, mama-aunt?” She hugs him, running a hand through his shirt collar and singing him a lullaby and he sobs into her shoulder.

“I’m sure whatever you do, your father will still love and be proud of you,” she lies softly.

Here we are, on the night of the NBA’s trade deadline day. Since the happy beginning of the season, Colangelo has mislead the public about the status of Simmons’ ailing foot and Embiid’s injured knee, forgivable sins if his mandate upon being given control of the team by his father hadn’t been transparency. He managed to turn Jeramy Grant into Ersan Ilyasova and what will probably be two second round picks, the turn Ilyasova into another second and a more favorable version of the second they already had. Things were continuing to look up, even if it was a muddled version of up.

Then, today, the Man of Action acted. Spurred by the imagined gaze of his disappointed father the sense of urgency that implied, Colangelo traded Nerlens Noel to the Dallas Mavericks for a faux-first round pick that is effectively two second, young swingman Justin Anderson, and Seven Foor Tall Idiot Facebook Friend Who Complains Unprovoked About People Wanting Safe Spaces Andrew Bogut.

The return isn’t the worst thing in the world, though it is likely significantly worse than what they could have gotten for Noel had they acted earlier or re-signed him and let him continue to develop. The issues are that 1) the move was unnecessary, which highlights the low return and 2) the necessary move, trading Okafor, never happened. Colangelo cleared the logjam by replacing one log with a large log of poop, instead of replacing the log that was already made of poop.

Bryan Colangelo lost any benefit of the doubt he had earned by not screwing up up to this point. It is a deflating time to be a Sixers fan, because the man running the Sixers has proven he doesn’t know what he has or what he’s doing.

Bryan lifts his head off his aunts shoulder, wipes his tears on his collar, then pulls his collar up over his still-red ears. “Thanks, mama-aunt,” he sniffles pathetically. He knows what he must do. He takes his phone out of his pocket and composes a text to Mavericks GM Donnie Nelson.

“Donnie,” he writes, “Vivek is a smrt guy. The mrkt 4 bigs is set. Lets talk Nrlns. Dont even need a 1st jst pretend you gave me one and send a couple 2s. Daddy’s sweet good boy forever, BC.”