Larry Brown would stay the course when it comes to the 76ers. The former Sixers coach, who guided them to the NBA Finals in 2001, says there is still a lot to like about the current team, although he concedes that improvement is needed.
“I am not like everybody else, worried about blowing that team up,” Brown said in a phone interview. “We wouldn’t be talking about the problems with the Sixers if Kawhi Leonard doesn’t hit that unbelievable shot.”
That was the Game 7 game-winner at the buzzer by Leonard that gave the Toronto Raptors a 92-90 win in the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals. The Raptors went on to win the NBA title, but in the next two rounds, nobody challenged them the way the Sixers had.
The Sixers were swept in the first round last season by the Boston Celtics when Ben Simmons missed the series because of knee surgery. This year, despite being the top seed, the Sixers lost to No. 5 Atlanta in the conference semifinals, being eliminated with a 103-96 loss at home in Game 7.
Brown says the Sixers should remain contenders.
“I think they have two of the best young players in the league as good as any two and [Tobias] Harris is a dynamic player in my mind, and they got a great coach,” he said.
The two players, of course, are four-time All-Star Joel Embiid and Simmons, who is coming off a disastrous postseason performance against Atlanta but has earned an All-Star berth the last three seasons.
Brown does feel that it is incumbent on Embiid and Simmons to come back next season vastly improved and he said that all begins in the summer.
Brown says there are plenty of positives in Simmons.
“He is as good as guarding five positions. He is a great passer, can get to the rim and get to the blocks,” Brown said. “That puts so much pressure on a defense.”
The problem is that Simmons was shooting free throws so poorly that he stopped being aggressive and looking to drive to the basket against Atlanta. He made just 15 of 45 free throws against the Hawks.
“There is no doubt that like all great players, Ben has to work on his game this summer,” Brown said. “I am not one who thinks he need to shoot the three-pointer, but he has to get in the gym, work on his game, and be committed to be one of the best players in the league.”
Brown added that Simmons has to stop worrying about what the public feels about his shooting.
“I never took Ben Wallace out of the game late and he didn’t shoot foul shots great and I trusted him,” Brown said. “Let people yell at me.”
Wallace played for Brown on the Detroit Pistons. Recently named to the 2021 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class, Wallace was a 41.4% career free-throw shooter.
“I would tell Ben, ‘Don’t worry about failure, and worry about putting the time in and improving,’ and I am sure Doc [Rivers] is telling him that,” Brown said.
Brown says Embiid also has to spend plenty of time working on his game this summer. Embiid had a strong playoff, despite playing the entire Atlanta series with a meniscus tear in his right knee. Brown understood that Embiid was playing at less than 100%, but he said he also wore down in some of the games.
“Just like Ben, Joel needs to work on his game,” Brown said. “He is a monster, you can’t find players like him, but if he is going to be on the court 35-38 minutes, then he has to get in unbelievable shape.”
Early in Game 3 vs. Atlanta, Sixers swingman Danny Green suffered a calf strain that sidelined him for the rest of the series. Green has earned championship rings with San Antonio, Toronto, and the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I thought not having Danny Green was really the whole key,” Brown said. “Having somebody who has been through it before and has been successful would have been huge.”
Brown said that Seth Curry, who shot 59.6% from three-point range against Atlanta, really blossomed in the postseason. What does worry Brown is the Sixers’ depth.
“I think they have to get a better bench, but their bench will improve because young players like [Matisse] Thybulle and Shake [Milton] will continue to get better,” Brown said.
So if the players put the time in to improve their games, Brown sees good things ahead.
“I am disappointed they lost, but I’d be happy with the future,” Brown said. “I would tell those kids to get in the gym because your career can end in a minute and you want to do everything possible to be the best player you can be.”