Mixed messaging makes Sixers' coasting understandable, if not entirely excusable


CAMDEN, N.J. — On a day where his players spoke about telling unpalatable truths and having greater “accountability,” Brett Brown would not deny the obvious.

After the Sixers’ practice Thursday, he was asked whether he thought his team had, at times, been coasting through the regular season.

I definitely see it out of them, and it’s not acceptable,” he said. "I completely coach and live life thinking that good things add up, and you don’t just click your heels and April 14 is here — that’s not how I see anything. And we shared that notion today. They’re smart enough to agree. … That’s stuff where I’ve gotta continually remind them. At times, maybe remind them more than I have. There are so many bullets as a head coach in the NBA that you feel that you’ve got. I fire them responsibly, or feel like I have over the years.

And you do need some help. People do have to own things and be able to accurately answer the question, ‘What do I want out of this? What’s my role, what’s my responsibility? What’s leadership look like in my world?’ And I do the same. I don’t absolve myself from any of those questions. So, the notion of good days adding up I believe in, and I don’t think at all you click your heels and arrive. And I think some of the problem has been derived from that notion in a way that’s not smart.


Brown said Thursday that, in regards to motivation, he “owns it all” as the team’s head coach. He also acknowledged he “needs some help.”

It’s difficult to disagree with that perspective. What’s more concerning is the mixed messaging from the Sixers on the importance of the regular season.

Before the season tipped off, the organization was bullish on what it could accomplish.

General manager Elton Brand said in July the Sixers’ goal was to win a title. Brown said at his Coach the Coaches clinic in September that, “We have the capability of winning an NBA championship.” 

A few days later, he proclaimed, “I want the No. 1 seed.”

During a pregame Christmas press conference in which he preached the importance of further developing chemistry and continuity, Brand insisted the message hadn’t shifted — at least his message.

“Depends on who you’re talking to,” he said. “You’re talking to me, work in progress, we’re going to get there, home court advantage is important but having Joel [Embiid] healthy in the playoffs in May, June — that was important to us. We still could grow into a team that could get a No. 1 seed, but that wasn’t my words."

Embiid’s precarious situation has seemed to be a microcosm of the team’s. While he publicly grappled with questions about maturity and load management early in the season, his stance after the Sixers’ Christmas win over the Bucks was clear. 

 “… My goal is to get to the playoffs healthy,” he said. “But if my team needs me, I’m going to show up. … A lot of people have kind of forgotten, I guess, who I am. When I’m needed, I’m going to show up. But God willing, hopefully I’m healthy for the playoffs, and it’s going to be a different story.”

That mindset is sensible for Embiid, who was a full participant in practice Thursday after missing the Sixers’ loss to the Pacers Tuesday with left knee soreness. He has a history of injuries and is the Sixers' best, most important player.

Across the NBA, his attitude is not an exception. It shouldn’t be scandalous, either — no NBA team gives spotless effort for every single regular-season game, and prioritizing playoff success and the health of star players is the norm. 

The Sixers, though, have thus far been defined by their inconsistency. While they’ve played excellent games against quality opponents, collective lapses in intensity have usually corresponded with losses.


Did Ben Simmons think the team’s effort vs. Indiana was an issue?

“I mean, it depends how you measure it,” he said. “What are you measuring on? If you're saying guys didn't try, I don't think you're right. ... Teams make runs. They continue to do so and you don't stop them. That's probably what you saw.”

“Guys didn’t try” might not be the proper way to characterize the problem. “Coasting” is better. And, in the context of everything the Sixers' players have heard about how great they can be and why the regular season doesn’t matter very much, it’s understandable, if not entirely excusable.

Even Brown, after that Christmas victory, said he thought his team was "designed for the playoffs."

The struggling Al Horford, with 818 regular-season NBA games of experience to call upon, captured the state of his new team well Thursday. 

“Our focus needs to be better,” he said. “We need to be a little more consistent and I think that we will be. We went through this stretch and now we have to get through it together and be better.”

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