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March 28, 2019

How does Billy Lange's departure impact Sixers' coaching staff heading into playoffs?

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Unlike in the world of football, an NBA head coach's staff doesn't come up all that often in the daily discussion of their team. Compare the visibility of a guy like Sixers assistant Billy Lange to someone like Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, and it's not even close. The latter does press conferences between games, has every decision and play call scrutinized during the same time period, and is subjected to constant second-guessing from the public.

But there is a common truth connecting both jobs — a top assistant leaving for another gig right before the playoffs is a big deal. Less may be known about Lange's overall influence on the Sixers, but losing Lange to the St. Joe's job is still something that will impact Philadelphia's workflow.

Lange is expected to start with St. Joe's "immediately," according to a Sixers official, which means the Sixers will be without one of their top assistants during the most important time of the year.

Each of the "front of the bench" assistants on the Philadelphia staff has a specific role to play. And yes, those air quotes actually mean something: NBA teams are only allowed to put three assistant coaches in the first row, pushing the rest of the staff to second-row seating behind the bench.

Without beating the NFL analogy into the ground, Brown likes to speak about his assistants in coordinator-esque terms. Lange, who was previously in charge of the offense last season, took the reins of the defense after Lloyd Pierce departed for the Atlanta Hawks job. Kevin Young took control of the offense as a result, and Monty Williams — who the team brought on board last June — took over Young's old job as the go-to guy on set plays and special situations (sideline & baseline out of bounds plays, plus after-timeout plays). In other words, those are their rough equivalents of defense, offense, and special teams coordinators.

Brown's staff also tends to have individual players that they're assigned to for general development. If you ever show up early for games, you can see these pairings yourself. Williams, for example, is tied to Ben Simmons, while Lange was the guy you saw running Markelle Fultz through his paces in most of the pre-game footage you saw of him before he was traded to Orlando.

While that seems relatively straightforward, it's not always as clear-cut as you might think. Williams has the responsibility that on paper seems the lightest, but he's actually considered the "lead" assistant in the power hierarchy. And NBA head coaches typically don't speak publicly on exactly what each job entails when it comes to the percentage split of responsibility.

(There are good reasons for that, obviously. Coaches are typically only one disappointing season away from being out on the street and leaving things murky helps give everyone a bit of plausible deniability if there's a problem area on the court.)

Philadelphia's defense has taken a step back this year, and in some corners of Sixers fandom, Lange has taken a lot of the heat for that. I'm not sure how fair or unfair that is — there has been wild instability with the roster, and the team's overarching defensive philosophy flows down from the head coach, which Brown has made clear repeatedly discussing it with the team. After losing to the Celtics in five games last spring, the Sixers came into this year with a plan focused on May and June 2019, not November 2018.

What's critical here is not necessarily that a new voice will change their scheme, but that the Sixers have to replace a key cog in the machine with no time to do so. Assistant coaches do a ton of dirty work before, during, and after games. NBA teams have to do advanced scouting, play calling, recognize missed coverages, track notable plays the video staff may cut up for halftime instruction, etc. Every person has a part to play.

(And this is all without discussing the human element of losing a trusted member of the team before the pressure cooker of the playoffs. As much as the game is about talent and X's and O's, it is also about having people around you that you trust when things get tough.)

Even from an outside view, you can see Lange's influence on the team during a game. During a lot of important defensive possessions (and plenty of less important possessions), you can spot him waving his arms and barking out instructions from his seat on the bench. The Sixers run through opponent play calls and signals (when possible) during their pre-game walkthroughs, and if Lange spots a tell during an opponent's set, he's not shy about making sure the players on the floor are reminded of what they've been told coming into the game.

Removing him from the equation will force a change in defensive coordinator — my assumption is that Williams will take over responsibilities there, but we'll learn more from Brett on Thursday evening — which creates a domino effect. Someone else has to slide into the vacated special teams role, which then shakes up the lower-profile roles behind the bench. It is not an accident that stability is a treasured quality in almost every championship organization.

It's not completely outside the realm of possibility for an outside hire to happen, but that seems unlikely this late in the year. Those tend to happen in the offseason, so my guess is they will try to make it work with what they have. 

The Sixers have a few options on that front. Jim O'Brien, who still serves as a "special advisor" to Brown, could step back into a larger role on a temporary basis. John Bryant could also step into a larger role, and with Blue Coats coach Connor Johnson done for the season, Brown's former assistant could help plug holes where they're needed to help the organization.

Regardless of what you think about the Sixers' disappointing performance on defense this season, Lange's departure leaves them with more problems to solve with very little time left in the season. With the talent they have, no one should be shedding a tear for this group. But it's the latest in another example of a very unique season in Philadelphia, where new development after new development is being juggled as other contenders carry on rather peacefully.

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