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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Julius Erving, Billy Cunningham and members of 1982-83 Sixers share lessons from path to championship

Julius Erving, Billy Cunningham and members of 1982-83 Sixers share lessons from path to championship

Outside of immense talent, there are nuances of championship teams which might be challenging for an outsider to grasp.

Staying awake and alert for film sessions is not one of them.

In recalling how the Sixers’ NBA Finals defeats in 1977, 1980 and 1982 helped the 1983 team overcome the Lakers, Julius Erving had this to say in a recent interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff: 

Well, you couldn’t take anything for granted. I remember in ’77, we had a two-game lead over Portland. … After some of the video sessions, I look around and see some guys yawning and rubbing their eyes and whatever. I say, ‘Oh no. This is not good. This is not good.’ I think the group that we had (in 1982-83) and me being the leader, just encouraged guys to stay with it all the way — 3-0 doesn’t mean anything, 2-0 doesn’t mean anything, 1-0 doesn’t mean anything — four. Four wins. And Moses (Malone) said it best, ‘Fo’, Fo’, Fo.’

Clint Richardson, a key reserve guard on the 1982-83 champions who Erving called his “little brother,” wasn’t one of those dozing off, since he was playing at Seattle University when the Sixers were squandering their 2-0 series edge to Bill Walton and the Trail Blazers. He’d experienced disappointment twice in the Finals before the Sixers’ sweep of the Lakers, though, and came away believing there’s nothing wrong with being loose — to a certain point, of course.

“They just need to relax,” he told Zumoff of what the current Sixers can learn from the champions 37 years ago. “I think they need to trust each other a little bit more and have more confidence in each other. But that happens … I think sometimes there’s a tendency to panic and second-guess. I think they just need to relax and play and enjoy what they’re doing. And enjoy Philadelphia. Because the people of Philadelphia, they’re patient enough to wait. They waited for us and we finally came through for them. They just need to embrace that.”

It would be a stretch to draw direct parallels between the last Sixers team to win a title and the current roster. Erving played alongside future Hall of Famers Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones and Malone. Andrew Toney may have been on a Hall of Fame trajectory if not for injuries. One tempting comparison, however, is between the late Malone, a three-time MVP, and Joel Embiid. 

Billy Cunningham, the winningest head coach in Sixers history, thinks there’s one trait Malone had that Embiid should emulate. 

The ingredient I would love to see (Embiid) have … Moses’ philosophy,” he said. “He just believed he’d wear people down. And when he got to the fourth quarter, he was relentless on the offensive boards. I’m sure if you go to statistics, nobody had more offensive rebounds. And Moses couldn’t jump over a piece of paper. It wasn’t like he was someone that’s going to be touching the top of the square or anything like that. 

“If Embiid took that little quality of just being relentless, he is gifted, there’s nothing in the game that he cannot do. He should dominate at the defensive end of the court. No one should even think of going to the lane. When I say that, it’s just admiration for his skill level. I don’t know if there’s many players playing that position that have ever had more skill than he has. And now he needs to say, ‘OK, I’m taking control of this. This is my team, and I’m going to dominate, No. 1, on the defensive end of the court.’ 

One of Malone’s backups, Earl Cureton, admired his diligent, no-nonsense approach. Unlike Embiid, Malone was not an active trash talker. 

“His work ethic, the way he approached the game,” Cureton said. “Moses didn’t do a whole lot of talking; he showed with his actions out on the basketball court. Moses didn’t have to say much. He went out and approached it, every single game, every single practice was relentless. It was incredible the way he played, the consistency. … And also being able to sacrifice, putting everything else aside to be a great teammate. 

“You talk about him being an MVP and a superstar, but Moses was just one of the guys. You would see Moses hanging out with anybody on the team ... treated everyone the same way. A lot of times, things that you do off the court mean as much as what you do on the court, in terms of team.”

After missing his first two seasons because of injury, Embiid has played 202 games in the regular season and 19 in the playoffs. Malone had 544 NBA regular-season games and 45 playoff games under his belt before the Sixers tore through the Knicks, Bucks and Lakers in 1983. He’s one of many examples in NBA history of great players needing to be surrounded by the right complementary pieces to win. And, though it might be a dreary reality to acknowledge, sometimes other teams are simply better.

All those factors contribute to Richardson’s stance that the Sixers should try to savor the journey, whatever form it takes. 

“I think they have a lot of potential,” he said. “I think they may have a little too much added pressure on them, just because it’s been long and because there are some unrealistic expectations. I think they just need to relax and be comfortable, and let everything fall into place the way it’s supposed to fall into place.

"Sometimes I see some things being forced … I think when the whole organization relaxes and enjoys what they’ve got, I think that’s when things will happen.”

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Sixers' Tobias Harris joins protest in Philadelphia after death of George Floyd

@tobiasharris on Instagram

Sixers' Tobias Harris joins protest in Philadelphia after death of George Floyd

Sixers forward Tobias Harris was among those protesting in Philadelphia on Saturday after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota earlier this week.

Floyd, a 46-year old black man, was killed Monday while in police custody. Video showed Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Floyd’s neck, for more than 8 minutes. His death has sparked protests against racial injustice and police brutality around the country. Chauvin was fired and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The other officers on the scene, Tou Thao, J Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, were fired but have not been charged.

Harris showed himself on social media with the crowd protesting around City Hall and the Museum of Art. Teammate Mike Scott was “there in spirit.”

Scott on Friday had voiced his disagreement with an Associated Press tweet on Chauvin’s arrest that didn’t directly characterize Chauvin’s actions as murder. 

Other prominent figures within the Sixers and NBA have also spoken out in recent days. In a series of tweets Friday night, Ben Simmons advocated for “calling out the uncomfortable subject of blatant racism that exists heavily within our society.” 

Josh Richardson on Friday had responded to tweets by President Donald Trump in which Trump referred to protestors as “thugs,” raised the possibility of bringing the National Guard into Minnesota to “get the job done right” and threatened “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

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