THE STYLISTIC transformations that Brett Brown witnessed as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs offense during his 12 seasons were head-spinning.
With David Robinson and Tim Duncan policing the paint, the Spurs were a defensive-oriented team. Then when Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili came aboard and Robinson retired, it changed all over again. Then, just before Brown left to become head coach of the 76ers, San Antonio turned its offensive game into one of plentiful and dazzling passes. The phrase coined by coach Greg Popovich and his assistants, including Brown, was "good to great." If there was a good shot to be had, another pass or two would most likely lead to a great one.
The Sixers possess no one with the abilities possessed by those Spurs players mentioned above, most likely all Hall-of-Famers. Not yet. But that passing style that Brown has brought with him has finally started to click with this team. An offense that through so many games over the past three years was as fluid as a frozen river, now is one that is in constant movement, that usually ends with baskets off assists.
There are few isolations, even when Joel Embiid is playing. The unselfishness has reached heights rarely seen in this league and it has been a huge part of the reason the team has won 10 of its past 14 games, after Friday night's loss to Houston.
Good to great.
"We're just playing off of each other, really," said point guard T.J. McConnell, the head of the offensive snake who has 42 assists and 11 turnovers in his past four games. "Making the extra pass and moving the ball, it's hard for teams to guard when you move the ball constantly and pass the ball more than five times in a possession. I think we're doing a great job of that.
"The dribble, dribble, dribble stuff that we did obviously didn't work, so we just bought in to moving the ball, making the extra pass and rotating. When you have defenses guarding six, seven or eight passes, who is going to be able or want to guard that? We just have to keep doing that and I think that's what we've been doing very well."
I remember sitting at the team's first preseason game last October against Boston at the University of Massachusetts. While neither team gave a lot of minutes to players who would have significant roles in the upcoming season, the Celtics moved the ball and generally ran nice movement with whoever was on the floor. For most of the night, the Sixers dribbled and dribbled and dribbled some more, before throwing up desperation jumpers in order to beat the shot clock. It had been all too familiar over the years. But, man, how things have changed now. The team averages 23.3 assists per game on 36.6 makes per game, an assist average of 63.7 percent.
In Wednesday's win at Milwaukee, they had 25 assists on 28 makes in the first half.
"When you got to that stage (in San Antonio) where it was fun and the ball was popping, we call it popcorn," said Brown. "You had half a second to shoot it, pass it or put it to the floor and drive it. But it doesn't stick.
"With our group, it's kind of how I've always seen it. With teams that I've coached myself, the ball's got to move. The dilemma sometimes can be that if you've got great players, they want the ball and the ball can stick and you understand it. The ball needs to be, at times, in LeBron's (James) hands. We don't have that with this team. It's been an easier sell to make moving people, moving the ball, moving bodies, playing with a (half-second) mentality. I think we're third in the NBA in assist percentage. It's the only way that this group can play if it's going to be successful. The ball has to move."
Part of the reason for the success is because of the attention Embiid commands from defenses, which opens up passing lanes and jump shots. But the 7-2, 265-pounder has also bought in to the pass-first style that has been working so well.
"That's all coach," said Embiid, who returned Friday after a two-game absence with a bruised knee. "He's from the Spurs background and the past few years that's what we've been talking about, playing like the Spurs. He wants me to go out and play a bit like Tim Duncan and just play with my teammates and have fun. Now we are starting to get it and play together and get open shots, and we move the ball until we get the better shot.
"It is fun. The last few games, we've really been moving the ball and the games before that, too. We've been making a lot of shots and that's because we've been moving the ball so well and getting open shots."
Good to great.
Three words that might be the biggest key to this recent turnaround. Maybe even bigger than Embiid himself.