Sizing Up the Sixers (28-53):
For almost four years (one game to go), Brett Brown has been entrusted with leading the 76ers, and for four years, his primary focus hasn’t wavered.
As much as Brown preaches defense, pace, and space, which represent the leading pillars of his coaching philosophy, there has been an underlying factor guiding just about everything he does and teaches on the basketball court. To his core, Brown remains relentlessly committed to player development.
Looking back on the current campaign, which concludes Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, the fruits of Brown’s labor in this area are ever-present, particularly in the win column. Regardless of what happens in their match-up with the Knicks, the Sixers, 18 victories better than last year, have already assured themselves their best finish under Brown to-date.
Of course, a modest influx in young talent, along with the incorporation of some established veterans, were influential in fueling the strides the Sixers took this season. Not to be overlooked, however, was the impact that returning players, and their subsequent growth, had on the club’s collective fortunes as well.
Run down the Sixers’ roster. In respect to those players who began the season with prior experience on the team, the case could be made that each one went on to enjoy a career year statistically in 2016-2017. Jahlil Okafor, whose playing time was limited this season, is an exception.
Leading the way, perhaps, is Robert Covington. In his third go-round with the Sixers, he proved himself worthy of NBA All-Defensive Team consideration. Even though he was ruled out for the season a week and a half ago (right meniscus tear), the swingman still ranks fourth in the league with 1.9 steals per game, and first overall with 4.2 deflections created per game. According to ESPN.com, Covington tops all small forwards in real defensive plus-minus rating as well.
Then, there’s T.J. McConnell. Thrust into the starting line-up for the Sixers’ final game of 2016, the second-year point guard was as much a catalyst as anyone amidst the squad’s January surge. McConnell, undrafted in 2015, led the Sixers to victories in 10 of his first 13 starts. He heads into Wednesday’s finale 12th in the NBA with 6.6 assists per game, and seventh with a 37.3 assist percentage, while also producing the most passes per game in the league.
Moving along, how can Richaun Holmes not be viewed as another player development poster child? Cast as the fourth center on the Sixers’ depth chart in training camp, the Bowling Green product is now the last man standing of the team’s original bigs. Because of injuries to Embiid (left knee) and Okafor (right knee), coupled with the trading of Nerlens Noel, Holmes was bumped up to the Sixers’ top unit following the All-Star break. In this period of time, he’s produced 13.6 points per game, 6.9 rebounds per game, and ranks seventh and sixth in the league, respectively, in field goal percentage (57.9) and true shooting percentage (57.9).
A discussion of players who made substantial headway in multiple seasons working with Brown wouldn’t be complete without citing Nik Stauskas. The Canadian shooting guard, acquired by the Sixers via trade in July of 2015, would be among the first people to tell you that he expected more from himself after two years in the league. Spending plenty of time at the Sixers’ practice facility, and competing with increased confidence in his third season as a pro, Stauskas bounced seamlessly between starting and reserve roles, setting career-highs in points (9.4 ppg), rebounds (2.8 rpg), field goal percentage (39.8), 3-point shooting percentage (36.8), and 3-pointers made (130).
Given Brown’s background, it should come as little surprise that with the Sixers, so many of his players have gotten better. Dating back to when the 56-year old was given his first full-time gig in the NBA with San Antonio in 2002, player development has been his bailiwick. Brown’s expertise in development was a leading reason why the Sixers brought him on board in August of 2013.
“I use the phrase ‘sweat equity’ all the time,” Brown said this week, when asked about his approach to molding players. “You get in a gym, you work with somebody, you watch them sweat, you push them, you challenge them, you watch them get better. It’s a huge part of everything that we do. I’m convinced it’s the building – the single building block – to relationships, to watching somebody get better, to having them believe that we care about their future.”
As we’ll cover in greater detail shortly, Brown’s belief in the power of interpersonal relationships and communication rests at the heart of his proven ability to move players forward along positive developmental paths.
After the season’s final horn sounds Wednesday at The Garden, Brown will spend Thursday conducting one-on-one player meetings at the team’s training complex in Camden, New Jersey, providing upfront, honest feedback on the past six months, and setting the tone for a critical summer.
“I feel so confident that we’re heading in the right direction,” Brown said Monday. “There’s a system in place that I’m proud of, and believe in. I think in many ways it’s a plug-and-play thing. I don’t care what free agent comes in, or what draft you look at, or when Jo comes back 100 percent healthy, there’s a certain way that we want to play, that we believe in, and feel comfortable teaching. And so I leave this year thinking that the system is a lot stronger.
“How can we all not just get really excited that we’re a lot better off, in a far better place than we we were…at this time last year?”
To cap our final game preview piece of the 2016-2017 season, we’ll share, in full, what a few members of the organization recently had to say about Brown, and the qualities that,
in their opinions, make him a successful player developer.
“I’ve had some good coaches. It’s funny. Most guys don’t go through a career and say that all the coaches they’ve had are good people. I’ve had some really solid coaches in terms of people, but he’s right at the top. He really cares about his players, you can see that he really invests his time, effort, emotion into us getting better. You can see a couple guys get traded, how much it really affects him – not just in terms of just the team, but having relationships with guys and kind of losing them in that way. I think he’s just a good guy, like come in and ask you how you’re doing. That doesn’t always happen.
“Some coaches feel like they can’t always get on guys, maybe they hold back some because of different personalities. Stuff that he feels like needs to change, or somebody needs to improve on, he stays on him. He never gives up on a guy, or thinks that something can’t be accomplished. I think he’s very adamant on finding solutions on things.”
“Just his ability to make guys buy in, especially young guys such as ourselves who don’t really have the experience like that, but we buy into what he’s saying. He pushes us, he cares about us as people at the same time. I just think that balance of on-court, off-court relationships, he has it down pat, so I think that’s what makes him great.”
“He gives you room to grow. He challenges you every day, but he gives you room to grow, room to make mistakes, and room to get better. I think he has great experience handling young guys.”
“It’s his balance with everything. I know there are some coaches that are strictly business, and don’t have relationships with players. The guy goes out of his way to have a relationship with each one of us, and that means a lot to everyone of us. And, the guy can flat out coach.”
“He’s good X’s and O’s, he’s good at player development, and his relationship with us, it’s second to none.”
“He’s just boosting confidence always. That’s what you need from a coach. You don’t need a guy who’s burying you, burying you, burying you. He’s boosting your confidence, telling you what you can work on, and what you need to get better at, and we appreciate it.”
“I think he really cares for us, and really cares for everybody on the team. We all trust him, and he’s such a good person. People all ask about Coach Brown as a person, I say how good of a person he is. We all really love and care for Coach Brown, we trust his leadership. We believe in him, and he believes in us.”
BILLY LANGE, ASSISTANT COACH:
“I think the number one thing that Coach brings as the head coach, and even as any coach towards development, is one, he cares about it. He sees it as an integral part of team success, so he pours into time with the individual. There’s not a coach you’re going to find that won’t say improving a player’s not important – everyone says it. It’s who carves out a time as a leader to invest and pour into and sow into the growth of their players. I think that’s the number one thing he does from just a holistic standpoint.
“The second thing I does, which I think is more specific, is he organizes the development of each person’s game on the court. We’re going to start with this skill, and we’re going to move to this skill. By the end of the workout, you’ve touched about three or four parts of that person’s game. It’s very creative, but it’s very organized.”
LLOYD PIERCE, ASSISTANT COACH:
“I think one of the main things with anything involving player development is relationships – your ability to connect with the player, for the player to establish some form of trust with the coach, and the coach to show and demonstrate credibility in terms of how he can help that player.
“Brett’s main strength with all of our guys is his ability to connect with them relationally. He does an excellent job of just staying in communication with them, communicating what he feels he can help them develop into, not just in the short term, but in the long term.”
Sizing Up the Knicks (30-51):
Despite its efforts, most of which have been of the financial variety, to reclaim contender status in the Eastern Conference, New York continues to come up short. Assured of a sub-.500 finish for a fourth straight season, the Knicks will also miss out on the playoffs for a fourth consecutive campaign.
Under first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek, New York got off to a respectable start, winning 14 of its first 24 games. The Knicks then proceeded to undo all that good by losing 11 of its next 14, and have never been able to recovery.
In recent weeks, additional issues have surfaced. After eclipsing the 60-games-played mark for a second straight season, Derrick Rose was shut down for the year on March 29th due to a meniscus tear in his left knee. The point guard averaged 18.0 points and 4.4 assists in 32.5 minutes over the course of his debut season in New York.
Also towards the end of March, Joakim Noah, a former teammate of Rose in Chicago, was found to be in violation of the NBA’s anti-drug protocol, and received a 20-game suspension that will carry over into next year.
Tuesday, Hornacek indicated that Carmelo Anthony, who’s accounted for 22.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game in his 12th season as an All-Star, will likely be held out of Wednesday’s finale. The 14-year veteran, officially listed as questionable against the Sixers, has been dealing with pain in his left knee.
Although the Sixers and New York both find themselves on the outside looking in at the post-season, their series this year has been an exciting one. The three previous meetings between the Atlantic Division rivals have been decided by a combined total of five points, with each contest determined by field goals in the final minute of regulation.
In a January 11th 98-97 triumph at The Center, T.J. McConnell buried a baseline jumper over the outstretched arm of Carmelo Anthony to put the Sixers over the top. Then, on February 25th at Madison Square Garden, Anthony returned the favor, sinking a fadeaway shot over McConnell and Robert Covington in the Knicks’ 110-109 victory.
The Sixers and New York squared off again March 3rd in South Philadelphia, with the home team prevailing, 105-102. Justin Anderson’s basket with 24 seconds to go nudged the Sixers ahead for good.
The Sixers are seeking their first series win over the Knicks since the 2008-2009 season.
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