Brett Brown

What Brett Brown hopes Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Sixers take away from 'The Last Dance'

What Brett Brown hopes Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Sixers take away from 'The Last Dance'

Over the last month, many basketball fans have been reminded through ESPN’s 10-part documentary “The Last Dance” that Michael Jordan was an obsessive competitor motivated by imagined slights, a merciless teammate who jumped on any opportunity to assert his authority. 

Sixers head coach Brett Brown has been watching, and he said in a video call Friday that he and his players “talk lots” about the documentary on Jordan and the 1997-98 Bulls. Brown has a couple of personal connections from that Bulls team. He was the Spurs director of player development when Steve Kerr was in San Antonio, and he knows Luc Longley through his experience with the Australian national team

Because I've been doing this for so long, some of the players on that team are my friends — Luc Longley, Steve Kerr," Brown said. "And so then you step back and you watch this documentary that's kind of saved the day from like a void perspective for all of us. And so you feel fairly aware of the backdrop. I have learned a lot, some of it jaw-dropping stuff.

"You're looking at it and you didn't remember that or you should've have known that. I'm always interested to make parallels to my privileged life in San Antonio, where you won a bunch of championships, and now I'm watching another team win a bunch of championships. … And ultimately, I'm just blown away and reminded of just the maniacal competitiveness that Michael had.

The documentary has not presented a complete picture of Jordan’s life or his NBA career. It’s touched on a few of Jordan's flaws, but it’s mostly told a hero’s tale, fixating on the obstacles Jordan overcame in the the pursuit of his goals and also simply luxuriating in his greatness.

In Episode 7, an emotional Jordan was given the space to provide a thesis statement of sorts.

“When people see this,” he said, “they’re going to say, ‘Well, he wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ Well, that’s you, because you never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted [my teammates] to win and be a part of that as well. Look, I don’t have to do this. I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.” 

Though Jordan’s remarks are allowed to speak for themselves, there are obviously nuances of leadership and team building that go beyond wanting to win and bluntly expressing negative feelings about teammates who don’t meet your very high standards. 

“Just the the reality of the complexity of a team,” Brown said. “The pieces that really go in to a team. The sacrifices that really have to go on within a team. … The intricacies of team, the competitiveness that it really takes, the notion that your best player has to — and leadership comes in all forms — your best player has to grab stuff by the throat and lead, and it can be done a little bit by committee. 

“But the weight of a lot of that, and I put my hand up as the head coach, too, I like our guys seeing all of this stuff. You're reminded that people like MJ and LeBron [James] and [Kevin] Durant, they didn't win championships until they were 28. And if I'm wrong, I'm wrong by maybe a year with all three of those people. So it does take time.” 

The Sixers’ two best players, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, are 26 years old and 23 years old, respectively. If the NBA season resumes during the coronavirus pandemic, Brown’s immediate hope for both players is that everything is copacetic in terms of health and conditioning. And he still thinks breaking through for an NBA title this year is a realistic goal. 

“That is the messaging in the conversations that I have with my staff and our players, that when it's go time, we’ve got to go,” he said. “We are hunting to still contend for a championship.”

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Brett Brown insists Joel Embiid has 'real desire' to be at career-best weight

Brett Brown insists Joel Embiid has 'real desire' to be at career-best weight

Death, taxes and Brett Brown being asked about the health and fitness level of Joel Embiid. It’s just inevitable.

There’s a reason for it, though. Embiid has battled through injuries since even before his Sixers career started. He’s also received plenty of criticism for his conditioning level seeming to lack at times.

There’s an argument to be made that a fully healthy Embiid gets the Sixers past the Raptors in the playoffs last year. Who knows what happens after that.

None of that is lost on his head coach — or Embiid himself.

“Joel's always a topic,” Brown said in a video conference with reporters Friday. “We get it. The importance that he represents as being a complete parallel to can you win a championship or not, is real. 

“I've had many conversations with Jo. I spoke with him 30 minutes ago, and he's got a real desire to be at a playing weight that equals his best since he's been in the league.”

The NBA season has been suspended since March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. That means it’s been over two months since Embiid has played an actual basketball game. With that comes questions about where Embiid will be from a fitness standpoint if/when the league resumes play.

At this point, teams may have to prepare as if they’re going to start the playoffs immediately with a small ramp-up period prior. That’s what Brown is preparing for and the scenario he believes Embiid is preparing for as well.

“I feel, like this year [he's] averaging 30 minutes and last year he's at 34. Really, if the playoffs started pick whatever date you want to choose, my ideal thing is I want to play him about 38 minutes. I really would. In a playoff situation, as the head coach, that's my ideal number. In the regular season, you bring him along and so I think 30 was the number this year that he ended up, but possibly [this break could be helpful].”

The trio of Embiid, Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson has missed a combined 49 games this season. Brown said that he’s told his coaches and players that when/if play resumes, there are no excuses, but health is a factor for any team trying to compete for a championship.

We’ve heard the refrain over and over again from Brown and general manager Elton Brand: “This team is built for the playoffs.” Both stuck by that sentiment in their recent availabilities. Brown thinks he can unlock much more with a healthy version of this Sixers team.

Still, all of it revolves around Embiid.

“I feel like Joel is completely — and this is good,” Brown said, “Joel is completely aware that kind of as he goes with his health and his fitness, we go.”

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Brett Brown interview: Sixers head coach discusses his routine during NBA hiatus

Brett Brown interview: Sixers head coach discusses his routine during NBA hiatus

A clean-shaven, perfectly trimmed Brett Brown picked up our video call on Friday afternoon, quite a difference from the bearded Sixers head coach we’ve become accustomed to.

“My son, truly,” Brown told NBC Sports Philadelphia with a laugh when explaining his new look. “He takes great pride in it. He’s my barber.”

Along with hair cuts and long walks with his dog, whom he proclaimed is the "fittest dog in Philadelphia," Brown has become the "cook of the house."

Even if there is an ulterior motive for his new expertise.

“I do it mostly because then I feel like you don't have to clean, so I get out of that a little bit,” he said. “And I just love the time with my family.”

But don’t hold your breath for an intricate recipe ...

“The experimentation I've had with a crock pot,” he said of his latest quarantine diversion. “Good beef stew. You cannot screw it up. It's impossible. It's all sequestered in a pot, you slow cook it for 10 hours ... and it'll last you a few days.”

Amid the dog walks along the Schuylkill and Wissahickon trails, and gathering around the table for some of Brown’s beef stew, there is plenty of time for basketball.

“I’m shocked how quickly the days go by,” he said.

Brown said he’s communicating daily with general manager Elton Brand, usually by FaceTime, and talking weekly with players.

On Wednesdays, Brown speaks with all of the bench coaches and peripheral staff (sports science, analytics, strength and conditioning), which he estimates to be about 18 people.

They discuss offensive, defensive and special teams topics, such as out of bounds plays.

"What did we do well and what did we do poorly," Brown said, "and the why to both questions, so that we've got answers of what do we have to keep going, and what do we have to fix."

And of course, gearing up for a potential playoff race …

“If we play Boston in the playoffs," Brown said, "what does that look like? Or Toronto, or Miami? It has been very well mapped out.”

On Thursdays, Brown meets with his player development coaches.

“We have eight young coaches that are responsible for stables of players, and I lead the charge with a specific theme," he said. "It could be pick-and-roll offense or pin down offense." 

On top of that, the coaches walk Brown through what they’ve been doing with each player.

“[Director of player development Chris] Babcock might walk me through what we've been doing with Joel [Embiid] and [player development coach] Tyler [Lashbrook] might walk me through what we've been doing with Zhaire [Smith],” Brown said. “Everyone has their own stage. From the coaching side of it, we are good to go. If someone says it’s go time and we're going to play again, I think we can jump into this in a smarter, better way.”

And Brown sure hopes his team gets the opportunity to do that.

“The reality that we had our starters 19 times out of 65 games is real,” Brown said. “I do believe this team is built for the playoffs. [We’ve] taken deep dives into why we’re poor on the road, why we’re we good at home, the delineation between our starting center position … studying pairings, studying how this team is uniquely built for the playoffs and studying what that means defensively, just as much as offensively.

“All those deep dive studies have been unfolding over the past seven weeks, and I feel that, without getting into too much coachspeak, we have uncovered some things and confirmed some things that give me tremendous confidence that if the season can continue and the launching pad is realistic enough to have a level of preparation ... you really feel confident and comfortable that the team can do some special things, if we can first just get healthy.”

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