76ers

Brett Brown's two new assistants bring 'out-of-the-box perspective'

Brett Brown's two new assistants bring 'out-of-the-box perspective'

Brett Brown knows that despite the Sixers’ recent success, the team hasn’t been perfect.

He spoke at his fifth annual “Coach the Coaches” clinic at the team’s practice in Camden, New Jersey, about the team’s new concepts and philosophies. He even demonstrated some of the fresh ideas the team has for the 2019-20 season.

He also introduced two of his newest assistants, Ime Udoka and Joseph Blair. Udoka, who will serve as the team’s defensive coordinator, has his own philosophies to implement.

The former NBA player and Gregg Popovich assistant went over how the team plans to handle middle pick-and-rolls, a sore spot for the Sixers last season. When a coach in the crowd asked about the idea of "blitzing" and whether it was something they’d do more of, Udoka took a friendly jab.

“Well, the Sixers gave up 60 to Kemba [Walker] last year.”

That elicited laughter from the crowd — and a bear hug from Brown.

Brown lost two prominent assistants. Billy Lange was with Brown from the beginning. Monty Williams seemed like he’d be a hot candidate for head jobs as soon as he joined Brown's staff.

Both are head coaches now — Lange at Saint Joseph’s and Williams with the Phoenix Suns.

Enter Udoka and Blair.

While Brown wasn’t eager to see Lange and Williams go, Udoka and Blair can breathe a little fresh air into the team. A little bit of that was on display Monday.

Assistant Kevin Young demonstrated a few of the offensive concepts. Two of them were new this season. The Sixers will now have their wings head straight to the corners instead of foul line extended while their four man will space out to the “four-point line”  on the wing instead of being at the elbow.

Those are wrinkles that Blair pushed for.

In particular, we talked about it tonight, the spacing — I was a pretty [big] stickler for a lot of those things,” Blair said. “I'm a big on corner spacing, spacing out our four men as well. That's one of the things that I really was adamant about trying to implement here. So I'm happy to see that we're doing a little bit more with our spacing.

Blair comes to the Sixers from the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the G-League affiliate of the Houston Rockets. Blair actually won the G-League title and was the Coach of the Year last season but was looking for a new opportunity in the NBA. Blair played a ton overseas after leaving the University of Arizona and even spent time with the Harlem Globetrotters.

At 6-foot-10, he’s also another positive influence for Joel Embiid to relate to.

I would be lying if I didn't look at Joseph Blair with his physical gifts, it's something that's impressive,” Brown said at his annual luncheon Wednesday. “He'll help us here with Jo, and coach Jo and share similar stories from the vision line of 7-foot, right? And there is something in that. But he's a hell of a coach all by himself, and it's true, he won a championship in a creative program with the RGV G-League team.

Clearly the Rockets’ offense, which is reliant on James Harden creating and the other players on the floor hunting threes, is totally different from Brown’s. But Blair is on the same page as Brown. The Sixers’ head coach dwells on concepts and “organic” offense more than scripted plays.

That jives well with Blair, who spoke about his spirituality on Monday night and how that ties in with his offensive philosophies.

I believe in God has a plan,” Blair said. “It's all going to work out the way it's supposed to work out. So you talk about the basketball court, organic growth is one of the things that I'm a firm believer in. You give guys a skeleton and then you let them put on the muscles where they can flex the most.

Udoka is no stranger to playing overseas himself. He spent time in France and Spain in between his NBA stints. He had his most success under Popovich and Brown as a member of the Spurs. He was still playing professionally in Europe when “the offer I got honestly helped me retire.” He joined Popovich’s staff in 2012. He was with the future Hall of Fame coach through last season and was on Team USA’s staff this summer.

Like Blair, he was looking for a new challenge but also acknowledges that he’s set up with elite pieces defensively.

Look at the players. It's a Dream Team if you're a defensive coordinator,” Udoka said. “The guys we have, the versatility we have, the size and athleticism we have, like I said, rim protectors, size on the ball on the perimeter, versatility to switch and do so many different things. It's like being in a candy store.

Brown lost two trusted confidants in Lange and Williams, but he’s looking forward to what his two new assistants will add.

You go to Ime, it's rare you can get a former NBA player that was a defensive-minded player, and has really had that role with Pop and was with me from a familiarity standpoint — that's kind of a rare find, too,” Brown said. “And so, both of those things, from a physical perspective, a skills perspective, creativity, a little thought out-of-the-box perspective — I think we tick boxes. I think we tick boxes and I feel like my staff is right where I want it to be.

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Sixers vs. Raptors: 3 storylines to watch and how to live stream the game

Sixers vs. Raptors: 3 storylines to watch and how to live stream the game

The Raptors (15-6) return to the Wells Fargo Center for the first time since Game 6 last postseason to take on the Sixers (16-7).

Joel Embiid (left hip contusion) will return to the lineup and look to overcome his previous struggles against Marc Gasol and Toronto. Rookie Matisse Thybulle is listed as questionable after rolling his right ankle in last night's win over the Cavs. He will go through pregame warmups before determining his status, per a team source.

The Sixers will again be without Josh Richardson, who will miss his sixth straight game with right hamstring tightness. Richardson did participate in full-court activity Saturday, but the team continues to exercise caution so early in the season.

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:

When: 6 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Wells Fargo Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch for tonight's game:

Embiid’s boogeyman

Embiid has struggled mightily against Gasol and the Raptors in his career, but nothing compared to the first scoreless game of his NBA career back on Nov. 15 in Toronto. In six career regular-season games against Gasol, Embiid is averaging just 11.7 points a game and shooting below 30 percent. 

Head coach Nick Nurse deployed a different strategy last month than he did during the seven-game series between these two teams. Embiid faced double teams fairly often in the postseason, but in the last matchup, the Raptors had an extra player on Embiid on every single post touch. Nurse was daring the other Sixers to beat them — and they didn’t.

Embiid has done better handling double teams in general this season. This will be an interesting test.

Simmons shooting

For the first couple years of Ben Simmons’ career, Brett Brown has been fairly diplomatic when discussing his All-Star point guard’s shot.

After Simmons hit his second career three Saturday night, Brown was much blunter.

This is what I want, OK — you can pass this along to his agent, his family and his friends and to him — I want a three-point shot a game, minimum. The pull-up twos, I'm fine with whenever he's open but I'm interested in the three-point shot. And the mentality that he has where he's turning corners and taking that long step, that gather step and bringing his shoulders to the rim and trying to dunk or finish tight, will equal higher efficiency or getting fouled. That's the world that interests me the most — those two things. And when you say, 'OK, what's the number?' I immediately throw out eight [free throws]. For whatever reason, I'm not sure, but that's a number that I think is attainable.

It was against a bad basketball team, but it still provided a blueprint for how Simmons should be playing and attacking. Embiid needs all the help he can get.

Looking to stay perfect … but it won’t be easy

The Sixers are a sparkling 11-0 at home, but they’re facing an opponent that’s played well on the road. The Raptors are 6-4 away from Scotiabank Arena.

Philly native Kyle Lowry has returned to the lineup. While Toronto has lost the two games since, Lowry has been playing well. Kawhi Leonard is in L.A. but this Raptors team is still mighty dangerous in general. Pascal Siakam is playing at a superstar level while Fred VanVleet has put up career-best numbers as a starter.

The biggest thing will be slowing down Toronto’s three-point shooting. The Raptors are the second-best team percentage wise in the league while hoisting a healthy amount beyond the arc. Six of their regulars are shooting 37 percent or better from distance. Meanwhile the Sixers are allowing the fewest threes per game.

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Brett Brown makes it clear what he wants from Ben Simmons

Brett Brown makes it clear what he wants from Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons had arguably the finest game of his young NBA career. He set a career high in points (34) and made his second NBA three. He also made 9 of 12 from the free throw line.

Yes, it was against a bad team in disarray in the Cavaliers who the Sixers crushed in a 141-94 win at the Wells Fargo Center Saturday night (see observations).

But it showed us the blueprint of what Brett Brown is looking for out of his All-Star point guard.

This is what I want, OK — you can pass this along to his agent, his family and his friends and to him — I want a three-point shot a game, minimum. The pull-up twos, I'm fine with whenever he's open but I'm interested in the three-point shot. And the mentality that he has where he's turning corners and taking that long step, that gather step and bringing his shoulders to the rim and trying to dunk or finish tight, will equal higher efficiency or getting fouled. That's the world that interests me the most — those two things. And when you say, 'OK, what's the number?' I immediately throw out eight [free throws]. For whatever reason, I'm not sure, but that's a number that I think is attainable.

After an abysmal performance Thursday night where he was indecisive and turned the ball over seven times, Simmons was the complete opposite against Cleveland.

Missing Joel Embiid and Josh Richardson, the Sixers needed this version of Simmons. He attacked the rim, got to the line, hit midrange jumpers and, of course, made another three.

But what happens if/when Embiid returns to the lineup in a juicy matchup against the Raptors Sunday night? The pair have always been an imperfect fit with Simmons’ ability to push the basketball and Embiid’s dominance on the block.

If the evolution of Simmons’ game is what we saw Saturday, it could go a long in way in the duo figuring things out.

“Just learning with Jo,” Simmons said. “It’s great to have somebody like that that’s so dominant and helping him with the double teams, and just putting him in the best position to help us win games. So, having him back tomorrow is going to be great.”

For the record, there’s been no official update on Embiid, who missed the game against the Cavs with a left hip contusion.

But one the biggest things that could help Embiid navigate double teams and aid him against his boogeyman Marc Gasol is Simmons consistently attempting outside shots.

Much like the first three of his NBA career, Simmons reacted as if he’d hit 1,000 before it.

“What do you want me to do? Jump up and celebrate?”

Simmons has taken two legitimate threes this season and buried both, so the confidence isn't totally irrational. If it gets to the point where it truly isn’t newsworthy that Simmons hits a three, look out.

While Brown has been careful not to make too big a fuss over it and chosen his words carefully when talking about Simmons shooting, he couldn’t help but ponder what it would mean for Simmons — and for his basketball team as a whole.

I think the drama of it is overblown,” Brown said. “The reality that he can shoot and it ultimately, it's going to need to come into his game in a more pronounced way just from an attempt standpoint, that's not overblown. I think the drama surrounding it is completely overblown. When I just put on my coaching hat and I'm looking at a 23-year-old young man trying to grow his game, it's completely — first in his wheelhouse and secondly, he will be liberated. His world will open up. And I think, in many ways, so will ours.

His coach gave him the blueprint. Now it’s up to Simmons to implement it.

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