Even Brett Brown couldn’t reconcile the conflicting statements he made before the 76ers' loss to the Pacers on Friday night. Then, over the course of the 113-101 defeat, Brown’s words came to life, confirming his predicament.
On one hand, Brown wants to expand the opportunities that some of his young players need to improve or his veterans need to keep their jobs.
“I’m prepared to watch Furkan [Korkmaz] grow for a while in this environment, and Landry [Shamet]. And is Amir [Johnson] going to get back on track? And what about Mike Muscala?” Brown said.
“They’ve got opportunities to sort of draw their own line in the sand, and ... like I usually say at the start of the season, they will show us.”
On the other hand, Brown has goals, plans, and expectations that he desperately needs the team to achieve.
“We’re going to be aggressive. [General manager Elton Brand] will be aggressive on how we ultimately design this team," Brown said. "We’ve admitted that the timeline has changed. We genuinely believe that our timeline is now.”
The notions that the team must win “now” but that Brown is willing to let his young players “grow” have not meshed so far.
It is possible that Korkmaz and Shamet will become serviceable players, capable of helping a team to a championship. But they aren’t there yet. And it’s unfair to expect Brown to lead his team to title contention when he has to rely on Shake Milton, one of his players on a two-way contract, to step in and meet lofty expectations.
There are reasons the Sixers are stretched so thin. Not only did the team give up two players for one in the Jimmy Butler acquisition, but Butler himself has been injured, missing the last two games. Additionally, the Sixers' 2017 No. 1 overall pick, Markelle Fultz, is away with no timeline for a return or any indication that he will be able to help when he does go back to the team.
To end the conflict between “winning now” and “growing,” the window for the less-than-elite players to have opportunities may be coming to an end. It may already be here for Johnson, who Brown said is not playing at a standard that could produce a winning product.
“I don’t think that he’s played to the level that he has played at in the past,” Brown said. “Some of it is opportunity. Some of it is form. But he was one of the important defensive pieces to our program last year as a backup center to Joel [Embiid]."
Johnson has been effectively removed from the regular rotation, and Brown’s other options are not providing much hope. The Sixers were banking on the addition of Mike Muscala and Wilson Chandler to bolster the roster. But neither has shown to be valuable enough to make a real difference.
In Friday’s loss to the Pacers, Muscala and Chandler combined for two points and shot 0-of-9 from three-point range. They have shown flashes of being able to contribute in meaningful ways, but their lapses in defensive awareness and offensive production are worrisome.
While Butler is expected to return to the lineup on Sunday in Cleveland, and his injury is not considered significant, if one injury to this team is the difference between competing and losing, the Sixers are farther from where they want to be than they thought at the beginning of the season.
Brown is biding his time until the roster becomes a final product. Even then, there is no certainty that the buy-out market or any trade will be able to make the Sixers a better team than the East’s top-tier teams they have yet to overcome.
So, until Brand makes his moves, the short-handed Sixers must somehow rack up enough wins to contend come April. And while the young players and the new bench will have some opportunities, it’s obvious they aren’t ready for anything more just yet.