What Are We Looking for From New Sixers Coach Brett Brown?

What Are We Looking for From New Sixers Coach Brett Brown?

The weird thing about following a team that everyone presumes is tanking next season--and everyone agrees should be following that exact strategy--is that it's hard to get excited about potentially positive developments for the team. Any personnel move that might make this team better had better not make the team that much better for at least another season, lest any slight improvement in team quality result in the Sixers falling out of the draft's top tier, and end up picking ninth in a draft that has eight potential franchise-changers.

So with news of the Sixers' recent hire of Brett Brown of head coach, and their recent press conference to introduce him to the Sixer faithful, it's hard to know exactly what we want from the guy. We don't want him to step in and be so brilliant and creative on both sides of the ball that he somehow leads this team to overachieve their way into playoff contention (and out of the lottery). But of course, we don't want him to be so incompetent that the team turns on him and has to replace him a year or two into his four-year deal.

What do we want out of Brown then, especially in his sure-to-be-rough first season? Let's review.

Building a good relationship with the young players. This is either priority #1 or #1a for Brett Brown, and probably the main reason he was hired from San Antonio, where as director of player development for 2002-2006, he played a part in turning then-unknown late draft picks Manu Ginobii and Tony Parker into the future Hall-of-Famers they are today. There's no saying that he has the magic touch to turn Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel into that kind of All-Star-caliber player, especially not in their respective debut seasons, but if he can at least get on the same page as them, develop trust and respect with them, then that will be undeniably important to the team moving forward. (And if he can get through to more veteran players like Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes and find more effective ways to use them than than Doug Collins ever did, even better.)

A recent analogue here would be head coach Scott Brooks with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Brooks was named replacement coach of the Thunder midway through Kevin Durant's sophomore season (and Russell Westbrook's rookie season), and lost a whole lot his first year--22-47 in his incomplete head coaching debut. But he built relationships with Durant and Westbrook, figured out that Westbrook could be trusted at point guard and that playing Durant at shooting guard was ridiculous, and the next season, the team won 50 games. That's a ridiculous turnaround that couldn't possibly be expected from the Sixers--especially since we don't have anything near a Durant on our roster currently--but it's a model of short-term pain to long-term benefit that could be worth seeing through.

Staying on the same page as management and ownership. Any NBA expert will tell you that the most important thing for a franchise's sustained long-term success is having the owner, general manager and coach all on the same page. Given the strenuous vetting process that Sam Hinkie presumably underwent both before being hired by majority owner Josh Harris and before hiring Brett Brown himself--if Hinkie isn't convinced that Brown is his man after the team's comically overextended coaching search this summer, he'll probably never be satisfied with anyone--we can probably assume that the three men are all ordering their cheesesteaks the same way these days, with no confusion or mixed messages between anyone.

In other words, there's little chance that Brown will be overloading on veterans and keeping his young players bench-ridden while Hinkie wants to develop the young guys and not mess with the team's draft standing, or that Brown will let his young players run amok while Harris loses patience with the rampant losing at the Wells Fargo Center and wants him to squeeze out every W possible. All three same to be working from the same playbook for the time being--you can practically taste the synchronicity at the team's pressers--and as long as they stay that way, the team should be headed in a good direction.

Installing logical offensive and defensive schemes. The Spurs were able to maintain consistent success for over a decade partly by having comprehensive strategies on both sides of the ball that allowed Popovich and company to seamlessly slot fungible players in and out of their rotations, with knowledge that all of their non-stars would know their roles and fit into them without overstepping or messing up their continuity. Brown talked about this during his press conference, and about how he'd like to run on offense next season, so next year is a chance to experiment with that and tool it around the personnel at hand, to get to a pace that both team and coach are comfortable with.

Consistency year-to-year is incredibly important in the NBA, so if the team can go into next year already knowing what they want to do on the court, that will give them a sizable advantage over other rebuilding teams still trying to find their way, and will help them create a comprehensive team culture that could, lord willing, eventually get them to a level approaching that of the Spurs. Of course, you need the pieces to do that as well as the concepts, but for now, Brown can only work on the latter, and hopefully Hinkie can help him out with the former over the next few years.

Figuring out specific areas where certain players need to get better. Michael Carter-Williams could really use a Tony Parker-like floater in his offensive arsenal for when defenders give him space after he turns the corner on the pick-and-roll. Thaddeus Young could help the team stay versatile in their lineups by extending his range to the three-point line. Nerlens Noel could probably stand to beef up a little, to avoid getting pushed around so much by stronger post players. Evan Turner should almost definitely stop taking those pull-up jumpers in transition. And Spencer Hawes needs to get a friggin' hand up to contest on defense.

Brett Brown will undoubtedly figure all this out, and more, over the course of the season. Isolating these micro problem areas and instilling in the players the importance of fixing them is a key first step towards rebuilding. A lot of that is on the players to actually put in the necessary work, but it has to start with Brown, and his sterling reputation for player development, to task them with doing so, and getting on them if they don't.

Staying on the good side of the fanbase. Brown seems like a likeable guy, someone who understands winning basketball and who even understand the city of Philadelphia fairly well. The fanbase is frustrated enough with the team's extended mediocrity and knowledgeable enough about the historic upcoming draft class that few if any will really get on Brown if the team loses big next season, so all Brown really has to do to survive his first year in Philly is to not piss people off. Don't snap at media, don't call out the fans, don't make inflammatory comments about any of the players--just keep a low profile, lose with class, and live to fight another season.

Seems obvious, but losing takes different tolls on different sorts of demeanors, and we won't know how Brown will react until we see it first-hand. Better times are ahead for this franchise, but Brett needs to weather the bad ones first, and hopefully without alienating the city in the process.

Worst loss of the year for excuse-less Sixers against Magic

Worst loss of the year for excuse-less Sixers against Magic

Another new feeling for the rebuilding Sixers: The bad loss with no excuse. For at least one and possibly multiple seasons, there was no real such thing as an inexcusable L, because they were so never the favorite going into any game that their excuse could almost always be "the other team was better." But four wins and one transcendent player into this season, the Ballers actually do need an excuse for dropping a home game against a subpar team by double digits. And if they had one last night in their 105-88 loss to the Orlando Magic, they weren't telling the rest of us.

Really, this game couldn't have been teed up much better for Philly: We were home, well-rested after Wednesday's weird-ass cancellation, against a 7-12 team we nearly beat early in the season, who were on the second night of a back-to-back after ceding a tough one to the Grizzlies -- and we had Joel Embiid for up to 28 minutes. If this one was to be a laugher by early in the fourth quarter, you'd almost have to assume that it'd been the Sixers who put it to bed early. 

Instead, the Sixers slumped horribly from the field in the first quarter, missing bunny after bunny and plenty of open jumpers, as they dug themselves a hole they were never quite able to climb out of. Philly kept it manageable and D.J. Augustin and Nik Vucevic caught fire for Orlando in the third quarter, and the game was suddenly in Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot territory before we could even process what was happening. 

Of course, you can't blame Embiid for this one. Though JoJo was a little out of sorts defensively on this one -- and personally, I really wish he'd stop trapping five feet outside the arc, it may cause panic in the Magic's ball-handlers but it really seems to compromise our own half-court D -- he still finished with a resounding 25-10-4 with three triples, and for the first time in his young career, 0 turnovers. (I coulda swore I saw at least one, but so says the box score, anyway.) Just another game for the Process, though the Sixers (for some reason) needed him to be immaculate last night, and he was merely phenomenal. 

Less phenomenal were the rest of the Sixers' shooters. Our bench in particular was absolutely putrid, going a combined 0-12 from three, with Nik Stauskas's streak of consecutive games with a three snapped at 15 after his scoreless, 0-6 performance. (Five assists for Sauce, at least.) Jahlil posted a dominant stat line of 16 and 13 (on 8-10 shooting) but was again hapless on defense, ending a team-worst -19 for the night. And Dario Saric's slumping continued with a 1-5 shooting outing with no rebounds or assists, likely his worst game of the season. 

It was a surprisingly listless effort from a team that should have looked much sharper, and the most positive non-Joel-related thing to be said about it is that it's (sort of) nice to finally have expectations high enough to have them let down. It'll be a lot harder for Philly to let down tonight against the Celtics, without JoJo, against a pretty good and mostly healthy Boston team. But that's five losses in a row already for the improving Sixers, and it'd be nice to cut off that streak soon, before it starts threatening double digits -- we could certainly do with being done with those for the forseeable future.

No longer feeling like a rookie, Wendell Smallwood more comfortable as lead back

No longer feeling like a rookie, Wendell Smallwood more comfortable as lead back

As the Eagles prepared to face the Green Bay Packers last week, rookie Wendell Smallwood readied himself for a big role.
 
Then he got just nine carries. 
 
It wasn’t that those carries went elsewhere, it was that the Eagles got away from the run game early in the 27-13 loss to the Packers despite being down one score for most of the game. Ultimately, he had half of the team’s carries. 
 
On Friday, head coach Doug Pederson said the disparity in play-calling didn’t have anything to do with having Smallwood as the lead back instead of Ryan Mathews. 
 
“Not really,” Pederson said. “Again, that's something – when I go back ask evaluate after the game – it's something I have to consider more of: Did I run the ball enough or throw the ball enough or not enough or did I do it too much, one way or the other. 
But no, that did not dispel anything, run or pass.”
 
For the second straight week, Mathews is out with an MCL sprain, which means Smallwood is preparing for a bigger role in the offense again. That could also mean his second career start in as many weeks. 
 
Having gone through this process last week has made this week even easier. 
 
“I think I'm very comfortable, more than I was last week,” Smallwood said. “I kind of knew I was going to have a lead role, kind of thinking about a lot, how to play better and take on the load that I was probably going to get. So this week, I think it was kind of natural for me, not really worrying about it.”
 
Smallwood, who was a fifth-round pick out of West Virginia, has 66 carries for 290 yards and one touchdown this season. Smallwood's average of 4.4 yards per attempt is sixth in the league among rookie with at least 60 carries this season. He also has the most rushing yards of any Eagles rookie since Bryce Brown in 2012. 
 
While the Eagles would probably have preferred to use Mathews more this season, the veteran has played just 53 more snaps than Smallwood. 
 
Does Smallwood even feel like a rookie anymore? 
 
“Nah, definitely not, definitely not,” he said with a smile. “Probably after Week 3 I stopped feeling like a rookie. And guys tell me all the time, 'we need you to play, we don't need you to be a rookie right now.' So kind of forced not to be a rookie.”