Brett Brown said he will use the nine-day gap between 76ers games to figure out how to coach his team. Considering the conflicting attributes and clashing personalities involved, he better plan on staying up late.
“This isn’t a traditional-type team,” Brown said.
No kidding. He’s got a point guard who won’t shoot, and a massive center who often prefers three-pointers to dunks, and a kid from Turkey the team tried to cut who somehow sneaked into the starting lineup Tuesday, and on and on. The Sixers lead the league in unique, as they have for some time now, and that makes for a significant coaching challenge.
“Where my mind is right now,” Brown said, “I look forward to figuring out in a deeper way over the All-Star break, how do you take the team that you have and how do you play it?”
One of Brown’s major problems over the last two years is that the team he has keeps changing. Last season was mind-bending, with two roster-shaking trades and 26 players taking the court before it was over.
This year has been similarly seismic. The latest additions, Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, arrived just days ago. On the current roster, only Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Furkan Korkmaz played at least 30 games for the Sixers last season.
It has made for a long series of trial-and-error experiments with a revolving cast orbiting the two suns that sometimes shine together and sometimes eclipse one another. Anyone who wants to change the coach because he hasn’t solved this ridiculous riddle while trying to learn everyone’s name should try the job sometime.
Tuesday in the team’s 110-103 win over the Clippers, Brown went for a new wrinkle. He took Al Horford out of the starting lineup and inserted Korkmaz, looking to get better spacing on the floor for his two stars to operate. Brown said the move was partially because he expected Los Angeles to go small, but offered that it was going to happen sooner or later.
“I felt the time was appropriate to do it,” Brown said. “Right now, this starting group has been struggling.”
That he chose the last game before the break was interesting. Now the change has more than a week to sink in and become the new reality. The additional perimeter starter might not be Korkmaz — in fact, Robinson took his spot in the second half — but it will be someone who can lure the opposing defense away from the basket better than Horford.
Clearing out the paint somewhat, the Sixers used Simmons and Embiid successfully in several very low pick-and-roll plays, with their proximity to the basket keeping Simmons’ defender from cheating and diving under the screen.
“I think it can be a good look for us going forward,” Brown said.
That’s a great way for them to play, particularly with effective shooters on the perimeter if things get clogged up and the ball is kicked out. It’s also pretty basic basketball, and it is fair to question why this hasn’t been on display much before. Has the stumbling block been the way the message has been delivered by the coach, or the way it has been received by the players?
Take your pick, chicken or egg? We do know the coach asked one of the players two months ago for one teeny-tiny three-point shot per game and hasn’t gotten one since.
“This was arguably the best game those two have paired up with since I’ve been the coach here,” Brown said of Simmons and Embiid after Tuesday’s win.
The two combined for 52 points, 21 rebounds, and 12 assists. For a tandem that often provides an either-or proposition on a given night, it was a somewhat rare standout game for both at the same time.
Embiid began the evening hearing some mumbled boos at his introduction and ended it as once again the Fresh Prince of South Philly, embraced by all. It’s amazing what playing well and winning will do for you. Embiid didn’t apologize for shushing the fans two nights earlier, but he did turn it into something of a joke, which is his specialty.
“It’s Joel,” Brown said. “It is ideal? Maybe not. Is there a maverick in a lot of really, really good players? Yes, and there’s this … side of Jo that has always been there.”
This is a distant echo from another era of the same franchise when “Charles being Charles” was accepted as the bargain for getting spectacular play in return. Charles Barkley’s teams weren’t traditional, either, and also represented a roster dilemma. How does one build around a 6-foot-5, low-post power forward? The Sixers tried for eight seasons before throwing up their hands. (And then, having obviously not paid attention, they immediately drafted a 6-5 power forward.)
Even if they don’t fit together perfectly, or even if they say dumb things, or even if they present knotty basketball problems to solve, having good players is always the way to go. Brett Brown has that, but he also has some thinking to do.
“What I am learning is there are options we can call upon,” Brown said. “If it’s taken this long to try to figure some things out, and we arrive at a place where we’re all prepared for the playoffs, [then] we’re learning and we’re moving along.”