There are a good number of “Brett Brown-isms” — phrases distinct to the Sixers’ head coach or terms he’ll turn to often in talking with the media. Out of them all, “It’s a fair question” might best encapsulate the second half of the 2018-19 season.
Brown faced a lot of fair questions about Jimmy Butler’s role in the offense, his efforts to add more pick-and-roll and isolation, where Tobias Harris fit and much more.
Some games, it all made sense. Butler ran the show at the point with a heavy emphasis on ball screens, Ben Simmons did damage in transition and Joel Embiid was a weapon in the post. But often, the pieces didn’t quite work together. The half-court offense was nightmarish in the final few minutes of that devastating Game 7 in Toronto, when the shot clock seemed to always be ticking down the last couple of seconds.
Not as well as they should’ve,” Harris said Friday when asked whether all the pieces ever connected. “We had good little spurts of it, but they weren’t really consistent for us. I felt like we got out of it as much as we could’ve in that timeframe with the different types of games, different types of personalities or whatnot. We needed more time. We needed more time, we needed more cohesiveness. That’s something that we have now, so we have to really maximize that fully.
The Sixers do indeed have time now, with their new starting five all under contract through at least the next two seasons, and they have some different questions to answer.
“I look forward to training camp, figure all that out,” Elton Brand said Friday. “Defensively, of course that’s where we’re going to hang our hat. We should be one of the top defensive teams in the league, in my opinion. But we’ll figure out the spacing. We have a lot of versatility. Al Horford can space, Joel Embiid can space, Ben’s working on his game, Josh is a high-level scorer and Tobias is a high-level shooter and scorer also, so we’re looking forward to making that work in training camp. But it’s going to take some time. It should take some time.”
Brand is probably right that a lot of “figuring it out” will happen in training camp, when his new team will be together for the first time. Still, you’d think Brown and his staff have already started to think about offensive schemes and fit.
Simmons and Harris will likely spend more time with the ball in their hands as a byproduct of Butler’s departure. Harris had occasional opportunities to run late-game, middle pick-and-rolls, but those were mostly a Butler staple. Harris only averaged 3.7 fourth-quarter points per game in the regular season with the Sixers, 2.5 in the playoffs. And, in the rare moments when he was in the spotlight, his pick-and-roll partner was often Boban Marjanovic. Out of all the things that will likely “take some time,” Harris’ pick-and-roll chemistry with Embiid is among the most important.
For Harris, it will also be key to prove his subpar three-point shooting numbers with the Sixers last season (32.6 percent in the regular season, 34.9 percent in the playoffs) were just a blip. Richardson shot a tick over league average from three at a high volume last year, while Horford should have no problem sliding into a stretch-four role. Embiid’s soft touch and good free throw shooting (80.4 percent in 2018-19) have not translated to efficiency from the outside. Simmons has yet to show — in a game setting — that he should be part of the conversation about the team’s three-point shooting.
Some of the strategy for Brown won't be too difficult to figure out. His team is huge and has multiple post-up threats, so we should see the Sixers play more “inside-out,” with the offense revolving around Simmons, Embiid or Horford down low. Brown already has post offense principles and spacing in place that aim to play to Embiid and Simmons’ respective strengths (see film review).
Many elements of the Sixers’ offense will be “organic,” another favorite Brown term. The Sixers should force more than the 12.7 turnovers per game they did last season — 27th in the NBA — and their transition offense should prosper as a result. Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle are two young players who could make a unique impact in that area.
Other questions for Brown and the Sixers will remain open well into the season. This time around, there’s much greater freedom to explore what does and doesn’t work, and much less pressure to hit on answers immediately.
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