KISSIMMEE, Fla. — As part of the NBA’s marketing motto for its restart, the phrase “Whole New Game” appeared behind the scorer’s table last week at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
The 76ers will attempt to make that a reality in more ways than one when they open seeding play on Saturday against the Indiana Pacers here at the complex’s VISA Athletic Center.
In addition to adjusting to playing inside a bubble with no fans because of the pandemic, the Sixers must jell in their quest to win their first NBA title since 1983.
Teams with good chemistry usually win the NBA title. So coach Brett Brown has to get the Sixers to exhibit some chemistry, which has been a major problem this season.
The players say their chemistry improved some during Zoom meetings while the league was shut down from March 12 until they arrived on the Disney World campus on July 9. They’ll tell you that they’ve bonded through fishing, golfing, dining, and practicing together in the bubble the past three weeks.
“I feel like now that we are here, it’s sort of a forced environment where you come together,”
Brown said this week. “You really have to come together, and I think that we are. I feel like the trends that I’m seeing with the team having dinner together, doing stuff with golf, going finishing, the communicating on our bench, and just look at their spirit.”
Let’s face it, though, everything is always peachy until the real games start.
That’s when players start to become upset over not getting the ball enough or frustrated with their roles, in general. Jealousy could creep in.
We will find out if guys deviate from the game plan. Will they begin to play equal-opportunity basketball instead of going with the hot hand as was the case before the restart?
And if spacing remains an issue, even after Ben Simmons switched from point guard to power forward, the frequent “Can Simmons and Joel Embiid coexist?” debate will surely resurface.
Tobias Harris first acknowledged on ESPN’s First Take last month that chemistry issues had plagued the Sixers (39-26) during their first 65 games. He doubled-down on it during a Zoom media availability earlier this month with the Philadelphia media.
On Feb. 5, one of the biggest questions surrounding the Sixers had to do with Brown’s authority. Were the players, especially the principal ones, still listening to the coach?
At that time, they were one loss away from losing their fourth straight game — all on the road. They were showing bad body language and putting forth little effort. A coach can often control those things.
Brown initially said yes to the question of whether the players were still listening to him.
“You’d be better off asking them,” Brown said, understanding why the question was asked.
But Brown added that he didn’t see players tuning him out.
“I look forward to coaching them,” he said. “When it gets to an epidemic stage, this thing you are talking about, I’ll admit that. I don’t [see that] at all right now.”
However, the Sixers often talked about what needed to be corrected after losses. But the same thing happened over and over. The players would say they didn’t know their roles, and that was evident by watching them play.
After losing at the Milwaukee Bucks, 112-101, on Feb. 6, the Sixers went 8-5 in their 13 games before the shutdown.
The highlight was a 110-103 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 11 at the Wells Fargo Center. The lowlight was a 118-114 loss on March 7 to the last-place and depleted Golden State Warriors on the road.
The Sixers were a Jekyll-and-Hyde team when it came to playing on the road vs. playing at home. Their lack of chemistry and dysfunction showed on the road, where they posted at 10-24 record. At the Wells Fargo Center, they fed off their home crowd’s energy, going 29-2.
Even though they had the best home mark in the NBA, the Sixers could benefit the most from playing in Disney’s neutral site.
The Sixers are seeded sixth in the Eastern Conference and would likely have had to open their first-round playoff series on the road under normal circumstances. Lack of home advantage might have made it hard for them to avoid a first-round exit.
Now, all they have to focus on is improving chemistry. If that happens, they have enough talent to make a deep playoff run. If not, they might be in a battle to advance out of the first round.
Brown must get the players to buy in as one during these eight seeding games and in the playoffs.
“Maybe … what’s the word? … it’s like I don’t admit it,” Brown said this week of the chemistry issues. “Like I’ve coached teams and seen things that you’d say ‘There’s a problem. That’s not great chemistry.’
“I am aware of what Tobias said, and I think that my version of chemistry is more about, you know, just the acceptance of roles and an understanding of a style and that’s my job.”
The coach knows he must get this group of players to mesh. But Brown added that he never really thought chemistry was that much of a problem.
“They are good people,” he said. “Like, we’re trying to figure it out. Al Horford came into a program and looking around at Jo and Ben. [Josh Richardson] comes into a program and looking around at everybody.
“So it’s inevitable that it was going to take time.”
The Sixers signed Horford to a four-year, $97 million deal last summer only to realize he can’t play alongside Simmons and Embiid in the starting lineup. And Richardson, obtained from Miami in exchange for Jimmy Butler last summer, has been hampered by injuries . He was far from the only key player who dealt with injuries.
Because of that, Brown felt the Sixers never fully got a chance to “blossom and grow.”
The coach thinks the Disney environment will force the team to come together. He even points out their interactions on the bench during the three scrimmages.