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September 26, 2019

Five major takeaways from Brett Brown's annual media luncheon

When he arrived at his annual luncheon with the media on Wednesday, Brett Brown would have been forgiven if he was still dealing with the hangover of a game seven defeat to the Toronto Raptors last spring. As Brown himself has admitted, the sting of that loss has trumped all the heartbreaking moments of his career, including Ray Allen's shot for the ages that kept the Heat alive in the 2013 Finals and eventually led to Brown's Spurs losing in seven games.

But as is his tendency, Brown arrived for his sit-down excited to talk about the new core they have in place, a group that for the first time in a while feels like it has a chance to stick together for a long time. With an offseason to reflect on changes to the roster, the Sixers' head coach dished on an assortment of topics in an hour-plus meeting with reporters, leaving us with plenty to chew on before training camp open next week.

While we wait for basketball to get rolling again, here are some of the biggest takeaways from the meeting with Brown, not including his thoughts on Ben Simmons' jumper, which you can read about here.

1. Joel Embiid is expected to take over crunch-time duties...for now

Without Jimmy Butler around, it's no secret the Sixers are going to have some growing pains in crunch time. None of their current players have the sort of resumé Butler had as a go-to scorer in fourth quarters, even if they have some of the best young talents in the league.

So who is going to take the mantle as the player Philadelphia turns to in crunch time? For the time being, it's going to be Joel Embiid.

"It has been, it is now, and I suspect it will be, Joel Embiid is our crown jewel. Mightn't we say based on a matchup, you've got Al Horford, or Tobias, or Ben's got someone smaller? Of course," Brown said. "I think over an 82-game [season], now that you have a team that's going to be a team you hope, you suspect for the season...clearer answers will emerge. But on first glance, you should hear about the crown jewel belief, and you should hear I am completely aware we have other possibilities."

This declaration may seem obvious, and Brown sold it to reporters as a no-doubt decision, but there are limitations playing through a post-up big man at any point in a game, let alone in crunch time. Defenses are much better equipped (through rules and personnel) to send help toward bigs in the paint, and in many cases, they can deny passes from ever getting to Embiid to begin with.

Another downside is that officials tend to swallow their whistles the closer we get to the final buzzer, and that's particularly harmful for big men, who are often so big and strong it's hard to notice every time they get fouled. But even Embiid, who sells contact well, falls victim to late-game officiating.

A perfect example of this phenomenon came in a February meeting between the Sixers and the rival Celtics, when Embiid couldn't draw a foul against, who else, new teammate Al Horford. He gets this call probably seven out of 10 times in the middle of a game, but not when it counted.

Still, there is no ambiguity about who Philadelphia's best player is, and it would behoove them to give him as many touches as possible to keep him happy and engaged on the other end. But the early part of the season figures to be an experiment on several levels for Philadelphia, so we'll see if this holds up long-term.

2. Health is Brown's primary concern heading into the year

As we've documented in our season preview series here at PhillyVoice, there are plenty of pitfalls the Sixers will have to avoid to reach the NBA summit. They've constructed an ultra-big team in an era where small is in, and it's anyone's guess how that will turn out in the end.

But Brown isn't worried about much in late September, aside from the thing that may have kept them from making a Finals appearance last season.

"If you put a gun to my head, I'm going straight to health. I think short of that, I feel like I have the people in that locker room, I have a coaching staff," Brown said. "I know we're going to play defense. That still rules my day, it's where my head is centered as my starting point... I feel comfortable that we're going to defend because we can and it's how I see the world. I think we're going to score because we have options."

"I think it's going to be keeping a very intelligent eye on load management, the luck of health, and I believe we have a championship-caliber team as it sits. The season will prove me right or prove me wrong." 

A lot of the hour-plus sit-down with Brown centered around plans the Sixers have in place to get through an 82-game campaign. Though Al Horford is a great player in his own right, his ability to spell Joel Embiid was a huge part of the draw in signing him, and there is a plan in place to get Embiid ample rest throughout the season to keep him healthy for the playoffs.

(As for what that plan is, Brown would not get into any specifics with the media. After fighting off questions from us for years, Brown has made the decision to remove himself from the public messaging on health issues, and it's still fairly unclear who or what will step in to take his place. Your ballpark guesses for Embiid's games played are as accurate as any of mine would be at this stage, but we do know Horford will be the primary backup to Embiid, at the very least.)

3. Brown has his eyes set on lofty goals

However, don't let the rest plan for Embiid (or anyone else for that matter) fool you into thinking the Sixers are just going to be happy to get into the playoffs and trust their talent from there. Brown wants to be at the top of the East, no if, ands, or but.

"I want the No. 1 seed," Brown said. "I want to go for the No. 1 seed. Of course, we're all going to say the same things, not to the detriment of Joel's health, and maybe not to the detriment at times of developing players, and all of the other things I'm not thinking of right now. We'll say that and this is true, but I will put out there, I want to get the No. 1 seed."

One of Brown's messages that he and the team have lived over the last few seasons rings true here — he wants to, "coach for the challenge, not out of fear." He called for a playoff berth long before people thought it was set in stone in 2017-18, and he announced Finals ambitions before the start of 2018-19. They have more reason to believe in themselves now than they ever have to start a season under his watch, and he is talking the talk accordingly.

This may be easier said than done. Even if you believe the Sixers can take the Milwaukee Bucks in a playoff series, they have a long way to go before they can confidently claim they'll finish ahead of them in the standings. The Bucks finished last season with 60 wins and have an advantage of a core that has already been through it together, making it easy for them to get off on the right foot.

"Talent does not trump time" was a quote Brown repeated throughout the luncheon, and that's especially relevant here. If you want to punch in that weight class, you aren't afforded many early-season hiccups.

4. Young players might be more pressed for minutes than we thought

But if there is a negative side effect of trying to push for the best record in the conference, it is how that push will impact Philadelphia's player development. There is no substitute for NBA minutes, but there may not be as many to go around as people believed.

The No. 1 priority for training camp, Brown explained, is to articulate everyone's roles and place in the ecosystem before the season starts, making sure no one is caught off guard when things get rolling.

"There are inevitable competitive environments, let's go to the point guard, Trey [Burke] and Raul [Neto], rarely do you go into NBA games and you're playing three point guards," Brown said. "You get into like, Jo's not playing, who's the backup five? And so that's a competitive environment. What's going on with the young kids? Somebody is going to be given a chance to emerge — Zhaire and Matisse and Shake and don't forget about Furkan."

"I'm not shrinking rotations right out of the that first third, we're going to feel some things and see some things, people will be given an opportunity. This isn't a charity, I don't feel a need to play everybody to see. Always at the end of the day, the gym shows me. They will show me, they will tell me, and somebody's going to put their hand up and grab a spot."

It's a double-edged sword for Philadelphia. On the one hand, they have better vets than they've had in the past who fit into important, straightforward roles, and that helps raise their floor even on off nights for the stars. Guys like Mike Scott and James Ennis also have the benefit of experience in the system and familiarity with their teammates, so they can hit the ground running even if the starting group takes time. But how many minutes does that leave for everyone else? That's still to be determined. 

The Sixers have invested a ton of time and resources into improving their development program to help players grow even when they're not getting regular burn, but that is a story for another day.

5. The Sixers are leaning into their identity as big, bad bullies

When you start a team with a 6-foot-10 point guard, you have a staggering amount of lineup choices you can put on the floor. Smaller guards who are scorers rather than distributors are suddenly more attractive, but you also have the option to lean into your size and create a super-sized group.

Philadelphia has fully embraced the latter idea, and while it has led to a lot of Twitter jokes about Elton Brand's love for bigs, they are excited to show the NBA what they're all about.

"We are huge. Who does the point guard, who does Kemba [Walker] guard on opening night?" Brown asked. "You should write this with a really thick crayon and hear me loudly, we will end up playing smashmouth offense and bully ball defense. We have a team that can do that. Are we going to be casting a bunch of threes? That's not our identity."

That will excite some of you and offend those of you who have been brought up in the pace-and-space era, but both sides should hear this too — the Sixers are not abandoning their principles or the lessons we've learned about basketball over the span of the last few decades. Brown's men will increasingly hunt corner shots, Simmons will be encouraged to take open threes, and the head coach is moving players in their alignments away from the free-throw line and out to the arc, all in an effort to create space for drives and kicks.

What they will do, however, is cause an assortment of matchup problems for opponents. Brown doesn't necessarily want his guys backing down smaller players all night, but he wants to see their bigger perimeter players drive and attempt layups and dunks when they have smaller players guarding them. He believes they will be "incredible" rebounding on both ends, putting pressure on teams through the glass if they can't with their shooting.

There will be internal tug of wars on this team. Simmons is wired to play 100 miles per hour and win the tempo, while Embiid is best suited in a style where Philly walks it down and lets him go to work. This season will be all about balancing priorities, styles, and touches to bring the best out of everyone.

But there is no confusion about who this team is and who Brown wants them to be.

"We want to have a very purposeful, driven, disciplined, clearly articulated by me, 'This is who we are. These are our priorities, this is your role,'" Brown said. "I have no gray area in my mind right now of what we're going to do."

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