It may be years before the Philadelphia 76ers are able to compete with the rest of the NBA, but their coach has stayed optimistic through the long process.
BOSTON — There was a moment of optimism around the 76ers on Monday night. It soon passed.
Nerlens Noel, last year’s first-round draft choice, was making his preseason debut more than a year and a half after we last saw him in any kind of meaningful competition. Noel took nine shots, missed seven of them and mixed in four turnovers and six fouls in 26 minutes. “I don’t think I played well at all,” Noel said later, which was accurate, if not exactly encouraging.
Still, there were times when Noel’s very presence had an impact. The Sixers were credited with seven blocks, which doesn’t begin to take into account all the shots they altered or the awkward pump fakes the Celtics had to use to even get them off. It’s not much, but it’s something and the Sixers will take their small victories where they find them.
Of course, Noel’s welcome-to-the-NBA moment was tempered by the sight of last year’s Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams in street clothes alongside this year’s top draft choice, Joel Embiid. Somewhere, Dario Saric is doing as Dario Saric does.
The Sixers will be bad again this year, maybe even worse than last season’s 19-63 squad. If general manager Sam Hinkie can execute his zero-sum theory of roster building there will be better days ahead. Everyone knows this and accepts it, but between those two pillars lies an interminable period of depressing basketball played by a faceless collection of second-round picks, undrafted rookies and refugees from the D-League.
Thankfully, the Sixers have Brett Brown to make sense of things.
“I feel that trying to coach with a very long lens is important,” Brown said. “I see daylight here in this program. Michael’s three-point shot, Nerlens’ progression at the foul line, Tony Wroten’s assist-to-turnover ratio, all those types of things are development things that are our measurements this year. That’s our report card and it’s done with a very long lens.”
Brown always talks like this. He’s an optimistic sort who uses humor and patience as cudgels against the creeping negativity that engulfs his team from the outside. Those are unusual traits in a place like Philadelphia, but Brown has managed to keep the barbaric hordes somewhat at bay with his candor and perspective.
“It is a tremendous challenge but that’s what I signed up for,” Brown said. “To try and keep a locker room together, trying to be candid with the city and the media.”
Last year he suggested — not untruthfully — on the eve of camp that he had six NBA players on his roster. Three of them were traded at the deadline, another signed to play in Lithuania after the season and the best of the lot (Thaddeus Young) was part of the Kevin Love deal.
This year he has Carter-Williams, Noel, Wroten, a couple of veteran stragglers and a whole lot of maybes.
“You’re reminded that the roster is fluid,” Brown said of his camp approach. “Anything that makes them think isn’t fair to anybody. We’re trying to come up with stuff that is reactionary and proactive and not trying to paralyze them with too much information. You walk a fine between growing too fast and giving people an opportunity that is real.”
Player development is his job description, which means everything from on-court work to implementing a training and nutrition regimen and taking all the losses on his resume that comes with that long lens. It’s unusual for a head coach to be willing to give unproven players freedom at the expense of what he knows is ultimately the right way to play, but Brown is a unique sort of coach.
Take Noel, for example. He showed in summer league the jaw-dropping athleticism that made him a top prospect during his abbreviated season at Kentucky. He also shows on a daily basis just how much farther he has to go. Brown’s task is to tap into those talents and allow them to flourish while resisting the urge to put too many restrictions on his ability.
“I want to encourage him to be fearless on the weak side,” Brown said. “I don’t care how many illegal defenses he gets called for. I don’t care. We want to give him the freedom to just let his athletic gifts shine and then polish him up as he gets older and understands NBA basketball a little better.”
Brown also understands that a large percentage of the NBA world doesn’t like what the Sixers are doing. Tanking has always been a byproduct of a draft system that rewards losing, but few franchises have gone to the extremes the Sixers have, or been so obvious about their process. While Hinkie prefers to stay out of the public spotlight, Brown is the out-front man and he makes no apologies for what they are trying to do.
“I don’t really even think about it,” he said. “I understand how some people may question it. We’ve chosen a path. It doesn’t insure that we’re right, but it does ensure in our eyes that it gives us our best chance. How others view it, that’s fair enough, that’s their call.”
There will be a lot of long nights for Brown this season. He understands that, as well. But this is the path he chose and there will be better days ahead.
“I get excited that Saric and Joel Embiid aren’t that far away,” he said. “We have more draft picks, we have a lot of flexibility with cap space. I see daylight. We just have to navigate through this period where the culture, the behavior, the defensive rules are in place. That’s all I do every day to remind myself of that and try to coach that and fight for the things that I know we need to have when those guys start to become better players and are available.”