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December 20, 2019

It's time to talk about Brett Brown and coaching the Sixers

What's his fault? What isn't? And is Brown the right man for the job? Let's discuss...

One of the most prominent running jokes on Sixers Twitter is the assertion that the team is undefeated and Brett Brown is 0-(insert number of team losses here). It gets at the core of one of the great divides following the basketball team from the inside or outside perspective. You can either be pro-Brown or anti-Brown, with no room for a stance in between.

It is residue from the great philosophical debate of my lifetime in Philly sports, the multi-year war over the validity and success of "The Process." We have reached the point where every loss comes with a tidal wave of anger, justified more on some nights than others, and any reaction — other than writing that they should fire the coach — is treated as a betrayal of what I guess is my sacred duty.

So I thought I would take a crack at giving you all a window into how I view the team, what I view the coach's role as, and where Brown fits (or doesn't fit) into that. A simplistic assessment of a coach, so far as I see it, can be broken down into several areas.

  1. Installing an overall style and philosophy that shows an understanding of how to win in the modern NBA and the personnel the team has on hand. "Culture" also probably fits under this umbrella.
  2. Ego management. This is perhaps the hardest task of all (and the reason so many former college coaches have failed miserably at the next level) and the one that is hardest for anyone not with the team to understand. As reporters, we are around these guys much more than fans, and even we are dealing with an information deficit here.
  3. In-game decisionmaking. Under this umbrella, I would throw in a lot of different components. Timeouts and after-timeout execution, in-game (or in-series) adjustments, and the use of the coach's challenge this year.

It is reductive and leaves out things such as the importance of the connection between a coach and the front office, but this column is going to be a monstrosity so we have to make cuts somewhere. Let's get on with the show.

(A warning in advance — I am not interested in talking about turnovers, as it is a subject I kill them for routinely when appropriate and is generally overrated as it pertains to winning. Go look at how the Warriors fared in that category as they steamrolled the league. I am also not going to video clip you to death, but I can promise you I spent more time than any sane human being should watching this team in various offensive sets. Feel free to do the homework yourself, we all have access to Al Gore's internet.)

Style & philosophy

Here is the opinion that ultimately drags me away from many of you in this discussion — I believe the Sixers are the hardest team to build an offensive identity for in the league. They are ultimately constructed around a post-up center and a 6'10" point guard who is the antithesis of the player you would want to stick next to him (and vice versa). One needs to run, the other needs to walk. If the Sixers woke up tomorrow and traded the 13 other players on the roster for new pieces, there is not much that would change.

The Sixers try anyway. When Ben Simmons is on the floor sans Joel Embiid, they fly in transition, with Simmons flanked by wing athletes and a pick-and-pop big in Horford. When Embiid is on his own, they stick him on the low block and put shooting around him, hoping to make his life less complicated on post-ups.

Both styles win their minutes, and their minutes together sit in the middle of the offense/defense spectrum.

Lineup PTS/100 possessions  PTS allowed/100 poss.
 Embiid & Simmons 105.198.4 
 Embiid, no Simmons 102.392.7 
 Simmons, no Embiid 111.5106.8 

Can the Sixers win all of those minutes by more? That's perhaps the best question to ask here.

A common form of criticism, this year and in years past, is the lack of pick-and-roll in Philadelphia's offense. It is the NBA's staple play, and indeed, the Sixers lag behind the rest of the league in those plays. Philadelphia is second to last in percentage of plays finished by a pick-and-roll ballhandler and dead last with pick-and-roll roll men plays. 

But that comes bundled with a belief that the Sixers just stubbornly run handoffs with no regard for personnel, and that's simply not true. Philadelphia's handoff frequency has dropped considerably year-over-year and demanding the Sixers to blindly run more pick-and-rolls potentially ignores whether the players they have are equipped to run more. 

In Miami last season, Josh Richardson ran more pick-and-rolls than he ever had before in his career, using almost 32 percent of his possessions on those sets. That has dropped to 28.5 percent in Philly, but he is scoring at a more efficient rate so far than he did in Miami. This is not to say he is running the optimal number of pick-and-rolls per game or that the team context is the same, but to acknowledge most players hit a point of diminishing returns in any one play style. 

The opposite is true for Tobias Harris, who handled the ball less in pick-and-rolls during his Philly cameo last season, and a slight uptick in frequency has coincided with a slight drop in efficiency this year. Here's where we have to examine — Harris' efficiency on said plays is far below where it was during his final half-season with the Clippers, and below where it has been for most of his career pre-Philadelphia. But why?

For me, all roads lead back to Simmons. On this play from the Portland game at the beginning of the season, Harris turns the corner and the Sixers should have a numbers advantage somewhere. But with Simmons stationed near the paint, Mario Hezonja and Damian Lillard can each cut off two options at once, allowing the defenders at a disadvantage to reassimilate. The result is Harris having to resort to a back-down.

On a normal-ish team, Harris either has a path for a layup at the rim or the ability to hit a rolling Horford, who himself can either attempt to finish or hit the open man in the corner on the short roll. Short-roll passing is one of the most valuable tools in Horford's kit, and he rarely even has an opportunity to use it in Philly.

Teams around the league regularly cheat off of weakside players to help in the paint, but most are able to do so against the Sixers without their players even needing to move. Running pick-and-roll with Simmons handling the ball is an even more futile exercise. Players are going to go under the screen almost every time, and with teams happy to drop against every non-Horford big, you're basically setting a screen to allow teams to wall off the paint.

The Sixers, in turn, have turned to the post-up to sustain their offense. They are playing through the post to a staggering degree — the difference in volume between the Sixers and the No. 2 post-up team (San Antonio) is roughly the difference between the Spurs and the Blazers, No. 13 in frequency. The only high-volume team ahead of them in efficiency on those plays is the Lakers, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis both in the midst of MVP-caliber seasons.

There are fewer complaints on defense, though some are aggravated by Philadelphia's "centerfield" coverage that invites players to take and make midrange two's. They have made the choice to force teams off the three-point line as much as possible. Given that Joel Embiid and Al Horford are waiting in the paint, and given that their own lack of three-point shooting creates a potential math problem for them, complaining about this seems like a particularly strange nit to pick. They do and will get stops, and if you don't buy that, we will have to agree to disagree.

Ego management

As a skill, this is the most underrated part of an NBA coach's job. In many other American sports, players are treated like disposable parts. Bill Belichick famously churns through players who don't fit in with "the Patriot Way" as the leader of a dynasty in New England. Hockey players usually play in minute-long increments, rewarding strength in numbers over individual greatness (though the latter certainly helps).

Basketball players think and know they are different in this regard. Individual players carry teams for games, months, and entire seasons, with teams scheming for years just to create the requisite cap space for a chance to lure a star. It takes a certain type of person and player to cut it at the highest level.

Consider who the Sixers' two young leaders are. Embiid is a 25-year-old who picked up the sport as a teenager, sat out two seasons with injuries, and was immediately one of the best basketball players in the world. Simmons was a dominant prodigy who crushed competition while hardly trying at amateur levels, winning 51 games and leading a 17-game winning streak as a rookie with Embiid injured.

In the years since, the Sixers have absorbed the general manager of the team (or someone close to him) leaking private information and disparaging their best player behind the veil of an anonymous burner account, coalesced around the acquisition of one of the league's most notorious malcontents, turned over the roster multiple times, and just kept chugging along in spite of bumps, bruises, and hurdles along the way.

This season, the idea has emerged that the Sixers' young stars simply need a new voice to inspire them. It is the idea I am most receptive to. Brown's teams have always played hard for him, talent or not, and the late-game comeback against Miami illustrates their willingness to fight for him and the team even in a game where they flat-out sucked for over half of it. But there is a level of familiarity, particularly with Embiid, that you could argue leads to the familiar bouts of malaise. Could a new voice get their best with fewer lapses in focus, even with minimal change in structure? That's an argument worth having.

But consider the stubbornness of the parties involved and the power each wields over the organization. Ben Simmons has been humiliated as soundly as one can in two straight second-round series, spent an entire offseason teasing the promise of a new jumper, and has made zero change to his offensive approach. Joel Embiid said on the record to reporters and cameramen and every Sixers fan willing to listen that he would be receptive to a Kawhi Leonard-like plan to preserve him for a Finals run, and the Sixers invested $100 million in his insurance plan. It took a month into a new season for him to step in front of a microphone and call load management bullshit.

You can make demands, as Brown did when he stood up on his soapbox and asked for more threes from Simmons, you can let guys have it in timeouts, you can even occasionally yank players for screwing up. You cannot change who people are. The only people who gain from doing things like benching starters to send a message are Philadelphia's opponents, and out-of-work coaches hoping for the Sixers' players to turn on the incumbent.

I will not sit here and play amateur psychologist or body-language doctor. I can't tell you who these guys would or would not respond to, I can only guess. But I can show you the same bouts of hard-headedness from the core duo inside and outside of the seasons, and ask you who the common denominator is in both of those times.

RELATED: The Sixers are the team Embiid and Simmons allow them to be

In-game decisionmaking

The words "Brett Brown's rotations" are burned into my brain like a sports-specific version of PTSD. I can't stress this enough — if you believe the Sixers' ultimate success hinges on whether it's Trey Burke or Raul Neto playing eight minutes per game, you are admitting your belief that the team as constructed is totally f**ked.

I have raised my own issues with Brown's lineup choices in the past, the primary culprit being the Simmons-McConnell lineups of yesteryear. It is a legitimate complaint to say we haven't seen enough multi-guard lineups this season, and in my view, the team's lack of ballhandling is a bigger issue than their shooting. I wrote nearly 1500 words on this potential problem on September 23rd, weeks before we had even seen them play a preseason game. It is something they should be exploring proactively in the same vein they have with Furkan Korkmaz.

In years past, I have shared the view of many others that Brown is too slow to adjust. I am also aware of the pitfalls of rapid adjustments generally — make real-time assessments on social media (or even a personal log) enough times and you will become aware of how often our best intentions lead us astray. Finding a happy medium between sticking to smart principles and responding to moment-to-moment madness is not easy, and being too trigger happy is a path to confusing the hell out of your players. Brown has shown more flexibility here this year, unleashing blitzes and zones against guards who gave them a hard time early in games.

A football town will naturally drift toward the importance of the timeout, and there are gripes here too. Brown skews too far on the "let them play it out" side for my liking, which is a small but notable factor in their road game problem. The Sixers often allow teams to build enough momentum to bring the crowd back into games that should basically be over, and things can spiral from there. On the flip side, his ATO designs have been critical for the Sixers in big moments this year, and he has struck the right balance (for me) of trying to let them hunt late-game shots with early offense before calling them in to regroup when they don't materialize.

Sidebar: Phil Jackson enjoyed the same timeout style as Brown. "He's able to read the big picture and not let the emotions of the moment control him. Things are going bad on the court, and I'll be screaming at Phil to take a timeout: 'Hey, you better start coaching, and earn that fabulous salary of yours.' But he's likely to say, 'Ah, let 'em work it out themselves.' It's amazing how many times they do." [Sports Illustrated]

An examination of Philadelphia's playoff runs reveals good and bad for Brown. The Sixers blitzed the Heat in 2018 with Embiid returning from a long layoff mid-series and then got pantsed by Brad Stevens and an undermanned Celtics team in the next round. Considering Simmons' ongoing issues and Embiid's history of being tortured by Horford and certain other centers, those five games might warrant a reexamination soon.

In 2019, Brown's immediate lineup adjustment against Brooklyn allowed them to win four straight in a series where they had to start Greg Monroe at center on the road, and defensive tweaks took Brooklyn's best shooter (Joe Harris) and best guard (D'Angelo Russell) completely out of the series. 

Against the title-winners in round two, the Raptors emerged victoriously, but repeated tweaks slowed down the inevitable. Pascal Siakam went 3/4 from three in Game 1 and then shot 6/27 the rest of the way after Brown switched Embiid onto him and forced him out of the corners, neutering Kyle Lowry and Fred Van Vleet (who would murder the Bucks in the next round) along the way. Toronto won because they had the best player and because the Sixers got sauteed whenever Embiid had the audacity to hit the bench.

A final word

Here is the cold, hard truth about coaching – most people don't have any clue who is good in the lead chair and who isn't. Former Lakers assistant Brian Shaw was in rumors for head coaching rumors for years, and when he finally got his shot with Denver in 2013 he oversaw a 21-win drop in Year 1 and was fired after Year 2. Philadelphia fans should be well aware of this phenomenon. Doug Pederson's hiring was met with near-universal groans, the Eagles having allegedly missed out on all the best options in 2016, only for him to deliver the only Super Bowl victory in franchise history with a backup QB against the greatest sports dynasty since the 90s Bulls.

I will not challenge anyone who believes Brett Brown may not be the coach to take this team to the promised land. They only give out one Larry O'Brien per season, and I can name a tier of coaches I'd take over him if you had your pick. The next Nick Nurse could be out there, for all we know, and if a veteran upgrade emerges, go nuts.

But please, spare me from the claims that Mark Jackson, the only man outside of LeBron James who stopped the Warriors, is the key to unlocking this team's greatness. Please save your breath on Tom Thibodeau, who would turn Embiid's lower body into ash in less than a year. Jay Wright is a tremendous college coach who dissenters love to bring up, and I like the way his teams play, but I'm obligated to point out the irony in Sixers fans wanting to hire a guy who has flamed out in the second round with a preseason top-10 team on four separate occasions.

Absent a title this year, it is my belief a change will come regardless. And so if you are among those who believe I don't talk about coaching enough, it is because I choose to spend most of my time on this team talking about the players, who will likely outlast him here and whose considerable fit issues are the team's biggest barrier to winning a title.

It is not a matter of protecting access, which is only volatile on the player side, it is not a matter of thinking he is the second coming of Red Auerbach, it is not a matter of trying to earn favors or score points or pretend like I am the ultimate authority on coaching because I don't agree with people who are more prone to mood swings than I am.

The truth is, I just think Brown is pretty good, and that isn't a very interesting story to tell day after day. So if you're ever wondering what my thoughts are on this matter moving forward, odds are you can find them right here. 

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