Brett Brown is Still Learning

“It’s a tough decision. I admit it,” Brett Brown conceded to TheRinger. “This whole playoff experience is something that I want our young players and our star players to learn from and grow. The decision, do you go with T.J. still or do you come back to Ben Simmons? I’m coming back to Ben Simmons.” This does not sound as if Brett Brown is referring to his players, so much as he is referring to himself. He sounds unsure of himself and at this point, he seems like he is.

Brett Brown can’t make definitive adjustments hindering the 76ers in the playoffs. He was not prepared for a grueling playoff series against the magician, Brad Stevens, having gone just 75-253 over his first three years. As detailed by numerous end of game plays in games 2 and 3, Brad Stevens has thoroughly outcoached Brown.

This is not a diss to Brett but more a proxy to where he stands as a coach in the NBA. Let’s not forget the Aussie is highly praised in coaching circles, having coached under Pop in San Antonio for 9 years. Nonetheless, he has struggled mightily making in-game adjustments and the Sixers have to consider the stakes.

In a series they were favored in, the Sixers played like the inexperienced team that they are. A substantial problem is the clamps placed on Embiid by underrated defender Al Horford. Post touches aren’t necessarily the answer for the Sixers, whose players seem to have their feet glued to the perimeter when Joel gets the ball on the block. On the opposite end, the Celtics had a player cut to the rim or screens set on the perimeter as the ball swung to Horford on the block. The best coaches love doing this, Al Gentry does this with Nikola Mirotic, who dives toward the rim when superstar Anthony Davis gets the ball on the post.

Anthony Davis has an alternative option to help him if he gets trapped and so should Joel Embiid. If Brown could have Joel Embiid, an underrated post passer, dish the ball to a cutting RoCo or Reddick running off a screen there will be fewer turnovers or contested fadeaway hook shots by Embiid. A major problem for the young Sixers has been turnovers, Embiid and Simmons accounting for about 65% of them. More off-ball movement can pay dividends for a team that finds itself in isolation situations an unreasonable amount.

To add, Robert Covington did not play like himself against Boston. RoCo has stepped into a 2011 Luol Deng situation, as the “we trust you to make plays on both sides of the ball at all times” type of player for the Sixers. What happens when trusted glue guy loses confidence and struggles on both sides of the ball? Who could replace or spell him when he struggles? Covington bit on too many of Tatum’s shot fakes and can’t keep up with Tatum’s explosiveness. Brett Brown should have realized the mismatch and switched Simmons onto Tatum. Simmons was at free safety position which the Sixers thought would turn him into a help-side menace, but he was often hidden on key defensive plays. Simmons has the quickness to stay with Tatum on the outside and the strength to bully Tatum on the inside.

Covington struggled from the restricted area, finishing layups and tips at a 36.3% clip. He is even worse from outside, firing jumpers at a 25% rate. RoCo is their X-factor in the playoffs. When the Sixers win he scores 110.3 points per 100 possessions. When they lose he scores 97.9 points per 100 possessions. Likewise, he allowed 97.6 points in wins and 112.9 points per 100 possessions in losses. Brett Brown needs Covington to perform offensively and defensively.

Game 3 was lost on the last play, with Al Horford shielding off RoCo as the ball sailed over his head for a classic Horford game-winning layup. This was partly Covington’s fault but mostly Stevens’ genius, dragging Embiid out to the perimeter so Horford could bully a thinner Covington in the paint. Covington has demonstrated effort but the results have been feeble for a team allowing 112.5 points per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference.

T.J. Mcconnell was on fire during the series. T.J. Mcconnell, the undrafted point guard, proved he can stick in the league as a solid backup point guard. The scrappy guard somehow outplayed Ben Simmons throughout the series. Mcconnell is David to Ben Simmons’ Goliath, and Brett Brown serves as the director, torn who should win the fight. T.J. shot an unbelievable 19-24 for the series. Simmons, meanwhile, shot an inefficient 22-48. Simmons had a negative impact on the team, a -42 in 5 games. Brett Brown can’t figure out when to take out supposed next Lebron James for an efficient backup? You risk losing a star player’s confidence and the front office’s confidence. But, as we have seen before, you have to take risks to be a top-tier NBA coach. Even though it didn’t completely payout, you saw Dwane Casey sit Demar DeRozan for the last 5 minutes of the game, thus going on a run to force OT against Lebron James. Sacrifices must be made by Brett Brown or he may end up the sacrifice.

Brett Brown can’t find minutes for the rookie who shouldn’t have been picked first according to Dr. J. While Philly management should have debatably picked Tatum first, Markelle Fultz should be getting minutes for a team that has dug themselves a sizable hole.

Markelle showed his true colors in his first game back from that extremely odd shoulder injury that sidelined him for all of 68 games. At first, his shot looked mechanical and had a distinct hitch as he fired a 17-foot air-ball on his initial outside shot. But he still impacted the box score in every facet, scoring 10 points dropping 8 dimes and grabbing 4 boards. 

He looked a little unsure of himself but thrived in pick-and-roll plays where he heaved the ball to the opposite corner to an open shooter on numerous plays. For all his shooting struggles, he had a nice touch around the rim and charged at defenders like Victor Oladipo. He got them on their heels then exploded for a whacky behind the head layup/floater hybrid or spun to his left and lobbed the ball in the general vicinity of the rim.

What really stood out to me was his patience on offense. After grabbing a rebound, he wouldn’t make a rookie mistake and cough it up or fire an ill-advised shot. Instead, he jogged the ball up to midcourt and set the offense back up. From there, he let the play develop and made a decision to make a play for himself or fed it inside to Ilyasova or kick it out to Reddick. Defensively, he made some surprising plays. He dove after a loose ball like T.J. Mcconnell one play and the next play he swatted Jamal Murray’s shot out of the gym like D-Wade. Contrary to popular belief, he does have a knack for the ball on defense and can make those game-defining defensive plays we thought he could with a 6’10 wingspan.

So why was he been relegated to waterboy in the playoffs by Brett Brown?

Well, there could be something occurring behind the scenes. What if Fultz got in a fight with 76ers beloved T.J. Mcconnell? Missed a team flight? Started shooting with his left hand again? Okay, these scenarios probably didn’t happen. Realistically he could have been playing poorly in practice. He could have not grasped the plays yet. Or maybe Brett Brown straight up didn’t trust him as much as T.J. To clarify, Brown is only employing an 8-man rotation so it could be a “do I play trusted veteran or the inexperienced rookie?” circumstance. Whatever it is, Fultz showed enough potential to play in a 3-0 series. It begs the question why not just play the rookie and see what happens? Brett Brown needs to add Fultz to the rotation or Sixers fans may finally start doubting the process.

Brett Brown’s situation is similar to Scott Brooks and his breakout 55 win 2010-11 Thunder team. Although they made it a round further, allowing Brooks to garner more job security. Still, it is a team with two young superstars unexpectedly ready to take the league by storm.

Maybe we can blame this more on management than on Brett Brown. The roster structure may not allow for Brown to institute his coaching style fully. Think, Tatum would have worked perfectly yet they opted to trade up and grab Fultz. What if management decided to make a monumental move this offseason and grabbed PG-13 or better yet, Kawhi?

Next year, they will be expected to play a heated Eastern Conference semifinals with Lebron or the revamped Celtics. They might be another star player away from competing with the Celtics. The Celtics will retain Kyrie and Hayward. Think of the various lineups the Celtics can employ. Considering Marcus Smart will probably jettison for a big contract elsewhere, their starters will consist of; Kyrie, Jaylen Brown, Tatum, Hayward, and Horford. With Larkin, Rozier, Marcus Morris, Ojeleye and Baynes on the pine. The starting lineup rivals the Warriors as the optimal 5 and the bench contains a variety of scorers and bruisers. Can the Sixers defend this team? If they can theoretically seize ‘The Claw’ from the Spurs then they might be able to. With Simmons, Reddick, Kawhi, Saric, and Embiid rounding out the starting 5. The bench accommodates Mcconnell, Fultz, Belinelli, Ilyasova, and Amir Johnson. Defensively, Reddick really cannot keep up with any Celtic in starting 5, Fultz overtaking that spot would be the ideal situation. Then again, the backups are a little weak and probably grade out as a mid-level bench in today’s NBA so it can use a scoring punch that Fultz has. Kawhi would be a monumental addition because he can shut down a less experienced Tatum and smoothly switch onto Hayward, Brown, and even Kyrie if need be.

The Sixers have the long-term potential to compete with the Celtics but snagging Kawhi would get them closer to beating them. Progressively giving Fultz minutes would allow him to grow into his own and fulfill the James Harden billing he had coming out of Washington. Maybe the Sixers should focus less on “Trusting the Process” and more on “Expediting the Process.”

Maybe the answer lay in his coaching style. The best coaches give their players more freedom. Some coaches let their players draw up plays which teaches them that they could do anything if they put their mind to it. Like Quin Snyder shutting his mouth during a full timeout or Steve Kerr letting Draymond draw up plays for the Warriors, players with freedom are players who gain confidence. If Brett Brown micromanages less he will allow his young players act as coaches on the floor.

He should teach them ideologies that prompt his plays, the ‘why’ that so many players nowadays are seeking. By doing so, Covington could understand why he should have been between the ball and the basket when Horford received the lob pass which allowed him to sink that game winner. Or Simmons would understand why he shouldn’t drive to the rim with 3 defenders enclosing on him.

For now Brett Brown is still learning. And that is perfectly fine.

Until it isn’t.

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