Brett Brown

How will all the pieces fit? More ‘fair questions’ face Brett Brown, Sixers’ offense

How will all the pieces fit? More ‘fair questions’ face Brett Brown, Sixers’ offense

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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Sixers' new starting five designed to be a defensive terror

Sixers' new starting five designed to be a defensive terror

There are still plenty of questions revolving around the Sixers after the chaos of Sunday night. Will Tobias Harris live up to his five-year, $180 million contract? Can the team replace JJ Redick’s shooting and Jimmy Butler’s clutch heroics? And, most perplexingly, what went wrong between Miami and Dallas in the sign-and trade that sent Butler to Miami?

One question, however, was answered. The Sixers have an identity: Elton Brand has designed a defensive terror.

The team’s new starting lineup should be Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Joel Embiid.

Horford and Embiid have both made All-Defensive teams. Simmons, with his unique speed and versatility, appears close to doing so. Richardson is renowned for his defense. Harris is not, but he’s capable on that end of the floor.

And, while the full roster isn’t yet complete, we know Zhaire Smith and rookie Matisse Thybulle will be options for Brett Brown off the bench. That pair of young wings takes pride in their defense and seem to have the physical tools to be very good at it. 

Little about the new version of the Sixers is traditional. The 6-foot-10 Simmons is an unusual point guard. Harris, at 6-foot-9, will likely have to slide from the power forward spot to the three. Horford, in his 13th NBA season, will need to shift to the four, though you’d expect he’ll see plenty of minutes at center when Embiid is off the floor.

For Horford, his three-point shooting ability should alleviate any concerns about whether he’s a viable power forward, at least offensively. He transformed his game after shooting 21 of 65 from three-point territory during his first eight seasons. Horford has taken 927 threes in the four seasons since, making 37.1 percent.

In the middle of the Celtics' five-game playoff series win over the Sixers in April 2018, Horford told NBC Sports Philadelphia that he thinks Simmons — then an opponent, now a teammate — can have similar growth.

He’s already difficult to guard. Like all players, we all make progressions. When I came in the league, I wasn’t shooting much outside the paint. And over the years, I’ve expanded my game — you can say that about a lot of guys. And I feel like with him, it’ll just be another weapon in his arsenal, that he will continue to develop that [jumper].

Simmons won’t be relied upon to make three-point shots in the short term, but it would be helpful for the Sixers if he does indeed expand his game, as he said he would in May (see story).

Richardson shot 36.6 percent from three over the past two seasons, a tick over the league average. Harris hit 32.6 percent of his threes with the Sixers last season, though there’s every reason to believe those numbers are more indicative of a slump by an excellent shooter than an accurate representation of Harris’ abilities. Joel Embiid has soft touch for a big man and Brown often encourages him to let it fly, but he’s been a below-average three-point shooter.

The sharpshooting Redick, meanwhile, is headed to New Orleans, and the Sixers’ point guard — an All-Star last year and the Rookie of the Year the season prior — has yet to make an NBA three. Though Simmons likely won’t supplement the Sixers’ long range shooting next season, the Sixers would sure benefit from him having an improved mid-range game. The perimeter shot has been a highly inefficient option for him — 25 for 99 from 10 feet and out (25.3 percent) last season — but it’s impossible to quantify what the impact of Simmons forcing opponents to respect his jumper would be.

Putting matters of shooting and spacing aside for a moment, it would be surprising if the departure of Redick and addition of Richardson didn’t boost the Sixers’ defense. 

The Sixers finished 14th in the NBA in defensive rating last season after placing third in 2017-18. The major personnel changes prompted by the Butler and Harris trades, their struggles implementing new defensive schemes and a lack of adequate bench defenders all contributed to that decline. Redick’s presence, though, didn’t help. He held his own in the playoffs but was successfully targeted often during the regular season. 

We’d be negligent if we didn’t mention Butler in this discussion of defensive identity. He’s a player who simply hates to be scored on. You sensed he got as much pleasure from poking away a steal and coasting the other way for a dunk as the ecstatic crowd at Wells Fargo Center did.

Still, if you look at the new Sixers’ starting five in isolation, you’re staring back at one of the best defensive teams in basketball. 

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Sixers hire two new assistant coaches in Ime Udoku, Joseph Blair

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Sixers hire two new assistant coaches in Ime Udoku, Joseph Blair

Brett Brown lost two prominent pieces of his coaching staff in Monty Williams and Billy Lange.

It appears both those vacancies have been filled as the team announced Wednesday the hiring of Ime Udoka and Joseph Blair.

A team source confirmed a report earlier this month that the Sixers were bringing in Udoka. Udoka spent seven seasons on Gregg Popvich’s staff in San Antonio after spending over a decade as a professional player in the NBA and overseas. He’s been a head coaching candidate in the past, most recently interviewing for the Cavaliers job before the team hired Michigan coach John Beilein. 

Udoka and Brown were on the Spurs staff together before Brown took the Sixers job.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with Brett in Philadelphia,” Udoka said in a statement. “He has done a great job building a respected program and I look forward to joining his staff. This is a wonderful opportunity and I embrace the challenge of taking the next step in my career. I am excited to get to work and help this extremely talented roster continue to achieve success at the highest level.”

Blair was the surprise hire. He’s fresh off leading the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the G-League affiliate of the Rockets, to a title as the team’s head coach. The last coach to win a title with Rio Grande Valley? Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. Before that, Blair was an assistant with the Vipers after serving as an assistant for his alma mater, the University of Arizona. The 6-foot-10 Blair also has a history as a player, playing professionally overseas, and he had a couple stints as a Harlem Globetrotter. 

"I'm honored and excited to work alongside Brett, this staff, and team, as well as being a part of such a historic, respected, and energetic organization,” Blair said in a statement. “I look forward to learning, growing, and adding value, all while producing positive results for the city and the organization."

The team hired another former Spurs assistant in Cameron Hodges as part of their player development staff this offseason. They also promoted Lindsey Harding from scout to a player development coach toward the end of the season after Lange departed to take the head job at Saint Joseph’s. Williams took the head coaching job with the Suns, leaving the door open for Udoka to serve as Brown’s top assistant.

“I am excited and proud to welcome Ime and Joseph to our program,” Brown said in a statement. “The depth of basketball knowledge and experience that each brings to our bench will be integral in furthering the success we have enjoyed over the last two seasons.”

“Our players will continue to develop and improve under their direction and they will help me strive to guide our team toward our ultimate goal of winning a championship.”

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