CAMDEN, NJ – The bedrock of Brett Brown-coached 76ers teams from each of the past four seasons? Defense. And just because the club has now added some extra firepower and talent to its roster for the upcoming 2017-2018 campaign, don’t expect this primary point of emphasis to change.
There was, for certain, a lot to like about the Sixers’ exhibition opener Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies, from the inspired, Ben Simmons-fueled start, to the steady play of veterans like Robert Covington and JJ Redick. There were Jahlil Okafor’s quality contributions, too.
But, none of these developments were enough to mask what Brown saw happening on the other end of the court.
For instance, after finding an early groove and jumping out to a 17-13 lead in Wednesday’s first quarter, the Sixers surrendered an 8-0 run allowing Memphis right back into the game. Later, the Grizzlies scored 30 points in the third period. There was also the matter of the visitors generating 50 points in the paint (on 25 of 47 shooting), and outscoring the Sixers 16-0 on second-chances.
So yes, it was not entirely surprising to hear Thursday, when Brown and the Sixers regrouped for practice, that defense was very much the focus as the squad readied for Friday’s match-up at The Center with the Boston Celtics (7:00 PM EST, NBC Sports Philadelphia, 97.5 FM The Fanatic).
Richaun Holmes, who started at center versus the Grizz and tallied 9 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 blocks in 17 minutes, said that for the most part Thursday, the Sixers stuck to basics, reviewing coverages, and working on their talking.
“Just got to gel,” said Holmes, a familiar name on a roster with plenty of new parts. “Everybody’s learning the communication, the language, and getting used to playing together and things like that.”
For Brown, he wants to see his troops execute simple tasks more effectively.
“We’ve taken so much time, like can you guard your man?,” Brown said following Thursday’s two-hour workout at the Sixers’ training complex in Camden. “I know it sounds vanilla, but there’s a lot to that.”
A season ago, Brown set a team goal for the Sixers to finish as one of the top-15 defensive teams in the NBA. They achieved it, ending the year tied for 14th in the league with an average of 106.2 points allowed per 100 defensive possessions.
While Brown indicated Thursday his ambitions are similar for 2017-2018, he couched his hopes with a realistic acknowledgement made several times already this fall. There’s a lot of newness, and still a lot of youth, surrounding the Sixers.
One key factor that ultimately should help the team clamp down considerably on the opposition is the impending return of an athletic, 7-foot tall, 250-pound, paint-clogging rim protector. Joel Embiid was a full participant at Thursday’s practice, and most noteably, he was given the go-ahead for full-court 5-on-5 drills.
Brown couldn’t deny that the Cameroonian brought a different type of presence to the floor, particularly on the defensive side. On the whole, with Embiid involved in all aspects of practice, the Sixers could better simulate how they aim to play in games, said Brown. Previously, with Embiid limited to half-court exercises, the team had to practice accordingly.
Brown noticed ripple effects surface Wednesday against Memphis.
“We played slow, we didn’t get back,” Brown said. “Having Jo [Thursday] where we could have no half court restrictions was excellent. It was great for him, great for the group, and it’s really the first time we’ve been able to do that with that type of quantity.”
From a folding chair next to the Sixers’ assistant coaches, Embiid, outfitted in a black suit and black shirt, had a front-row sideline seat for Wednesday’s tilt. The next afternoon, the 2017 Rookie of the Year runner-up shared some observations about the Sixers’ performance.
On the one hand, Embiid felt his teammates did a “great job” moving the ball offensively, and was encouraged by the efforts of Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. Defensively, though, the big man detected room for improvement.
“We’re a young team, we got to work on a lot of things,” Embiid said Thursday. “We can worry about offense later, but defensively, I feel like we got to be the best defensive team in the league.”
To that end, Embiid re-emphasized Thursday his personal mission is to be not only the best defensive player on the NBA’s best defensive team, but the league’s best defensive player across the board.
“Obviously, in my career, I want to win a few Defensive Players of the Year,” said Embiid, whose 91.2 individual defensive rating in the Sixers’ breakout January paced all players who that same month logged at least 20 minutes per game, and appeared in a minimum of seven contests.
Thursday, Brown referred to Embiid as the Sixers’ “defensive captain.”
“I thought last year, I was the best defender in the league, although I only played 31 games,” Embiid continued, the intensity of his words increasing. “I hate when opposing teams call a layup. I just hate when it’s called. I think me being on the court is going to help the team defensively, so I can’t wait to get back out there. It’s all about defense, and that’s what this program is all about.”
As for when the Sixers can expect Embiid to be in uniform for a game of the pre-season or regular season variety, the organization, as has been the case all along, will follow the criterion-based return-to-play protocol outlined by its medical and sports performance staff.
In the meantime, Brown will channel all his energy towards making sure the players currently at his disposal move closer to mastering the Sixers’ defensive principles.
“We continue to grow that even though when Joel comes back, we know we got something different behind us,” Brown said Thursday. “Nothing really changes. You just want to get good at basic things, and anticipate absorbing what I think is going to be an all-league defensive player.”