I spent the past week wondering what Brett Brown was thinking about his two enigmatic All-Stars, Goofball and Gun-Shy. The ones who won’t do what they should. The ones who can’t win playing the way they’re playing.
If my job was at stake coming out of the break, with the trade deadline past and 27 games to play, what strategy would I use to maximize the effectiveness of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons? How would I give the Sixers the best chance to reach the Eastern Conference Finals?
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I’d treat them like children, not employees.
Often, the healthiest and most productive parenting methods involve letting your most precious assets mature at their own rate. This is true with children, and with ballerz. Ben and Joel, with so much left to learn and with so little inclination to learn it, qualify as both.
If I were Brown, I’d accept my world for what it is.
I’d ignore Embiid’s shortcomings — he’s an out-of-shape bully, a taunter and instigator who still gets flummoxed by double teams, with a limited repertoire of post moves and a diminishing inclination to use them. He isn’t going to get any leaner, or any smarter, or any more polished in the next two months, so why fret?
I’d recognize that Simmons is too ashamed of his shooting form — and the attention it attracts on social media — to shoot the perimeter shots that will help my team. I’d recognize, and empathize with, the humiliation he must feel when he’s showered with patronizing cheers after he shoots a three-pointer, like some 7-year-old brave enough to chuck the training wheels off his bike. Simmons isn’t going to shed his psychological shackles over the last few weeks of the season.
These issues should be resolved, I know. And I hear this a lot: Why not bench them? Why not teach them a lesson?
Because this isn’t Hickory, Ind., in 1951, and these aren’t high school kids, and Brett Brown’s word is not Hoosier law. It’s 2020. Players have run the NBA for 25 years. On the best teams, coaches and players form partnerships.
With that in mind, it’s time to recognize that I, and maybe you, and certainly Brown are idealists. We formulate fallacious timelines and impose arbitrary arcs of development. There is no formula. Not for kids, and not for athletes.
We also forget how green these guys are.
Embiid is 25, and he’s six years removed from college, but he has played just 197 NBA games — less than 2½ regular seasons. Simmons, 23, has played 213. Each spent only one season in college, where Embiid didn’t start almost 30% of his games and where Simmons played forward. He’s a point guard now. Neither played in the NCAA Tournament. Despite their combined five All-Star appearances and their two playoff-series wins, they’re NBA babies.
Further, we assume that every thoroughbred will hone his gifts the way Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, and Kawhi Leonard did. Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, and Kawhi were a special breed. Joel and Ben are not.
The Sixers roster is flawed. The pieces fit poorly. The only hope for playoff relevance lies in amplifying the incomplete skill sets of the two principal players.
So, at this point, Brown should encourage Embiid to be outrageous. Let him eat what he wants, play his video games until dawn, and start fights on the court. Who cares, as long as he gives me 25 and 12 until Tax Day.
If Simmons wants to cavort like a playground point guard, leaving his feet to pass with his back to the basket, Brown should let it slide. The Sixers made it to the NBA Finals before with a transcendent backcourt talent who refused to polish his game, and Simmons is bigger and stronger than Allen Iverson. Simmons’ teammates need to compensate for his shortcomings the way Iverson’s teammates compensated for his 19 years ago. For this comparison to work, of course, Brett Brown needs to coach like Larry Brown.
OK, every argument has its flaw.
Any continued insistence that Embiid and Simmons must change is just spitting into the wind. My sermons have failed. So have Brown’s. We tried.
After Simmons hit the second three-pointer of his career on Dec. 7, Brown publicly stated that he wanted Simmons to shoot one viable three-pointer per game. Since then, Simmons has shot zero viable three-pointers.
After Embiid was suspended for two games for starting a fight with Karl-Anthony Towns on Oct. 30, then engaging in a vulgar, postfight war on social media, Brown asked Embiid to stop punking players on the court and to end his Twitter spats. Embiid did so for more than three months, but last week he fell off the wagon, hard. He shushed and cussed the home crowd, nearly threw hands with Marcus Morris, and hinted on Instagram that he might like to join fellow chronic malcontent and former teammate Jimmy Butler in Miami.
Embiid isn’t going to change.
Maybe we need to change.
We’ve stomped our feet and thrown our tantrums because we want to witness conventional professionalism in progress. You can’t always get what you want. Maybe we’re the immature ones.
One day, Ben and Joel might understand why Brown’s coaching will help them, the same way kids eventually understand why their parents tell them to eat their vegetables and get their sleep. Until then, all we can hope for is that Ben and Joel are the best versions of their current, flawed, and incomplete selves.
Now that I think of it, that’s what Brown has been doing for weeks. Figures.