MILWAUKEE — After the 76ers performed respectably the past two years when playing out of hotels, this season’s long and winding road has become a road to ruin.
Six losses in a row. Twelve of 14.
These recent results make the Sixers, at 9-20, the worst road team among teams currently qualified for the playoffs. They hold the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. Their weak schedule down the stretch will likely give them No. 4 seed or better, but bad road teams die in the postseason. So, why can’t they do it on the road?
Spotty defense and horrid long-range shooting, that’s why. Somehow, the coach holds no road map for change.
If they can’t win road games against good teams, they can expect a quick playoff exit — a disaster for a team once considered a lock for the Eastern Conference Final.
For the moment they’re on a road to nowhere, and Brett Brown knows it.
“It’s a house built on sand,” Brown acknowledged. “Whatever’s on the floor, we gotta play better. I gotta coach better. We just didn’t do that.”
The Sixers disintegrated Saturday night in Milwaukee. They melted down Feb. 3 at Miami, two days after they imploded in Boston. They couldn’t stop those teams, all seeded higher than them, in the second halves of those games. They couldn’t score with them, either.
Poor defense doesn’t beget poor shooting. Asked why the Sixers hit 37% of their three-pointers at home, 11th in the league, and just 33.6% on the road, which is 26th, Brown replied:
“I don’t know.”
He offered no strategy to fix it.
Is it the injuries? Ben Simmons, now an elite defender, missed all but the first 5 minutes Saturday against the Bucks. Joel Embiid, who has made the all-defensive second team the past two seasons, has missed 16 games. Josh Richardson, a fine defender, has missed 14. The problem with this explanation is, all three have missed games at home, too. And other teams show up without their better players all the time, regardless of the site.
The Sixers lead the NBA with a 101.7 defensive rating at home, and they lead the NBA with a 26-2 record at home. Their 110.4 road rating ranks 11th. A damning disparity, especially for this coach.
Brown has built every team he’s ever coached around strict defensive tenets and defined defensive roles. Somehow, this team loses its defensive identity outside of the Wells Fargo Center.
This is the blackest mark against Brown in his seven turbulent seasons at the helm.
Because, Brown admitted, the bad defense comes from a lack of cohesion; poor execution of their system; and lousy attention to the details to the defensive game plan on any given night. Worse yet, Brown says that the team needs to play tightly, with more “spirit.”
“Being more determined to follow a scouting report. Knowing personnel. Being locked into the defensive side of it,” Brown said. “Not letting our offense get crippled because of our defensive inadequacies, at times, on the road.”
All of this falls at the feet of the coach.
All of it.
After 57 games, and after 29 away from home, effective defense for a talented, veteran team should be automatic.
It’s not as if Brown lacks resources. The Sixers employ a legion of analytics eggheads at their facility in Camden, and at least three Ph.D.s accompany Brown on every road trip. They should be able to cipher a way to keep the Hawks from dropping 127 points.
They’ve tried to put their minds together.
“Over the All-Star break, all of us, led by me, took a deep dive,” Brown said.
Brown, a New Englander, retreated to Portland, Maine, where he took a room amid the city’s cluster of fine restaurants. There, on his hotel room bed, he laid out all of the available information. Then he spent a frigid week in gastronomic heaven and in solitary study.
The geniuses worked back in New Jersey.
Apparently, they all came up empty.
This is an alarming situation because they’ve been so much better than this with worse personnel: 22-19 in 2017-18, 20-21 last season.
Brown has been so much better himself. He developed both Embiid, a relative newcomer to basketball and Simmons, a former power forward, into All-Stars almost immediately. He developed an impressive group of other overachieving young players, too: T.J. McConnell, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and his latest burgeoning triumphs, Furkan Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle. The past two seasons Brown incorporated peculiar veterans for playoff pushes: JJ Redick, Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler, and, twice, Ersan Ilyasova.
But this edition of Brown’s team has twice lost all four games in a four-game road trip. They play at home Monday and Thursday night, with a trip to Cleveland (the worst team in the East) in between, but they’re on the road again March 1-7 at the Clippers, Lakers, Kings, and Warriors — a trip that could determine home-court advantage in the first and second rounds of the playoffs.
Brown needs to figure this out, and quickly.