At one side of the 76ers main practice space, while a few players finished shooting drills on the side-by-side courts, coach Brett Brown stood before a bloom of microphones Monday afternoon and said his intention this season is to nurture developing players while still winning basketball games.
There are more difficult things in sports — winning without talent is chief among them, and Brown has experienced that, too — but being successful while learning is no mean trick. The latter usually proceeds the former, but Brown does not have his vision focused just on the new season that begins Tuesday night in Boston, but on the postseason that will still be six months away.
"I'm not here to say we're going to win 42 games, or 56 games, I'm not saying any of that," Brown said. "I'm saying I want us to be better when it matters most, and that may take a little time and we may experience some pain along the way."
As Brown spoke, guard Markelle Fultz, along with T.J. McConnell, was going through an offensive drill with a couple of assistants on the far court. It was a two-part drill in which each guard, one at a time, would penetrate the basket area with the ball, take a close-in shot of some kind, then run to the perimeter for a catch-and-shoot three-pointer. The driving shots were lightly guarded by one of the assistants. The jumpers were unguarded.
When Brown talks about the regular season being a testing ground for what the team can become, a laboratory for potential success in the postseason, he's mostly talking about Fultz. And he's mostly talking about whether Fultz will be able to shoot the basketball at a level competent enough to keep him on the floor.
Brown will start Fultz at shooting guard opposite Ben Simmons in the opener against the Celtics, as was the case during the exhibition season. There will be times when Fultz is on the ball, but mostly it is still Simmons' show during the first rotation. The drawback of having a shooting guard who cannot make shots from range is that the opposing defense will react accordingly and the spacing that is so vital to the Sixers' style of basketball will disappear. This is Basketball 101.
On that far practice court, the promise and the peril that comes with Markelle Fultz were both on vivid display. He can handle the ball wonderfully and get to wherever he wants on the court. Near the basket, his spins and pivots are blurringly quick, but still smooth, and his array of little hooks, layups, floaters and jumpers is impressive. Then, the second part of the drill takes place. The shots from the perimeter are push shots that begin low and are released with what appears to be more exertion than would seem necessary. In a three-shot succession, Fultz made a corner three-pointer, air-balled another from near the top of the arc, and clanked a third off the side of the front rim. None of the shots looked alike.
This was one short drill at the end of a full practice. It is out of context from the summer of work that Fultz put in with his shooting coach, and with the hours he has spent with the team since returning. The exhibition games were spotty — he tried five three-pointers in four games and made one — but they were exhibition games. Still, it matters. Fultz is an NBA player and will remain an NBA player, but he won't become the third star the franchise seeks if he can't shoot.
"At this stage of his career, he is best with the ball as a point guard," Brown said, giving his assessment of Fultz as a shooting guard by omission. "I'm able in the second half to play him almost exclusively as a point guard. How do you put him in a position to succeed? As we study the rotations, we're going to persevere for that reason. It comes with a lot of thought. It doesn't make it right."
Fultz will come off the bench in the second half of games, with JJ Redick rejoining the starters (and the spacing also returning to the floor). When Simmons finishes his first rotation, Fultz will be the point guard. After a month, maybe two, we'll know if Brown's attempt to cut the apple in half is a success.
"As a 20-year-old, Markelle Fultz will experience some inevitable ups and downs," Brown said. "I'm going to give this an appropriate amount of time, and everyone's going to have their own notion of what that equals. We're going to judge it. I hope that the immense thought [concerning the rotations] is correct, but time will tell. It's going to come with some questioning, but so be it."
With that "amen" echoing in the air, the 76ers and Brown begin a sixth season together. Three years ago, they began a season that ended with 10 wins. One season ago, the campaign would end with 52 wins. Two of the most elite young players in the league are on their roster. It is possible they have a third.
If you want to know exactly what this season is all about, it is getting the answer to that question. Everything else is just waiting around the station, looking down the road for the bus that will take them where they want to go.