DETROIT, MI – Scott Brooks could laugh about it last Wednesday, the passage of time perhaps making it easier for him to remember the challenge.
Before his Washington Wizards took the floor at Capital One Arena to face the 76ers in the regular season opener for both clubs, the second-year head coach was asked to reflect on his first years leading the Oklahoma City Thunder.
During that period, about a decade ago, the franchise had landed a couple of lottery picks named Durant and Westbrook in back-to-back drafts. The thinking back then was to subsequently use these blue-chippers, chosen No. 2 in 2007 and No. 4 in 2008, respectively, to form the core of a club that could – behind a young, homegrown base – win on a consistent basis.
For as great as the potential was at the time, and for as much success as the Brooks-Durant-Westbrook trio went on to achieve, the preliminary steps of OKC’s journey weren’t without hurdles. All of the excitement and anticipation surrounding the team had to be tempered by the reality that live, NBA game reps were needed for the group to find its way.
Sound like a somewhat familiar theme?
As you proceed with reading, though, keep in mind that the purpose of retelling this anecdote isn’t so much about the future as it is about the present.
The other night in the nation’s capital, Brooks smiled and joked a bit about how particularly ambitious the dogged Westbrook was in respect to the early expectations he had for the Thunder. Nevertheless, the now-MVP point guard came to find that the recipes for 50-win seasons, playoff berths, and trips to the NBA Finals were more slow-cooker than microwave.
Right now, as the Sixers get ready to visit the Detroit Pistons for their fourth game of the 2017-2018 campaign (7:00 PM EST; NBC Sports Philadelphia, 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network), everyone – from Brett Brown down to his assistants and players – feels strongly that the proper pieces are in place, the right work and preparation is being done, and that the requisite effort is there.
For a combination of factors, however, the Sixers – amidst a batch of road games and difficult opponents – have yet to crack the win column. Not surprisingly, Brown is staying true to a guiding mantra he’s lived by throughout his now five-year term in Philadelphia. Steps aren’t to be skipped, and good days will eventually add up.
“I think the thing that is most challenging, in a good way, and it should be expected, is taking the group, and trying to find ways to get this to gel over a period of time,” Brown said Saturday in Toronto. “It’s an interesting group to be able to look at, and make determinations about. It’s not black and white at all. The youth, the positional versatility, all of those things – and they’re all positives – are interesting decisions a coaching staff goes through.”
And so, here the Sixers are at the moment, doing their best to find solutions, all in real time as tough games are starting to come fast and furious. Not the simplest of tasks, especially when the teams lined up across from you are invested in opening their seasons in positive fashion, too.
Dwane Casey, who holds the fourth-longest tenure among active NBA head coaches, encountered a similar dynamic first-hand at the outset of his stint with the Toronto Raptors, now in its seventh year. Despite the organization (then overseen by Bryan Colangelo) building a promising, youthful nucleus, the Raps needed seasoning.
“It takes time,” Casey said Saturday, when the Sixers were visiting Air Canada Centre. “It doesn’t happen overnight, to develop that playing personality, develop talent, develop skills, and at the same time, by the way, win a game.”
What Casey discovered his first few years in Toronto was that the greenness of his teams typically revealed itself late in games, through things like turnovers, and missed shots in crunch time.
“You can’t give a player game experience,” he said. “You just try to feed him, feed him, feed him.”
Circumstances such as these are ones to which Brown can currently relate, especially with the Sixers’ margin for error being so slim against the likes of Washington, Boston, and Toronto, all teams that last season reached the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
“Subtleties teach you,” said Brown, “and they’re teaching you against really good teams early in the year.”
Amir Johnson, the 13-year veteran forward, was a key part of Casey’s initial teams. Having the benefit of hindsight, he knows that an unwavering approach pays dividends.
“I just think the years we spent together as a family and as brothers, slowly getting new attributes and players in, we just took the steps to get better,” Johnson said. “We finally, slowly, got over the hump. It just started to improve better and better.”
After qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2009 two years ago, the Detroit Pistons (2-1) missed out on the playoffs this past season, finishing with a record of 37-45. Taking advantage of the Boston Celtics’ summer roster reshuffle, the Pistons swooped in and acquired backcourt defensive stalwart Avery Bradley via trade, adding him to a starting unit that returns proven veterans Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris, and double-double machine Andre Drummond (his 230 double-doubles since the 2012-2013 season are tied for the most in the NBA).
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