The water, as ever, is right at his head, but Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown is ramped up and reflective on Monday afternoon.
A reporter asks him the pertinent question of his tenure: How does Brown juggle it all? The moving parts, the lineup turnover, the injuries. “I think it’s just the history that we have had — I have had — in Philadelphia,” he says. “We have had a lot of practice at this. And always the landing spot for me is, you coach what you have.
“We came in and I knew what I signed up for and incrementally, you blew it up,” he starts, reciting the flashpoints of the six-year journey that somehow has the 76ers on pace for 49 wins and the sixth seed: the rebuild, the 10-win season, the sagas of Markelle Fultz and the other top draft picks that landed elsewhere, the emergence of superstar pillars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the road from potential to big bets — Philly employs four max players — and immense pressure. He leaves a couple of things out: Process architect Sam Hinkie’s departure by way of manifesto, and Burner-gate — the mortifying exodus of team president Bryan Colangelo — leading to the era of general manager Elton Brand. “There’s stories there that I’m sure excite people in your industry and I get that, and here I was and am, so you lived it all,” he says, framing his survival as a wellspring of hope.
The Sixers haven’t won a game on the road in over a month, a fact that was not lost on Brand when, in addressing whether Brown would coach the team through the season, he said he wasn’t “going to play what-ifs.”
With the season dwindling to a close, the Sixers face the burden of coming up with answers, or else the questions turn to them. To Brown: Will the stars ever fit despite his insistence that they will? To the stars themselves: Why won’t Ben Simmons shoot? Why won’t Joel Embiid lay off the Chick-fil-A? Is Tobias Harris a one-trick pony? Is Al Horford done? And what about Brand, whose trigger-happy wheeling-and-dealing has created an endless carousel of talent in the stead of a real team and who turned the war-chest of picks the Process accumulated into six months of Jimmy Butler and Harris?
The Sixers hope — no, need — their talent to supercede all those questions.
Brown admits he feels the urgency ramping up. “I do. I’m not telling the truth, if you didn’t want to have the answers a little bit quicker than maybe we do.” With 20 games remaining, the pieces he needs to fit are back in Philly, nursing injuries. Simmons pinched a nerve in his back against Milwaukee on Feb. 22. He won’t be re-evaluated for another week. Embiid sprained his shoulder Feb. 26. The Sixers have a 0.9 net rating when the duo shares the court, meaning they barely outscore opponents. Teams know their scouting report: “Can Joel play fast with Ben? Can Ben play slow with Joel?” Brown imitates. If you believe, like he does, that the answer lies in the supporting cast, the time away could serve as an opportunity.
He insists on positivity, even in the aftermath of Josh Richardson sustaining a concussion against the Clippers on Sunday, of six horrible minutes that ripped away Philly’s chance to beat the Lakers on Tuesday night. “You walk that line of, you gotta keep it real. I like being a truth-teller,” Brown says. “But in the meantime, given the situation, it’s trying to find positives. It’s not like I’m making stuff up. There were definitely positives in both games that you can highlight. I wanna make sure we keep the spirit, keep the group moving forward, under a very candid roof.”
So they’re trying to find solace in these silver linings — Shake Milton is a thing, Alec Burks could work as a backup point guard, new acquisition Glenn Robinson III had his best game as a Sixer against the Lakers. Around this time last year, after all, the messy Sixers tinkered their way to a solution that left them four bounces short of a Game 7 shot to slay the eventual NBA champions: put the ball in Butler’s hands and run pick-and-rolls with Embiid.
It’s tempting, three-fourths of the way into the season, to write them off. But their sheer firepower commands attention. Even with Embiid, Simmons and Richardson out, they have two max players in Horford and Harris.
Al Horford signed a $109 million contract to join the Sixers last offseason. But some measure of age and fit has relegated him to a glorified spot-up shooting role. Over the past two games, we have caught a few glimpses of the old Horford: more pick-and-rolls, dribble hand-offs, targeting cutters and racking up dimes, less post-ups.
“We’ll see,” Horford said, when asked after the Lakers loss if he’d be in that position more often. “We have to continue to make adjustments. At this point, I’m trying whatever way I can to help us win games. Obviously, when Ben and Joel come back things change quite a bit, and we’ll all just continue to adjust,” he said, highlighting the Sixers’ dilemma: any tactical gains they make now are marginal until they can try them with a full roster. Could Embiid and Horford develop more of a hi-lo game, with Horford sitting at the elbow? Sure. But dribble hand-offs become neutralized when defenders switch, and they will on Simmons. The three of them together clog the space cutters need. In the loss to the Clippers, the Sixers surpassed their season average in 3-pointers attempted with two minutes left in the third quarter. But when the giants return, the ball tends to plod instead of zip.
Horford has spent his career being the consummate teammate, a conduit for good culture, an affirmative force for struggling teammates. Now that he is the one trying to sort things out on the court, he’s turned to teammates — like Harris and Mike Scott — and family. “[My dad] always keeps it straight with me, so it’s always good talking with him. He just keeps encouraging me to continue to work, to understand that this group can come together and to put things in perspective: We are missing our two top guys and to make sure that we keep the group solid and continue to work.
“I think the guys are really trying to compete out there, do things the right way. These are really good teams. I just feel …” — he cuts himself off — “… I hope we continue to get better.”
For all that’s changed, the Sixers are who they’ve always been: promising, perplexing, a mystery to themselves and the outside world, toeing the line between desperation and hope, searching for a breakthrough.
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