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May 05, 2020

Sixers GM Elton Brand on his stars' health, keeping the team together and preparing for playoffs

Nearly two months following the abrupt suspension of the NBA's 2019-20 season, Sixers GM Elton Brand finds himself in a similar position now as he did then. No one knows when the season is coming back, no one knows what form a return might take, and everyone is desperate to return to some sense of normalcy as long as it can happen without unnecessary risk.

To that end, Brand sat down for a conference call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon, touching on subjects ranging from the health of his players to ownership's financial commitment to team video happy hours, all within the span of about 30 minutes. There weren't any franchise-altering reveals, but there were plenty of nuggets on how the team is holding up and what the path forward looks like for Philly.

How is the team keeping everyone together during a hiatus?

The task of keeping a professional sports team running smoothly when the team can't assemble and play is gargantuan. Even teams with deep bonds and team chemistry are made up of a diverse mix of personalities, all of whom are going to handle a pandemic response differently.

And that's without considering the resources each player might have. Living in a high-rise vs. the suburbs can have a huge impact on whether players have had access to proper equipment during the down period, something Brand says the Sixers have tried to mitigate.

"For those who didn't have equipment, which was most of them, we brought them bikes, two or three ellipticals and switched them out. Workouts that we can send— I'm just making sure that their physical health and also mental health are in great shape," Brand told reporters. "But it's going to take a ramp-up. The league, the NBPA, we all have to figure out an amount of time (for that). I don't know how much time it's going to be, once it's deemed safe, but it's definitely gonna need some time to get back in the gym, get your legs back, get your wind back, and have a healthy and safe return."

While there have been reports of a 25-day warmup period for players, actually playing basketball is another matter entirely. Brand brought up Matisse Thybulle restlessly dribbling around his apartment on Tik Tok, noting that players around the league are struggling with access to hoops and courts, which is part of what drove the league to push for the opening of practice facilities in select areas. Not everyone can get out there and shoot even if they desperately want to, which is a foreign concept for guys who have lived and breathed basketball their whole lives.

On the mental side, part of the task is making sure the players continue to engage with basketball during this hiatus, and the Sixers have facilitated film study remotely to achieve that goal. But Brand says the players have taken it upon themselves to continue team bonding throughout the pandemic, conducting team Zoom calls and even participating in digital happy hours like many around the world have with friends and family. 

Brand would not reveal who organized those happy hours (I have my suspicions) and joked about not being invited, but stressed that he believed his guys are looking out for one another during the crisis.

"The miss the locker room. They miss each other. They miss the fans. They miss everything that basketball afforded them," Brand said. "We're giving them resources just, you know, as an outlet. When I speak to them it's not all about basketball. It's just about life, and how they're doing, how they're transitioning, how their families are doing, ways they're staying healthy, books they can read, and articles, and sometimes comedies just to get them to laugh. It's a whole slew of things we're trying to do, because mental health is very important at this time."

What are the stars up to?

Reports already circulated regarding Ben Simmons' health and availability, so Brand saying he was optimistic about Simmons being ready to play if/when the league returns is not exactly a shocker. But with their usually durable star fighting through a back issue, good news is always welcome.

"He's doing really, really well," Brand said. "I give Ben and our medical staff a lot of credit for their hard work throughout his recovery and give Ben so much credit for working so hard through this unknown time. Fortunately, we've been able to arrange for him continue to get the necessary treatment and rehab he needs during this hiatus, and I'm very optimistic he'll be ready to play if and when we're given that green light to resume."

Brand was less forceful when asked if Simmons would have been ready if the team was in the midst of their playoff run right now, which sounds a little concerning but made sense within the context Brand said it. Without being able to run him through three-on-three or five-on-five drills and scrimmages in the current moment, it's hard to gauge his actual readiness to play basketball. Getting his baseline health in order was the most important step, and now Simmons will have to wait like everyone else to test his limitations and get back into fighting shape.

Simmons' health is moving to the backburner now, but his running mate's wellness is always at the forefront of the conversation about the Sixers. Joel Embiid has been keeping a relatively low profile during the league's hiatus, save for some noteworthy contributions in the fight against COVID-19, but that won't stop anyone from speculating about his conditioning and the seriousness of his approach.

To let Brand tell the story, the franchise center has been engaged and working throughout the down period.

"Joel Embiid has been working out. He's conditioning, he's focused, he's asking about when his trainer can come in, when he can come on the court," Brand said. "I wouldn't bet against him. He's going to be ready and ramped up."

One advantage for Philadelphia, Brand says, is that many of their players stayed local in the Philadelphia area rather than heading "home" or to various other parts of the country at the moment quarantine went into effect. When facilities open back up, many of the Sixers' players will be able to head on down to get shots up and get in the gym, and do so from the comfort of their home base.

(A small note on that — with New Jersey one of the most impacted states during this pandemic, it's not out of the question that their Camden facility could continue to have restrictions for a longer period than facilities in other NBA states/cities. Brand pointed out that if this were the case, the team does have a brand-new G-League facility in Delaware that they would not hesitate to make use of.)

What will Philadelphia's approach to the draft look like?

The timing of the NBA Draft is still an unknown at this juncture, and one of Philadelphia's biggest voices in the player personnel department, Marc Eversley, has moved on to take a job with the Chicago Bulls. But the prep continues, and their draft plan may end up looking different than in years past.

With the Sixers in the midst of a win-now push, Brand was open last year about their desire to get pro-ready players to add to their program, and they found one in Matisse Thybulle. They don't sound as dead set on that strategy as they did a year prior, though it's hard to say whether that's because their long-term outlook has changed or if it's a potential reflection of how they think the board will shake out.

There is a specific mold of player they're looking for, however.

"We’re going to explore all the options to try to add youth and depth to our program that fits our identity — versatility, dynamic, committed to defense," Brand said. "There are going to hopefully be some gems we can pick during our draft picks, but it’s going to be more broad. We might take some fliers on players with potential, and we’ll see, it might be players who can help us right now. We’re going to look at the full scope."

The nature of evaluating prospects at all has changed during this, with teams unable to bring in prospects for workouts or actually meet them in person. NBA teams have been allowed to meet with players digitally, but there are league-mandated restrictions on how long and how often they're able to speak with individual players, so even the workaround comes with limitations.

Philadelphia's GM believes that's not necessarily a death knell for the whole process, highlighting how on occasion, draft workouts can be a little too powerful anyway.

"The draft is a multi-year thing, it’s a build-up, and draft night is the culmination of that. We know who the prospects are, we do deep dives, but there’s little things you can pick up one-on-one and in person and talking to a potential prospect," Brand said. "It’s much different interviewing someone on Zoom and not having them coming into the court for a workout. Sometimes you can get blown away by a workout and that can skew your thoughts on a player, but if you know a lot about them, it’s good to at least be able to talk to them, video conference or in person."

How do you prep for a season you're uncertain is coming back?

Like anyone involved with the NBA who has been put on the record, Brand dismissed questions regarding timing, structure, and viability of the league's return. That's plenty fair — it's not his decision to make, and even if the league says his team has to do something extreme like play in a single-elimination tournament to try to win a title, the teams are going to fall in line.

So business has continued for the basketball ops department, as the staff prepares for a postseason that may or may not ever come. Brand has had daily FaceTime calls with head coach Brett Brown, whose staff is going through film and prep work as if they're going to come out of this and go to war against the Boston Celtics.

"We're talking about the Celtics as if that could be an opponent. And then Brett and his staff have also gone and prepared for other teams in case there is a regular season and the odds change," Brand said. "I want to see this team in the playoffs. You know, I've said it many times that's what we were built for. So I want to see that. But I know it's gonna be based on the data, it's gonna be based on the safety and health of not just us, our families and fans, but our communities."

Then there are bigger picture concerns, from the viability of this core to whether the financial impact of this crisis will impact ownership's mandate. The overarching message from Brand was avoiding those hypotheticals, stressing that his focus was on the present moment and keeping everyone together during a time when isolation is not just common practice, it's the recommended style of living.

Still, his answer on ownership left some room for interpretation.

"I think it’s a little early to speculate on what it is, I know we want to contend year after year, and that’s going to be our goal," Brand said. "I can’t speculate there, I don’t know how the ownership group, the managing partners are doing personally. But I know they want to win and they’ve given me the green light, I think they’ll continue to do that to figure out ways that we can win."

Brand not talking to ownership during this crisis, assuming we take him at his word, would be a bit strange in the circumstances, though it seems more likely that he was simply referring to his knowledge of Joshua Harris' bank account. We know when ownership briefly mandated a pay-cut for at-will employees that Brand was one of the contracted staff members willing to take a voluntary pay cut as a show of support, and ownership has been in routine contact with the important parties in the organization. 

As with most subjects in the world right now, there's a three-word phrase to sum it all up: wait and see. 

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