Tobias Harris wasn’t saying anything that even casual observers hadn’t already surmised when he told ESPN’s First Take that chemistry issues plagued the Sixers during their first 65 games. A team that fancied itself a world-beater has instead spent long stretches of the season looking like a random collection of five guys who are all playing the wrong position. Turns out, the paint is 240 square feet, and not meters, and thus it can be helpful to have more than one player whose game is not predicated on being inside of it.
Of course, it also turns out that the NBA is not giving out trophies for hindsight. Which means the Sixers’ only chance at winning one is to figure out how to make the Cartesian plane work in their favor. And that means coach Brett Brown has a chance to show all of the skeptics that their doubts about his aptitude are misplaced. Starting Tuesday, when NBA teams gathered for the first day of the league’s post-shutdown training camp, Brown has four weeks of practice to accomplish something that he was unable to do before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted play: transform the Sixers from a loose-fitting collection of component parts into an actual team.
In his seven years in Philadelphia, the criticisms of Brown’s job performance have ranged from his game management in late and close situations to his play-calling concepts to his reluctance to publicly challenge his young stars. While these critiques might be valid, the mistake a lot of people make is in assigning them far more weight than they deserve, given their relative impact on the bottom line. To focus on the more-granular elements of coaching is to ignore the fact that the primary responsibility of an NBA coach is to develop the overall framework within which each of these micro strategies takes place. When your players are not operating with an optimal level of comfort on the court, it does not matter what you tell them to do when the ball is being inbounded or the shot clock is off. You are going to have a team that looks like it does not know what it is doing, and no amount of dry-erase squiggles will be able to fix it.
This is the point that Harris was making during his recent appearance on ESPN, as he offered his thoughts on the rest of the Sixers’ season, which will resume in Orlando with a game against the Pacers on Aug. 1.
“I’ll just say, and I’ll keep it real, we haven’t had the best chemistry throughout the whole year,” the Sixers forward said. “It took us a while to kind of get everyone together, we battled injuries from the start to the end. And right now, if we’re the sleeper, then we’re the sleeper. Truth be told, how we’re viewed, that’s someone else’s opinion, but I know when I look my guys in the eye and we have conversations, we have one goal in mind, and that’s to go out there and play and win a championship. That’s the only view that matters to me. What people have to say about our team, I get it, because we haven’t met our expectations so far this year. But we have a new opportunity in Orlando to go out and just play ball, and really scratch a new surface of what we can accomplish.”
Harris put the onus on the players, and maybe that really is where it deserves to lie. Three different coaches have led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals over the last decade-and-a-half. The one thing all of them have in common is that they happened to coach LeBron James. If Joel Embiid isn’t playing like a 275-pound man who stands 7 feet tall, if Ben Simmons isn’t winning his spots as though it is he who deserves them, then the Sixers aren’t winning, regardless of whose wingtips are clacking in front of the bench.
At the same time, a lot of what we interpret as a lack of interest often can be the manifestation of a lack of on-court rhythm. When James recruited a ready-made winner to Miami, he did not simply print out a list of All-Star vote-getters and start dialing from the top. He surrounded himself with players whose skill sets complemented each other and whose style of play ticked to the same beat. At any level of hoops, there is nothing more enjoyable than sharing the court with four other players who flow with you as one. There is a level of aesthetic beauty in the sight and feel of a team that navigates the court as though each is an appendage whose movements are guided by the same central brain. Too often this season, the Sixers have looked like an individual who has lost all motor function.
Given the overlapping and ill-fitting skill sets present on the roster, it now falls on Brown to be that central brain. It is possible that a four-month break will turn out to be exactly what he needed. Of all of the new variables that have been introduced to the end of the season, the most consequential might be the four straight weeks of practice that teams will enjoy. Never before has a head coach had the opportunity to prepare a team for the postseason like the one that Brown and his brethren do now. As most auto mechanics will tell you, it is much easier to fix a car when it is sitting in a garage rather than driving down the interstate at 65 miles per hour.
No team could better use the chance to workshop itself than the Sixers. Over this next month, Brown will have all the time he could possibly need to figure out a system that allows each of its components to be the best version of itself. Given the talent at his disposal, reaching such a point will position the Sixers where they thought they’d be from the beginning. Chemistry is a volatile thing. The success of the Sixers’ 2019-20 experiment now falls on the shoulders of the man with the beakers.