CAMDEN, NJ – Rarely in sports do hindsight and foresight intertwine as naturally and appropriately as they do in the days following the end of a season. The intersection provides context for reflection and anticipation alike.
The 76ers have now arrived at this crossroads, their 28-54 campaign freshly completed Wednesday.
Forty-eight hours later, on Friday, the two people most responsible for shaping the direction of the organization spent a lengthy amount of time (nearly 90 minutes combined) sharing their thoughts on the state of the team – how it fared the past six months, and the direction they hope to move it going forward.
That the Sixers made headway this year is undeniable, a fact that seemed to mutually encourage Bryan Colangelo and Brett Brown, who both addressed the media Friday at the club’s training complex. The Sixers’ 18-win improvement marked the league’s the biggest jump in 2016-2017, and the second-largest year-over-year increase in franchise history.
The progress was fueled by a roster that was routinely in flux, whether because of injuries, or trades.
Sporting a blazer, button-down shirt, and jeans, the business casual Brown said, “To end up where we ended up not knowing the dramatic instances that [would have] happened…I look back with a tremendous sense of respect for my players, in many ways for the city, the way that they handled it.”
“We have taken tremendous strides,” said Colangelo, coming off his first full season as President of Basketball Operations. “I think the coaching staff has done an incredible job in bringing players along.”
Indeed, several individuals showed plenty of promise, perhaps no one more so than Joel Embiid. Albeit in a limited capacity, the big man backed up his hype through a combination of skill, and showmanship. Colangelo was pleased.
“You wished it was more than 31 games, but we’ve got a pretty decent sample size,” said Colangelo, referring to Embiid’s injury-shortened season. The 23-year old became the first player in NBA history to average minimums of 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocked shots in under 26 minutes per game.
“He is a game-changer, he is an All-Star level talent,” Colangelo said. “He is one of the foundational pieces that we look to build with and around, there’s no doubt.”
Brown was bullish, as well. He considers Embiid to be far from a finished product. As much as the 7-footer’s on-court performance stood out, so did his basketball I.Q.
“I look at Joel’s foundation as completely scratching the surface of what he is going to be,” said Brown. “He has no right to think the game at the level that he does based on his complete lack of experience. He really has a sophisticated, advanced basketball mind.
“He just is at the infant stages of where he is going to end up, and those infant stages, as we all see, are just incredibly unique.”
Given the convincing scope of his output, Embiid remains a legitimate candidate for Rookie of the Year honors. His fellow first-year Sixer, Dario Saric, has also made a strong case for the award, and, like Embiid, represents another source of optimism for the team.
“Dario Saric has clearly established himself in just one season that he is an extremely viable NBA player,” said Colangelo. “He’s making a nod for himself to be that locked-in starter at the four for many years to come.”
Saric concluded his first season in the United States with averages of 12.8 points and 6.4 rebounds, which placed him second and third in this year’s rookie class, respectively. His 10 double-doubles were second-best, too.
In addition to Embiid and Saric, Brown cited Robert Covington, Richaun Holmes, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, T.J. McConnell, and Nik Stauskas as players who look more and more like “keepers,” a term the head coach uses often.
Covington, who Colangelo tabbed a “valued piece” that the Sixers want to retain on a “long-term basis,” ranked fourth in the NBA in steals (1.9) and first in deflections (4.2) per game. Holmes averaged 13.6 points and 6.9 rebounds per tilt following the All-Star break. Luwawu-Cabarrot paced all Eastern Conference rookies in scoring in April (18.3). McConnell ended his second year eighth overall in assists (534), and sixth in steals (133). Stauskas, meanwhile, was second on the Sixers with a career-best 132 3-pointers.
“Those seven especially are real time blueprints, real time examples of that very strong opinion that we go overboard in our emphasis on development,” Brown said.
Content with their individual and collective growth, and overall needle pointing upward? Yes, the Sixers are.
“No, we’re not satisfied,” said Colangelo. “We’ve only taken one step.”
As for what’s next, Colangelo and Brown appear to be in lock step that the Sixers’ fortunes in the near future could be aided by the integration of a 20-year who never had the chance this season to put on his no. 25 red, white, and blue uniform.
“It is the number one goal for me to set out a road map, a calendar for Ben Simmons,” said Brown. “That is the single most important thing in my world at the moment.”
And the course that the Sixers have currently deemed most sensible in terms of Simmons’ development is molding the 2016 top pick into a point guard. Brown acknowledged Friday he has almost always viewed the 6-foot-10, 240-pounder as a fit for the ultra-important position.
“He wants the ball, and he loves to pass,” said Brown, basing his assessment on the extensive volume of edits and clips he’s watched from Simmons’ stint at Louisiana State.
Brown then repeated the phrase once more for emphasis.
Simmons, who Brown feels could eventually be a “matchup nightmare,” averaged 5.5 assists per game in summer league action, after posting 4.8 dimes per contest in his lone collegiate season at LSU.
In addition to pouring over film of Simmons, Brown has also gone back in history, and zeroed in on video from Magic Johnson’s title-winning days with the Lakers, when the five-time champion played alongside the likes of guard Norm Nixon, and forward James Worthy.
Comments made later by Colangelo supported the validity and value of Brown’s studies.
“With his unique skill set, his size, his strength, his power, he’s a transformational type of player potentially at that spot, not dissimilar to what Magic brought to the point guard spot years and years ago,” Colangelo said. “That’s not to say he will be Magic, but really no combination of what he’s got since that time, unless you’re talking about LeBron, and LeBron is more of a power forward, small forward type.”
Separately but consistently, Colangelo and Brown noted that the addition of Simmons alone to the Sixers’ nucleus won’t single-handedly expedite the team’s success. The two men also agreed that dependable perimeter shooters and quality depth at power forward are primary needs, which could be addressed through any combination of the draft, trades, or free agency.
In respect to the latter outlet, Colangelo believes that an abundance of young prospects, a well-connected coaching staff, and new state-of-the-art training complex will allow the Sixers to be a factor in free agency.
“Through all the back channels that we hear all the time, there’s a lot of players in the league that are looking at us as a desirable free agent destination,” said Colangelo.
The two-time NBA Executive of the Year called the Sixers’ growth timeline “young,” and maintained, as he has since being hired last April, that a prudent, wise approach will continue to dictate personnel decisions.
“That’s the most exciting aspect of everything we’ve talked about – it’s an under-25 team basically,” Colangelo said. “The future is out there. Do we want to jump to the future quicker, or do we want to have it happen organically, and grow it the right way? That will be something that we do have to decide a path, at some point, between now and July 1.”
At one point Friday, during Brown’s 45-minute question-and-answer session with reporters, his remarks circled around team-building, and big picture visions. He said he dreams about “what can be” every day he’s on the job, and knows full well his colleagues in the front office are doing the same.
“One of the things I appreciate most about the people I work for is there has been a non-negotiable vision line for what the bottom line is,” said Brown. “We feel first a responsibility to the city, there is zero doubt about that, but mostly to the greater cause of building something that is of championship quality. Somewhere out there there will be the answer of instant gratification and immediate success, versus stay the course, don’t get tricked, build something that is unique.”
Friday, the Sixers’ key decision-makers made clear there’s still plenty of work left to be done. Their aligned conviction, though, signaled a confidence that the team has started to find its way.
Extra Quotes of Note:
• Brown, now the sixth-longest tenured head coach in the NBA, expressed great appreciation for the support he has been shown by members of the Sixers’ ownership group.
“Four years ago, I sat in front of Josh Harris and David Blitzer. Effectively they said: ‘We want to build a program that can win a championship. We went to school in Philadelphia, the city has amazing potential. Tells us what your version of what it means to win a championship.’
“I left NYC thinking they are highly committed people, and they certainly have a plan. In that discussion, it came up frequently, although I work for them, this is the city’s team, this is the city’s product, and how do we build something for the city of Philadelphia. They’re family people, they’re good people, and they have been wildly fair to me. There is a responsibility that I feel, we feel, that they deserve success. They’ve shown amazing support for what we’ve tried to do. If the city knew what I know…We should be pretty proud that they are our owners.”
• Brown, in further outlining the benefits of molding Ben Simmons as a point guard, pointed to potential match-up advantages he expects the Sixers to be able to create, saying, “I just don’t see other point guards guarding him, and if they do, we will post him. We will take him down to a block, and we will beat up on a mismatch. I think people like Kawhi Leonard, like Jae Crowder, big guards, big three-men, big two-men, will be given a task of guarding him. So, immediately, you get into a world that is as simplistic as the NBA is as it relates to scoring – it’s always about how do you have one player that can get two defenders to go to him.”
•Colangelo praised Brown’s efforts on the heels of their first full season working together.
“Brett is a tireless worker. He is fully committed to growing this program and making players at all levels of the roster better. He’s not just focused on the top-flight guys. From 1-through-15, he’s trying to make better in terms of focus on player development and care of coaching. I think that the way we play is a good reflection of who he is and what he brings to the table in terms of his desire to win and succeed. Again, I can’t overlook or talk about the commitment that this guy’s made to this program over the past three-and-a-half, four seasons – it’s incredible what he’s gone through to get to this point. I’m excited for him to be on the cusp of really being able to turn the corner. I think we’ve turned the corner, but perhaps not all the way and, quite frankly, I’m not sure we’ll ever be done turning the corner. We’re always going to be evolving and growing as an organization. And I really look forward to seeing as the talent level increases, and as the expectations increase and as the mentality of the group increases – it’s really exciting to see that we’ve got a coach that understands it and cares as much as he does.”