CAMDEN, NJ – Following the 76ers’ opening practice of training camp, optimism inside the gym at their training complex in Camden was understandably high.
The roughly two-and-a-half hour-long session provided the team with its first opportunity to get a look at the full roster that, over the summer months, underwent a boost in “firepower,” as Brett Brown described it.
On the court in front of Brown, not only was the NBA’s most recent No. 1 draft pick in action, but so too, with great anticipation, was his predecessor.
Also impossible to ignore was the almost-automatic smooth stroke of a marquee free agent. His presence served as a reminder of a pivotal storyline from the off-season – that the Sixers, in addition to bolstering their promising young core, also this year boast a deep stable of accomplished veterans.
Yes, the mood Tuesday was definitely energetic and upbeat, nothing irregular for a practice in the Brown era. The fifth-year head coach was pleased with the pop he felt at practice, and generally felt that the group, on Day 1, was already a bit farther ahead than his previous teams.
Given this new landscape, the Sixers – with their increased talent base, and personnel carryover from last season – have felt comfortable setting reasonably heightened expectations for the year ahead. But if there was one point of emphasis that rang louder than others Tuesday, it was that winning in the NBA is no easy thing. It’s hard work; really hard work.
Having spent 12 seasons as an assistant in San Antonio, Brown arguably has as good of an understanding of this truism as anyone within the Sixers’ organization. As he put it Tuesday, “This thing isn’t a mystery to me.”
To help spread the word to some of the Sixers’ greener prospects, Brown can now lean on a “luxury” not as readily available to him in the past. He has multiple players in tow who have been seasoned with success.
Leading the way is JJ Redick, who’s been part of 427 regular season wins during his career, and has qualified for the playoffs each of the 11 years he’s spent in the NBA. Then, there’s Amir Johnson, a key cog for the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics’ the last four seasons, all of which yielded post-season berths. Jerryd Bayless has been in the league more than a decade, and has been on several playoff teams, too.
Add up the experiences of all the aforementioned players, and you get a degree of institutional wisdom that’s hard to put a price tag on, especially in the context of a youthful team. Redick and Johnson were lockstep in respect to the primary task at hand for the Sixers this season.
“I think the step that you have to take is figuring out how to win games,” said Redick, who helped the LA Clippers to 57, 56, 53, and 51 victories the last four years, respectively. He learned about how to win during his days with Orlando, when Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson were also on the Magic.
“Brett talked about it, we had a guest speaker [Charles Barkley] last night talk about it,” Redick said Tuesday. “Winning is really hard in this league. Kind of making that leap from a team that wins occasionally to a team that wins the majority of the time, a lot of times just comes down with figuring out how tough it is to win, and then executing down the stretch to do it.”
The recipe for clearing this type of hurdle, some of the Sixers’ new vets believe, requires an aligned, unified approach. Selflessness has to be embraced, and players must be comfortable accepting the realities of a roster.
“First, everybody has to be on the same page,” said Johnson. “Second, everybody can’t score the ball. Somebody has to take a backseat and be like, ok, tonight, I’m just going to go rebound. Tonight, I’m going to take away the passing lane or play defense.”
Adopting this mindset, Johnson suggested, is a non-negotiable.
“If you want to win games,” he said, “other people have to do stuff to make sure your team wins. It’s very, very hard to win in this league.”
For the Sixers to put themselves on a path towards being an improved team, however, their promising blue-chippers will, in all likelihood, need to contribute. Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons, the top picks from each of the last two drafts, sound ready to buy into the cues given by Brown, and their elders.
“Me being young, I’ve never been through this before, so I’ve got to learn through him and the players that have already been through it,” the 19-year old Fultz said of Brown and the Sixers’ veterans. “I know I’m going to make mistakes, and the team is going to make mistakes, but the biggest thing is just coming to work everyday, working as hard as you can, and just being prepared for what comes.”
In Simmons’ eyes, accountability is essential.
“If we’re late, if we’re not working hard, the little things,” he said. “That’s all going to pay off in the long run. As a younger guy I have to be one of the first guys in the gym, last one to leave. That just takes time.”
Small details? Perhaps. But also necessary ingredients for the Sixers to get to where they want to go.
“I’m a winner,” Simmons said, “and I want to win, so that’s our goal definitely.”