On Wednesday, Brett Brown held his annual media luncheon in center city Philadelphia. The lunch was held at Attico, a rooftop restaurant on Broad Street. He made no secret that he has expectations for this team that include home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. https://www.instagram.com/atticorooftop/
Brown opened up the luncheon with a touching presentation to 35 year journalist Marc Naducci. He presented Narducci with a framed Sixers jersey with the number 35. Brown then told a joke about Philadelphia fans that he felt captured the conditions under which media operate to serve.
As the joke goes, an elderly woman is sitting at a sold out Eagles game in Veterans Stadium with an empty seat next to her. A man comes to her and asks why no one is sitting with her. She replies, “My husband and I have owned these seats for decades, but he died and now it’s just me.” The man replied, “Well I’m sorry for your loss, but why don’t you bring friends along with now that he’s gone?” She said, “Oh I would have, but they are all at his funeral today.”
“I want the 1 seed”
About an hour into the luncheon, Brown took a question from Kyle Neubeck of Philly Voice about the balance of preserving his talent and health while going for the top seed in the East. Brown said simply, “I want the 1 seed.” He then elaborated that all of the trade-offs exist, and he is aware of the resource management aspect of preparing a team for a long and deep playoff run, but he then reiterated, “I want the 1 seed.”
“I want to get the number 1 seed” Brett Brown does not shy away from high expectations this year. pic.twitter.com/r4VxJo7dT7— J Blevins (@JBlevinsNBA) September 25, 2019
Smash Mouth Offense
“We will end up playing smash mouth offense and bully ball defense” Brett Brown told us to write that in very thick crayon.— J Blevins (@JBlevinsNBA) September 25, 2019
“We are going to be huge,” said Brown. The team has replaced 6’4″ JJ Redick and 6’8″ Jimmy Butler with 6’6″ Josh Richardson and 6’10” Al Horford. The former two players who have left had negative or near negative wingspans, but offensively they were more guile than grind.
In Richardson and Horford, you have players who need less plays run for them specifically, but they will be big enough to punish smaller teams. As it stands, the Sixers likely top 8 rotation will average 6’8″ tall. The roster is built to double down on the massive size advantage that Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid present most nights.
I asked Brown if the size advantage would cause him to rethink his base philosophy of being a fast pace team who looks to get out and run as much as possible. He replied, “I’m not going to ask Ben Simmons not to run.” He then explained that Simmons is the fastest player, baseline to baseline, in the NBA. But having said that, he did acknowledge that the size of the starters presents a half court advantage, and there may be times that walking the ball up and slowing the game down will make more sense.
When you look at the bench, what jumps out is you have numerous wings primed to run the floor and sprint into the corners to be ready to shoot the corner three.
The Third Best Shot
On Monday night, Brown talked extensively about the corner three and its vital role in spacing the floor for players like Simmons and Embiid. Thybulle, Smith, Ennis, Mike Scott, and most bench players will likely be asked to sprint into the corners. “It’s the third best shot in the game behind only a free throw and a shot at the rim,” said Brown on Monday. On Wednesday, he reinforced this philosophical notion as a key tenet for players’ spacing. There will still likely be a number of attempts expected from trailing players in transition that come from above the break, but the corner three is option 1 for a perimeter shot.
Specifically when discussing Ben Simmons and his shooting, Brown brought up the corners as a specific area to watch for. He noted that the dunkers spot is less likely to be a place to camp Simmons when he is playing without the ball.
With the departure of Jimmy Butler, there will be less situations where Simmons is hidden without a specific role offensively. Butler had a tendency to over dribble and not have a clear way to involve his teammates. At times it looked heroic, but in the flow of an 82 game offense, it was not conducive to good utilization of the team’s top talent.
The Crown Jewel
Speaking of Butler, he obviously had the “closer” designation last season after the trade. Brown was asked who is the go-to player in crunch time now that Butler is gone. He did not hesitate to mention Joel Embiid.
When asked who the Sixers “go to” will be on offense in crunch time, Brett Brown started with “Joel Embiid is our crown jewel” then cited Al Horford, Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons in that order as other options. pic.twitter.com/lHNLuXTvoA— J Blevins (@JBlevinsNBA) September 25, 2019
Brown mentioned that Joel had said he lost 25 pounds this summer. This confirms a sort of throwaway line from Embiid’s commercial appearance for a snack food (ironically enough). Brown said that although the team has a massive size advantage, he expects everyone to be in the best shape of their lives heading into training camp and not need until November to play themselves into shape.
This follows fairly closely behind Charles Barkley’s comments during his Legends Walk ceremony about being too fat and too slow early in his career and how Joel needs to lose weight. Those comments came late in September, so it is encouraging to find that Joel got the message likely back in June after the season ended.
Embiid has not spoken to media since the day after the Sixers were eliminated. Having been in Toronto and seeing a devastated Embiid not be able to enter the locker room for nearly 40 minutes after the epic Kawhi Leonard multi-bounce game winner, you had to wonder how Embiid would emotionally respond.
Not hearing much from Embiid all summer could have been interpreted multiple ways. The weight loss being, for all intents and purposes, confirmed by his head coach the week before training camp is evidence to support that Embiid took that disappointment and turned it into motivation to do the hard work needed to change his diet and health in general.
It’s easy to forget that Embiid struggled through a significant illness early in the Toronto series and was, at times, a shell of himself. Still he was a +90 in that series.
Brett Brown cited the impact that Embiid makes on his defense. “When he was on the floor, we had the best defense in the league… we were 24th when he was off the floor.”
Bully Ball Defense
The size advantage already discussed will also manifest in a different mindset defensively. Make no mistake, this team is built for playoff matchups against teams like Milwaukee, Toronto, and Indiana. In a league that has trended smaller and smaller, the Sixers once again went against the grain and doubled down on size. The aforementioned negative wingspans of Butler and Redick resulted in being ranked just 19th in steal rate in 2018/19. The team invested in length and wing defenders this offseason.
Matisse Thybulle, Zhaire Smith, Josh Richardson, Al Horford, James Ennis, Haywood Highsmith, and even Shake Milton all are players 6’6″ and above with plus wingspans. The success Robert Covington had in deflection rates leading to turnovers will be crucial to replicate if the team wants to turn defense into easy transition offense.
Passing lanes will be narrow and windows will be tight against the Sixers in the half court. Forcing turnovers will be a key stat to watch for early in the season.