February 08, 2020
There could not have been a worse time for Elton Brand to have an availability session with the media following the trade deadline. Losers of four in a row, the Sixers have been beating back questions about the head coach, the fit of their franchise players, and the viability of a project that once seemed to be one of the brightest in the NBA.
In roughly 15 minutes with the media, Brand addressed questions on a variety of subjects, from Ben Simmons' jumper (he thinks it's coming eventually), to Joel Embiid's work ethic (he sees him working hard away from the cameras), to the excitement over signing one of their G-League players to a real contract (team reporters have to get their questions in too). But there were a few topics that rose above the rest.
Fifth in the Eastern Conference standings after Friday night's win over Memphis, the Sixers still have lots of work to do. And we learned a bit more about what that work may look like after talking with Brand on Friday evening.
When Brand was announced as Philadelphia's GM in the fall of 2018, Joshua Harris left a lot of ambiguity about the power structure in place. Both Brett Brown and Brand were expected to report directly to Philadelphia's ownership, and given Brown's heavy influence on that summer of 2018 from a personnel standpoint, it was fair to point out that he might have retained some oversized influence on the roster.
That doesn't appear to be the case anymore, as Brand revealed on Friday evening. Facing questions about Brown's job security, Brand insisted he would be responsible for a decision on the head coach whenever that comes, and that the Sixers had transitioned to a traditional GM/coach chain of command like most organizations in professional sports. And if you take Brand at his word, this has been the case since the end of last season.
First time GM, because I learned a lot about leadership, culture, we look at that as what do we tolerate, what do we celebrate? Once I got a year under my belt, the conversation was hey, you did a great job your first season where you took us. Brett conversation was, look EB, this is how it is around the league, you’ve done a lot for me and the organization, we respect it, ownership, we’re all aligned with that, that that’s how it should be. So it wasn’t a big deal.
It is not an admission without consequences for Brand. Throughout the 15 minutes we spoke with him, Brand invited responsibility for the personnel decisions made last summer, and (mostly) avoided excuses for their failings on the road this year. Using his own words, that puts Brand in the spotlight for their big moves last summer, more specifically the decisions to sign Al Horford to a huge deal and bring back Tobias Harris for $180 million. He eliminated whatever wiggle room he had for himself if things continue to go south with those two.
(There is something to admire about that, I think. The blurriness of their personnel structure has given Brand cover, and at a time when the heat has been turned up, Brand could have tried to hide behind that. Good on him for taking accountability.)
It raises some interesting questions about last year's moves, frankly, and how much influence Brown and other parties had on decisions like the Jimmy Butler trade. Those answers won't be forthcoming, but Brand's responsibilities — choosing or standing by the coach, roster moves, drafting, etc. — are now clear as day, which is a dramatic shift.
And on the topic of standing by the coach, Brand planted himself firmly behind the coach, calling him the team's leader, someone he believes in, and a man he would support in any way possible. Brand did stop short in one meaningful way. Asked if he would guarantee that Brown would be here the rest of the season at least, Brand avoided the hypothetical.
"That decision," Brand said, "I'm not going to play what-ifs. He's our coach and I'm supporting Brett Brown. He's our leader."
It's probably the right answer, honestly, in the event things go totally off the rails and they have no other choice but to make a change. Worth noting nonetheless.
I am technically cheating and bringing some Brown quotes in here for this section. Sue me.
Before Friday night's win over the Grizzlies, PhillyVoice asked Brown whether benching Horford for a better fitting starting group was on the table. Between two separate answers, Brown admitted just about anything is on the table.
For me, it's kind of all on the table. Probably that's the most profile discussion, and I think that as we've said to the group, the media, and really to the team, when we decided to bring Al in, it was with the notion of we think you can guard Giannis [Antetokounmpo], we think you can guard [Pascal] Siakam, and all of the other stuff Al Horford provides. There definitely was a playoff portion of let's reward Al with a contract and get him into the program and all of that. So as it sits now, where you're trying to find a rhythm beat with 30 games left, it truly is — and I'm not ducking the question — it's all on the table.
This is the bottom line: if this is going to make us a better team, then we will do that. Do I think it's going to impact to an extent his minutes or ending the game? No. But [we're] always studying the balance of the roster and just trying to get the most out of it.
When we break down the season into thirds, it's about for me riht now, let's welcome our two new players, let's kind of figure out, J-Rich has been out it seems forever, Joel was out forever not too long ago. And so like, you're juggling some stuff and let's feel this thing out, let's get to the All-Star break, let's play with a level of competitiveness we're proud of. And then I do what I do, I always go away and go into sort of seclusion, I bnunker in someplace, and I lay stuff out all over the place and you come back a little more zoomed in.
That's what I think once again, and so to the question about like, and you went to the big question, of what do you think about [Horford], I think about a lot of things, that being maybe gold. And then you get into silver and bronze, of like what's going on with Glenn [Robinson II] and Alec [Burks], and what's that mean with that group we already have with [Furkan Korkmaz] and [Matisse Thybulle]?
It's a lot of words to tell you, essentially, that everything is on the table coming out of the All-Star break.
So what is Brand's role in this? To let him tell it, Brown has the authority to make any move he wants regarding starters and lineup combinations, and discussions about the Horford issue (among others) have gone back weeks. If a change to the lineup is coming, it will be Brown's decision to make.
"Brett's been empowered to make any decisions he feels to win. Whatever that is, he has been empowered to do it," Brand said Friday. "Whatever you see fit, whatever player or bench role, he has been empowered, and it hasn't been this latest road woes and losing streak, we talked about this weeks ago...whatever you feel needs to be done, let's win."
We saw the first glimmer of potential changes on Friday night, when Brown tinkered with the rotations a little bit to play Harris as a four next to Embiid, something we saw an abundance of last season but hasn't necessarily been there this year. With Burks and Robinson III on the way, it seems some more wing-heavy lineups may be on the way, which would be a welcome change.
Brand was asked whether the starting group fits together, and the quote was not exactly a resounding yes (bold emphasis mine):
We have the pieces on this team, and we will make it fit. It hasn’t fit at times, but again it’s baffling to us all, we have a lot of work to do to have the best record at home in the entire NBA and then to play how we’ve been playing on the road. We’re not happy about that, I’m extremely disappointed, we’re extremely disappointed, the players understand they have to do better. Coaching staff, myself, my staff, the whole organization know we have to do better.
The Sixers were clear in their message to other teams heading into the trade deadline. They believe they are built for the playoffs and were not interested in discussing trades for any member of their starting five, focusing on the margins as they did in their trade with the Warriors.
But you have to wonder whether that would change (it almost has to) if things fail spectacularly in the playoffs this season. The Sixers are staring down a scenario where they would go into the luxury tax for a team that might be doomed to fail. Whether you or I care about the pockets of a billionaire or not (I certainly don't), everyone needs to see more from this Sixers team in the playoffs than they have seen during the regular season.
Even Brand is taken aback by their struggles on the road, which he labeled "baffling" and couldn't offer up a firm explanation for. The best he could offer up was highlighting the team's youth, but I'm not sure that really holds up when you look at how the season began. Philadelphia delivered in big spots early in the season, earning some big crunch-time wins behind stiff defense and good execution. It's different doing that on the road, but the Sixers haven't been losing lately because of botched ATO plays, they've been losing because they've been getting outworked, outshot, and outplayed.
On the topic of Horford specifically, Brand was asked whether he still believes signing Horford was the best fit to help Embiid and Simmons win.
At home it has been. I don’t want to lean on that because I can’t lean on that, because having the best record at home says something, being as terrible as we have been on the road says something too. I believe in this group, it’s going to be determined, and as I alluded to earlier, I put this roster together. All the great things he does bring, I think will come to the surface.
Unless Horford brings a sudden ability to shoot in the high 30's or low 40's from three-point range, it's hard to see things improving much for the current starting and closing group.
After a debut season of wheeling and dealing, Brand took a decidedly more cautious approach at the deadline this year. Moves on the margins have propelled Philadelphia to new heights in the past, most notably in the cases of Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli, so perhaps Brand's quiet deadline will be enough to get it done.
If it isn't? There are going to be a lot of interesting conversations this summer, internally and externally.
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