He knew it would be hard. He knew it would take time. He said so right in the beginning.
When the Sixers hired Brett Brown as their new head coach over the summer, he was enthusiastic. He’s generally enthusiastic. But he was also pretty open about the task ahead. His words tend to be unvarnished, and they were on that first day in front of the media.
“It was important, and I’m extremely grateful for the owners to take a step back,” Brown said at the time. “It’s a reflection on what they think in that it’s going to take time. They really do have a tolerance and patience. And for as much as it was about security for me, it’s going to take time. It sends a message to the marketplace that they are in it for real.”
He used other descriptions for the job -- “dangerous” and “hard” and “exciting” among them. But "time" was the word that came up the most. That was the central theme.
It made sense. The Sixers had just overhauled their front office and installed Sam Hinkie as president and general manager. They traded away Jrue Holiday on draft night in exchange for Nerlens Noel and future picks. They cleared cap space. They selected a new point guard in Michael Carter-Williams. They even came up with a new slogan: “Together We Build.” They did everything but hand out hammers and shovels to underscore the message that the team was being stripped to the foundation and reconstructed.
It was part of the reason why, before the season began, the Vegas oddsmakers put the Sixers win total at over/under 16.5. A lot of people predicted the Sixers would go under. A lot of people were wrong.
The Sixers have 15 wins through 46 games. That has a lot to do with Brown and his system.
The overriding belief going into the year was that the Sixers would tank – however subtly or, perhaps, not – in order to acquire more ping pong balls and better position themselves for the upcoming 2014 draft. A draft, it should be noted, that has been frequently and widely described as loaded.
Given the roster the Sixers have used this season -- a roster that has featured the likes of Brandon Davies, Lorenzo Brown and Dewayne Dedmon -- it seemed as though the franchise wanted to do exactly that: tank. After all, Brown mentioned in his opening press conference that the Sixers’ ownership was willing to take a step back. What's unfolded so far has been something else -- something north of tanking (but south of true relevance).
Here’s the thing about tanking: You can only do so much. You can select players that aren’t top-tier and give them sneakers and uniforms and send them onto the court, but you can’t tell them to lose. You can’t tell the coach to lose, either.
The Sixers have lost 31 games, but that’s not nearly as many defeats as some people anticipated at this point. Part of that is owed to the fact that they play in the Atlantic Division (which is awful) and the Eastern Conference (also awful). But part of that is because Brown’s guys overachieve on certain nights -- like Tuesday evening when they beat the Celtics in Boston on a crazy, last-second shot by Evan Turner.
They are 24th in the league in defensive rating. They are 29th in offensive rating. Those aren’t good rankings. Doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter that the Sixers – who average 99.6 possessions per 48 minutes – play at the fastest pace in the NBA. That should favor the other team. That should really favor the other team -– as in almost all the time. Somehow, it hasn’t favored the other team as often as you’d expect. So how have the Sixers managed to win 15 games given all that?
Early in the season, Brown said the Sixers would “want to go” and “get out in the open court” and “run.” The tank proponents were happy to hear that, because the math holds that playing at pace will hurt a bad team. (The more offensive opportunities in a game, the less likely it is that random/fluke plays will impact the outcome.)
Zach Lowe, Grantland.com's excellent basketball scribe, recently did a Q&A with Brown, during which the writer asked the head coach about pace as a tanking mechanism. Essentially, Lowe asked why the pace hasn’t sped up the tanking process. Brown rejected the idea. He said he thinks the Sixers have a better chance to win when they play fast.
It was a curious reply -- but so far he’s been right. So far, they’ve played better than the math or the system or the personnel should allow. So far, they’ve been better than anyone anticipated. Anyone, maybe, but Brown.