May 11, 2018
Less than 48 hours after watching their season end at the TD Garden, Sixers head coach Brett Brown and GM Bryan Colangelo took to the podium to discuss the season they had, the future ahead of them, and the people who are going to help them take that next step.
In the span of about 90 minutes between the duo, plenty was revealed about the direction of the franchise this summer and in the years to come. It's safe to say the upcoming months of June and July represent the most important offseason for the Sixers in recent memory, perhaps since the days of the early 1980's as a Sixers team on the cusp looked to find the right piece to break through.
The complexity and competition in the league has changed since then, so there's a lot of work left to be done in order to have the Sixers in championship shape by next year. Here are a few of the standout quotables from Brown and Colangelo on Friday morning.
The head coach did not say this in so many words, but if there was a major takeaway from how he discussed the free agency process on Friday, it was that he is not afraid of any fit concerns when it comes to who the team might bring in this summer. Brown wants the best players on this team, period, through any means necessary.
There is a decent portion of the fanbase that is obsessed with the idea of building up to a championship-level organically, but Brown respectfully disagreed with that idea.
"There seemed to be an acceptance that, we declared our hand, this is what we're going to do, and for the most part we've kind of done it," Brown said of the rebuilding years. "If that portion of the fanbase is still prepared to take this notion [of doing it organically] and that's going to equal a championship, it's noble but I don't agree with it. I think another high-level free agent is required. I feel like we have the ability to attract one... I think we treat people well here, I think it's a great place to come in and be a part of a culture and a family."
That sounds a bit like laying down the gauntlet for his GM to go out and get somebody, while at the same time raising expectations on himself should his superior go out and make it happen. It should be seen as a good thing — no one is afraid of putting a bigger spotlight on themselves here.
Once that suggestion emerged, it was only fair to press Brown on what sort of player he'd like to see the Sixers bring in. And while Brown was evasive, he ultimately revealed plenty about who (or at least what) he'd be looking for as a coach, when he addressed the notion of bringing in a ball-dominant player (a la LeBron James) or a player who can do more off-ball (a la Paul George).
"For the first time since I have been here, there is tremendous clarity on what we have. There's no mystery when you look at what is Ben Simmons' skill package, and there's no mystery of what is Joel Embiid's skill package. And so you say simply, what compliments that?" said Brown. "It's clear what we have in those two players, and to me equally, the answer becomes clear too ... If this [ball-dominant] player you're describing was great, we'd figure it out. Truly, we'd figure stuff out, and it's as honest and as simple as I can answer that."
We know which free agent meeting Brown will be lobbying hardest in, then.
On the subject of organic growth and what the Sixers need from the outside, there is no piece more important to future development than Fultz. To Brown's point, we know what Simmons and Embiid are to a degree, but we have very little understanding of what Fultz can be counted on moving forward.
Colangelo agreed with Brown's assessment about needing to add more to get them over the top, though he did quibble a bit with the means — the GM noted a trade could also help them take the next step if a free agent move isn't in the cards. But after making that pronouncement, Colangelo threw last year's No. 1 pick right into the same mix.
"To say this group can do it now, they obviously proved they couldn't," said Colangelo of their second round exit. "Adding another talent and another piece is certainly something we're striving for, bearing in mind also that we view Markelle as a significant piece of that future, and that the deal made with Boston was made with the future in mind, and there's a very bright future ahead for Markelle and this team accordingly."
Having watched Jayson Tatum carve up the Sixers in round two, or Donovan Mitchell go on an insane scoring tear over the course of his rookie season, Fultz's inability to get on the court this season stung deep for the franchise, and for the fans watching from home.
They still seem convinced, on some level, that this will all be a thing of the past, and that Fultz is going to be the guy they drafted to be a member of a core trio.
"Markelle had an elite package of offensive talents, shot creation, ability to get to the rim, finishing over length at the college level, shooting shots from really all over the court. I think the only thing that he is lacking right now is perhaps the shooting aspect of things," said Colangelo. "He's an instinctive player, I think that he has elite offensive talents, and his body and his athleticism will allow him to be elite defensively ... He's a lot further along in certain areas already, despite having only played less than 20 games this season."
Colangelo stressed all the work they've been doing with Fultz — from the film room to work on his finishing through length and strength at the basket — bodes well for him as he moves forward as an NBA player. From everything we heard, the public picture is that they believe in Fultz's long-term ability to impact the team in spite of how tough this year was for everyone.
"It's not dissimilar to what you have with Ben Simmons right now, you start describing someone who can create, that can get to the rim, that can defend multiple positions, I think you would be describing almost the same person. But we know Markelle can score, we know he can shoot the basketball, it's going to come back fully, and yes it's part of our plan as we look at offseason development to try to get that back to an elite level," said Colangelo.
This sounded more positive than we've heard Colangelo on Fultz in some time. The assertion that it will come back fully sounds good, despite the fact that we've seen little evidence of it coming soon.
But a follow-up question from David Murphy of the Daily News brought things into focus a bit. We've only seen Fultz in a backup role recently, with very few minutes overlapping with Simmons' during his end of season run. If the point is to have them on the court together and Simmons very obviously needs shooters around him, how do you move forward?
What came next was worthy of an eyebrow raise.
"So let me ask you a question, we're in the playoffs and we start T.J. McConnell and Ben Simmons, is that necessarily dissimilar? T.J. brought to the table energy, athleticism, fight, he brought a lot to the table," said Colangelo. "We may have lost Game 5 and the series, but there are situations where you look at all-in, players bring a lot to the table. You put the best basketball players on the floor, and you compete ... We talk about shooting as a thing all the time, shooting comes from multiple positions, not just the one or the two spot.
"Having said that, we do think the two can play together, we think they've got elite shot creation ability, both of them together, Ben's going to get better, Ben's going to improve his shot. And Markelle, we are confident will improve his shot."
Once again, the end of this sounds nice, but drawing a comparison to McConnell, with all due respect to his contributions, is a little bit concerning for a guy you took No. 1 overall specifically for his ability to score and shoot the basketball. Make no mistake about it: an outcome in which he is just "workable" with Simmons and Embiid rather than a wild success would be a catastrophic failure, given the stakes of the trade with Boston.
Brown was a firm advocate for Fultz to play in Summer League, while Colangelo left a little more wiggle room for Fultz to develop in whatever context is best for him. That might tell you who is interfacing with agents more often, but whenever we see Fultz play next, his jumper will still be subject to as much scrutiny as any prospect in recent memory.
Following a 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics, there were plenty of (deserved) questions about the job Brown did against his younger counterpart, Brad Stevens. Despite a significant amount of progress for the franchise this season, a lot of anger has been spreading around the fanbase in the last week or so, as thousands all decided once again that a coach is only responsible for losses, and not wins or development.
The Sixers' front office does not seem to have the same problem. Rather than allow Brown to enter the 2018-19 season as a lame duck, Colangelo insisted he will make sure Brown is not on the final season of his contract (as he is currently set to be) by the time training camp rolls around in the fall.
"I've spoken with Brett on a couple of occasions this year, just to let him know it's my intention to sit down with him and discuss a contract extension for him," Colangelo told reporters. "It happens all the time, but I don't think it's the healthiest of situations for coaches to go into a season with one year remaining on their contracts, it impacts so many aspects of what you're doing. I'm hopeful at the appropriate time we sit down and have some discussion with respect to his situation, and he realizes how much we value him as the coach of his program."
Though that level of confidence might unnerve the Brown-bashing segments of the fanbase, this is the right move regardless of if you think Brown is the guy to take you over the top. The Sixers do still need to balance development vs. winning, and it's extremely difficult for a coach to do that when they feel as though they're coaching for their job. With all the work to be done surrounding Fultz in particular, to say nothing of the young wings they have on their bench, security for Brown will allow him to coach with his eye on a brighter future.
The subject of Simmons' jumper will dominate discussion of his game all offseason, and rightfully so. Boston has the personnel and gameplan to exploit it in a way that many teams don't, and with the Sixers expecting to deal with the Celtics for some time — Brown admitted the Celtics are a factor in their team-building steps moving forward — Simmons being better against that matchup specifically matters a great deal.
Brown also copped to a fairly big development on the Simmons front: the team is not going to resort to only using their current shooting coach, John Townsend, in order to get this job done.
"There is intense planning [on his jumper], there's been a candid conversation, he understands his world will become a lot easier once that becomes a part of his game," said Brown. "We have a shooting coach in our program, we are actually looking at other shooting coach possibilities to include in our overall staff design. John Townsend is a valued asset with our current staff, how we structure our program, [Simmons] will be spending intense time with John Townsend."
This is an interesting admission for various reasons. As I reported in February, it was Billy Lange and Brown, not Townsend, who worked with Markelle Fultz as he dealt with major shooting issues throughout the season. The team's shooting coach was cut out of the equation (along with other people, in fairness) in order to minimize the voices Fultz was hearing from, but it's pretty odd for the No. 1 pick's shooting problem to be addressed by coaches other than, you know, the guy whose explicit purpose is to work on shooting stuff.
Simmons' jumper is a big project, despite Brown insisting there will not be a big rebuild of the shot incoming. Work on his elbow placement and his footwork will be critical, and ultimately determine what Simmons' ceiling is beyond the paint. If the team thinks they need to split Townsend and another TBD coach to work on the Fultz issue, it's at least a proactive approach to a potential team-defining problem.
But with more help allegedly being considered, it doesn't offer the strongest endorsement of the current staff being asked to prompt improvement or refinement on a team where both are desperately needed. If a move goes through and more personnel is brought in to help, it begs the question of how much value was lost not having a better setup during a critical year for development.
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