December 20, 2017
The Sixers have not had much success in the month of December. Let's start out on our journey here by acknowledging that simple, black-and-white fact. After beating Detroit on Dec. 2, the Sixers lost seven of their next eight games, their lone win powered by a Herculean effort from Joel Embiid in Minnesota. They've lost to good teams and bad teams alike, nullifying any attribution to the schedule you might have fallen back on.
Their last two losses, back-to-back games against the Chicago Bulls and Sacramento Kings, have sparked anger throughout the fanbase. Even without the services of Embiid, those losses are enraging for neutral observers and diehards alike. It is hard to get past the big fella, though, and I made the mistake of acknowledging how his absence highlighted just how valuable he is on a nightly basis.
Their record and the way the Sixers play without Embiid should tell you exactly how good that guy is.— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) December 20, 2017
The full force of, "Brett Brown is bad, actually" Twitter came flying at me after that one. It's a subsect of social media I mostly try to avoid, and my philosophy on coaching critique is generally slow and methodical. If it's hard to judge players within small samples, it's even harder to judge coaches, particularly one like Brown, whose own resume prior to this year is hard to make heads or tails of.
But the volume of the Brown critique has gone up to 11, and I'm not sure it's fit to be ignored anymore. Among Sixers fans (or at least people who follow the team on some level) Brown has become one of the easiest targets when frustration hits its peak. Philadelphia is a certainly a town that embraces coaching criticism — it was ready to run Doug Pederson out of town at least a few times already — but the Brown discussion is neverending.
So let's dive into this. I'm going to run through some of the more common complaints I've come across this season, and we'll suss out which things are and are not valid complaints of the coach specifically.
How do I say this in the nicest way possible? This line of thinking shows a fundamental misunderstanding of both the NBA at large and the personnel group Brown is in charge of.
The Sixers have exactly two healthy players who can put any stress on an opponent using their dribbling ability, and even that's being generous. Beyond Ben Simmons and T.J. McConnell, the rest of the Sixers' roster is filled with players who need to have the bulk of their offense created for them through motion, screens, and playmaking from other guys. Robert Covington, JJ Redick, Jerryd Bayless, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot are the four guard/wing players Brown has at his disposal, and there's not a player with anything better than an average handle between them.
When you don't have players who can create quality shots for themselves or others using their dribble, you have to find another way to get value out of them. For most basketball players generally, even outside the NBA, the answer is to get shooting value out of them. And TLC aside, that quartet can and should be expected to shoot well from the outside. It's what they've all been paid handsomely to do.
But before we even address the quality of the looks these guys are getting, let's dispel the notion that the Sixers shoot "too many" shots from deep. The NBA tracks a great deal of stats these days, which makes it easy to compare the varying philosophies of teams around the league. One measure available through the stats database tracks the answer to a very simple question: what percentage of a team's shots happen from each area of the court?
If you're concerned with the volume of three-point shooting, there may be some bad news for you. The Sixers attempt 34.6 percent of their field goals from three, a mark that puts them almost dead average for the NBA. They are sandwiched between the New Orleans Pelicans, who feature two big men, and the Memphis Grizzlies, who are not exactly known for leading the three-point revolution. You do not want to inch toward the bottom half of that chart, where most of the league's worst and most unimaginative offenses lurk.
Even if we use a more regressive measure of shot-taking, the Sixers average only the 10th-most threes per game around the league. This is a product of their pace more than anything; the Sixers play at the fourth-fastest pace in the league, which inflates their raw totals in just about every category. There's nothing to suggest they have been reckless with their shot selection, and given that they are a top-10 team in free-throw rate, they are also not sacrificing attacking the paint in order to bomb from deep.
So is it the quality of shots that is the problem? Absolutely not. More often than not, the Sixers are generating good looks on the perimeter for guys they trust to make open shots. On some possessions, they are able to do it more than once, which was the case against Sacramento on a sequence where they missed two good looks from deep.
This goes beyond anecdotal evidence, however. Using tracking data from NBA.com, we can estimate how open the Sixers' shooters are on an average three-point attempt. The NBA has four designations for how close a defender is on a given shot: very tight (0-2 feet away), tight (2-4 feet), open (4-6 feet), and wide open (6+ feet). Taking the data for the top-five shooters by volume on the team (sorted in descending order below, a clear picture emerges*:
|3PA/G Open or Wide Open
|3PA/G Tight or Very Tight
*Stats courtesy of Stats.NBA.com.
The Sixers are generating a ton of open attempts from beyond the three-point line. That in itself is a success for this offense, particularly when you consider how devoid of dribbling ability the team is. Simmons is the only guy who can collapse defenses with his dribble, supplemented by Embiid's ability to draw attention in the post. Yet they still find themselves in an advantageous position more often than not.
What's more, they show discretion when the shots on the perimeter aren't there. To use one example, Saric could have attempted an early-clock three on this possession against Sacramento. But when he saw it wasn't there, Saric passed on the look and the Sixers end up resetting the offense.
Our TLDR version of the above is this: they take an extraordinarily average amount of their shots from three, and the vast majority of those looks are open.
This is an assertion I will make no effort to deny because it's just as eye-gouging for me to watch as it is for you. But there are a ton of factors that go into this, and it starts first and foremost with the personnel.
The steward of the offense, Simmons, is a rookie who is expected to turn the ball over because that's what rookie playmakers do. Embiid, great as he is, has turned the ball over at a historic rate from the moment he entered the league. Beyond those two, this Sixers roster was put together with the knowledge that they were supposed to have another playmaker available to them this season.
It is impossible to overstate how much Markelle Fultz means to this team now and moving forward. There was an urgency to get Fultz for many reasons, but a desire to have more playmaking and off-the-bounce pizzazz on the floor was front and center. He is the guy who will give them different options for shots on offense; he can take catch-and-shoot threes, pull up from midrange off-the-dribble, and get to the rim in an attempt to score or kick out to someone on the perimeter.
Without him, some of that burden is passed onto players who should not be asked to do too much creating. This circles back to the same point about the lack of ballhandling that dictates their offense coming from the three-point line. When you ask limited players to do things outside their comfort zone, that's when you end up in trouble.
McConnell is a fun player and a guy who is easy to root for, but his warts are on full display on a play like this.
His size and athleticism make it difficult for McConnell to credibly finish around the rim when he does create some separation as a ballhandler. As a result, he gets himself into situations where he's in mid-air without a plan, searching for someone to dump a pass off to.
This is one of the other inherent problems with this group of players: they are a decidedly below-the-rim team. They have a few guys who will get up there and dunk on fools, Simmons and Richaun Holmes specifically, but overall they are not a team built to shoot well in traffic. When you can't go over or around defenders with athletic ability, you either have to be a crafty finisher or a willing passer. The Sixers have plenty of the latter, but because they don't really have any of the former, teams can play the passing lanes instead of worrying about getting burned by their scoring ability in isolation.
To use another player as an example, Redick has had to do more with the ball in his hands than he probably should, and the results have trended how you'd expect. I'll live with him shooting even more than he already is, but it's not ideal to have him trying to create for others at the rate he is right now.
We can also tie the turnover issue into another one of the greatest hits.
For people who have never coached above the peewee level, nothing speaks volumes like forcefully sitting someone's ass on the bench. The behavioral strategy of harshly punishing earnest mistakes has been discredited in basically every possible context, yet this is still a prevailing thought for armchair coaches.
The reflex of a fan when they see too many plays like the McConnell turnover above is simple: "Bench him!" But that's not much of an option at all. Applied specifically to McConnell, the Sixers would either have to basically play Simmons every minute of the game or turn the offense over to Bayless if Brown chose to make an example out of McConnell.
There are drawbacks to benching almost every regular member of the rotation. If Bayless or Redick sit, you're going to have an absence of shooting. If McConnell sits, you don't have a single trusted ballhandler when Simmons needs to rest. If Covington sits, the Sixers have no healthy wings you can trust on defense, unless you turn to Simmons, who is already shouldering a heavy two-way burden. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is no way to live.
The only guy you can get away with stowing on the bench is TLC, and Brown has done that, shortening or even cutting his minutes. Nothing suggests Brown is unwilling to adjust on the fly, or that he's too stubborn to try new things. Amir Johnson was bad against Chicago, so Brown sat him the entire second half and played Dario Saric at small-ball five instead. They needed a change of pace against the Lakers a couple weeks ago, so Brown inserted Holmes into the lineup as a big-ball four, and he and Embiid devastated L.A. together on offense.
If Brown's rotations leave something to be desired, perhaps you should keep an eye on the injury report. The No. 1 overall pick has played four games. Justin Anderson, who can at least give you energy and athleticism on the wing, has been out for weeks due to shin splints with no return date in sight. Furkan Korkmaz, a string bean who was at best a change-of-pace option to start the year, is now out with a potentially serious Lisfranc injury. Trevor Booker, who has been one of their most reliable bench options despite just joining the team, is dealing with the after-effects of an ankle injury suffered last Friday. Embiid's availability (or lack thereof) is the most overanalyzed topic in town.
Regardless of what he does, it would be difficult for Brown to squeeze much more out of this team with simple rotational adjustments. Every healthy member of their bench played against Sacramento, one of the worst teams in basketball, and they were a collective -40. The only member of that group to emerge on the positive side of the ledger was Holmes, who Brown has continued to give more minutes to lately as Johnson has gone through a rough stretch.
Unless your suggestion is that he should be a witch doctor who can either conjure new players from mid-air or heal the injured ones he has, I don't see it.
Once again, I don't really disagree on this one. You're just going to have to point me in the direction of all the stout defensive players the Sixers have. Failing that, could you explain to me why you'd expect a sub-par group of defenders to play well on defense?
The Sixers have two legitimate defensive pieces on the team in Embiid and Covington. Their other two real contributors on that end come with warts; Simmons' risk-taking hurts him and his awareness can slip away from the ball, and McConnell is a one-position defender at the least impactful defensive position in basketball.
Every other guy in the rotation has a major defensive limitation. Redick and Bayless are limited in who they can guard due to a combination of size and athleticism concerns. Saric is a liability against athletes in space. Johnson doesn't have the recovery speed or hops to make up for misreads. Holmes has attentiveness issues. Luwawu-Cabarrot's engagement level comes and goes, and he takes some of the silliest fouls you'll ever see. That is the entire rotation as it stands, and there are more limited defenders than good ones.
If you're looking for good news, the Sixers have an elite-level defense when Embiid is on the court. They have a DEFRTG of 99.9 when he's in the game, a mark that would be the best in basketball. And they've had him for more minutes this season than I ever would have expected him to play before the year started, with his minutes total already climbing to over 31 per game.
But this is the cost of building around a player whose health has to be treated as a deathly serious matter. Brown admitted after the Kings loss that Embiid was only ruled out for the Kings game at around 2 p.m. on game day. For a team on the second night of a back-to-back, it makes an already tight turnaround that much more difficult, and it's still a big hurdle even if they're playing with tons of rest and prep time in between.
It may be temporary, but there was a philosophical switch between the Sam Hinkie regime and the Bryan Colangelo regime when it comes to the players they filled the roster with. Hinkie tended to prioritize long, athletic youngsters who might grow into plus defenders, and even some of his veteran signings, like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, were defense-first players. Johnson is a defense-first guy, but Colangelo has otherwise leaned toward players who are offensive fits around his core guys.
This may end up changing when the Sixers make some longer-term commitments to free agents, and as I gaze toward Brooklyn, we don't need to pretend the Hinkie era was marked by lockdown defense. But the Sixers' defense is plenty good when they have good defensive players on the floor. #Analysis
None of this is to say Brown is an irrefutable coach, or that he's necessarily the right guy to lead them the promised land. But in the moments when coaches can have the greatest level of impact, Brown and the Sixers are often at their best.
After-timeout plays and sideline out of bounds plays have been a point of strength for the Sixers this season, generating open looks for the team early and often. Getting an open look from an out-of-bounds play can be broken down into a few key components: good play design, good execution, and proper use of personnel. The first two are a product of the preparation a coaching staff does for and with their team. Even when they're put in late-clock situations — which are inherently harder to get good shots from — the Sixers deliver results out of dead-ball plays.
There's not much to this set, but the Sixers got an open corner three from a play initiated with 0.7 seconds on the shot clock, which is pretty remarkable.
But beyond that, I think the most important thing for a coach to be is a leader players trust, and I think day-to-day leadership choices have deeper ramifications than they're given credit for. Phil Jackson was notorious for sitting on timeouts and allowing his players to figure things out early in seasons, and forcing his players to figure things out on their own paid dividends in tough spots come playoff time. When Jackson pulled back on the reins as the year rolled along, it actually meant something. On the flip side, disciplinarians like Scott Skiles often get better results right away at the cost of losing the respect and trust of their players quicker.
You don't need to dig too deep to see Brown's players believe in his message and style of coaching. This young team is mired in a brutal stretch of basketball with every excuse to start sulking and pointing fingers at one another. But to a man, they continue to believe they will clean things up, and they will do it together.
"Obviously we're in a down cycle right now, and we just need to figure out a way to get out of it," Bayless told reporters following the Kings game. "We'll get through this, you just have to find a way to get through it."
"We all want to win, everyone wants to be here," added Simmons. "I think we'll pull it together."
This isn't just lip service, either. Down six points with less than two minutes left against Sacramento, Sixers players engaged in spirited but respectful conversations about what was and wasn't getting done. Simmons and Saric made some hand signals while going over a previous play together, a sequence that ultimately ended with both guys smiling and dapping up at mid-court. When the rookie went to go prepare for the ensuing inbounds play, he made it a point to jog over in Covington's direction, giving him a reassuring pat on the back after watching him miss several shots down the stretch.
When we talk about building a culture, those are the moments when it is most evident the Sixers have a good one.
With Brett Brown at the helm, the Sixers excel on dead ball plays, generate open looks a modern offense can be proud of despite glaring personnel issues, and they play and battle together as a unit. If we're looking for the heart of the issue for Philadelphia right now, I'd say he should be among the least of your worries.
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