If this offseason was like previous offseasons, Brett Brown spent a sizable chunk of the last month growing an Old Testament beard and contemplating life and love and basketball while haunting the shores near the point where the Moyne River enters the Southern Ocean on Australia’s southeast coast.
Each summer, the Sixers coach retreats into a self-described cocoon, reemerging into the public sun only on the eve of training camp, like an Aussie-American groundhog signaling four more weeks until the end of the NBA offseason.
Given all that has happened over the last three months in Sixersville — the trade of Jimmy Butler, the acquisitions of Al Horford and Josh Richardson, the departure of JJ Redick — it’s remarkable to consider that the last time we heard Brown speak publicly about the makeup of his basketball team was late May.
That will change Wednesday afternoon, when the head coach breaks bread with the local media at his annual question-and-answer luncheon in Center City, a marathon affair in which any question that can be asked will be asked in multiple iterations.
The good news this year is that there should actually be enough questions to fill the full hour-plus that the session tends to last. And while we should not expect the spillage of any earth-stopping organizational secrets, we should come away with a better idea of how this remodeled roster will express itself over a 48-minute game and an 82-game regular season.
Among the questions that should be asked:
1) How many minutes does Brown envision Horford and Joel Embiid sharing the court together?
This question depends in part on Brown’s thoughts on the ideal load-management schedule for the two big men. For now, though, let’s focus on the rotation in a hypothetical must-win game in which both players are full go.
At this point, the assumption is that the Sixers starting lineup will feature Embiid at the five, Horford at the four, Tobias Harris at the three, Richardson at the two, and Ben Simmons running the point. It seems reasonable to assume that general manager Elton Brand and Brown envision that same lineup ending the game. The big question is what the rotation will look like between those points.
With solid veteran backup Kyle O’Quinn coming off the bench at the five and the ability of Harris, Simmons and Mike Scott to play the four, Brown will have no shortage of options when it comes to mixing and matching.
In the past, his modus operandi has been to keep his substitution patterns consistent during the regular season. Will that change this year, given the number of components at his disposal, and the various ways that opponents might try to counteract the Sixers’ size and length?
2) What is the load-management plan for Embiid and Horford?
Several times this offseason, Brand has acknowledged the importance of keeping Embiid healthy and fresh to avoid a repeat of last postseason, when the big man was a shadow of himself on the offensive end of the court after a season-long battle with knee soreness and the resulting lack of conditioning that came from an extended layoff after the All-Star break.
Assuming there is a concrete plan, it could feature many different strategies, including limiting Embiid’s minutes nightly and restricting his availability in back-to-backs. Likewise, at 33 years old, Horford is at a stage of his career where it would be wise to ration his workload. In his three seasons in Boston, Horford averaged 69 games per season and 31 minutes per night, including a career-low 29 minutes last season.
In an ideal world, how many minutes does Embiid play per night? How many games does he play in a hypothetical season in which he is healthy for all 82 games?
3) Who is the backup point guard?
Last year at this time, Markelle Fultz was in the starting lineup and T.J. McConnell was staring at an uncertain role. With both players now gone, the Sixers have newcomers Raul Neto and Trey Burke as the two most obvious candidates to handle the ball when Simmons is not in the game. Richardson has also has played some point before.
Burke is an interesting addition, given that he might be the most accomplished backcourt shooter on the bench, with a .361 three-point percentage over the last three seasons. The journeyman has averaged 19+ minutes in the last two seasons while playing for the Knicks and the Mavericks, and he has averaged 27.9 points and 6.7 three-point attempts per 100 possessions during those campaigns.
Neto, meanwhile, was a backup point guard on a playoff team in each of the last two seasons, averaging 12.5 minutes and shooting .364 from three-point range. He isn’t nearly the scorer that Burke has been. Last year, he averaged 19.8 points and 6.1 three-point attempts per 100 possessions to go with 8.5 assists.
When the Sixers signed Neto after he was waived by the Jazz, the assumption was that he would be Simmons’ primary backup. It will be interesting to hear how Brown envisions things.
4) How often will Tobias Harris have the ball in his hands?
While Simmons was the player most impacted by the Sixers’ playoff transformation into an offense that revolved around Butler, Harris is a guy who came to Philadelphia accustomed to having the ball in the sorts of pick-and-roll sets that featured Butler. Harris isn’t as strong a ballhandler as Butler is, but it stands to reason that he will have much more of a starring role in the offense than he did last season.
“A lot of the plays we ran was high screen-and-roll with Jimmy with the ball in his hands," Harris said earlier this summer. “I’ve been one of the top pick-and-roll players in the NBA for some years now. I definitely look at myself as being that person with the ball in my hands.”
There are plenty of other lingering questions that Brown will surely address Wednesday. Do the Sixers have a shooter who can fill part of the void left by Redick’s departure? Do they need one? What are Brown’s plans on the defensive end of the court, where the Sixers will feature one of the biggest and longest starting lineups in recent NBA memory?