The 76ers haven’t budged.
Brett Brown has preached pace, space, and defense since being hired as the Sixers coach on Aug. 14, 2013.
“We’ve taken something and walked it down,” Brown said of his coaching principles.
The major difference is that the Sixers now have young standouts Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, and Markelle Fultz in the fold. They also replaced fringe NBA players such as Brandon Davies, Jarvis Varnado, Hollis Thompson, and JaKarr Sampson with solid veterans like JJ Redick, Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, and Amir Johnson.
“We haven’t blinked,” said Brown, whose squad tanked for 3 1/2 seasons.
But the roster upgrades have led to perhaps one of the fastest transformations in NBA history.
The Sixers concluded the regular season with a 52-30 record and the third seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ll face the sixth-seeded Miami Heat in a best of seven opening-round playoffs series. Game 1 is 8 p.m., Saturday, at the Wells Fargo Center.
This season’s win total is a 42-game increase since the 2015-16 season, when the Sixers finished a league-worst 10-72. The Boston Celtics are the only team with as large a turnaround, but in fewer seasons. The Celtics improved by 42 wins from the 2006-07 season to the following season.
Yet, two major questions about the Sixers have been constant:
- Can Brown coach?
- Has general manager Bryan Colangelo done his job building a roster, so far, around Embiid and Simmons?
Brown and Colangelo have received their fair share of criticism until a few weeks ago. And the criticism will most likely start again if the Sixers have an unceremonious first-round exit, even with Embiid hampered with a fractured orbital bone near his left eye.
Criticism aside, Brown is a serious candidate for coach of the year. On Thursday, he was named conference coach for March/April. And Colangelo could be a candidate for his third executive-of-the-year award.
Finally, with an NBA roster, Brown’s tactics are working.
“The relationship that Bryan and I have in relation to how we play this current team, what the future is going to bring, the design of the team, it is a partnership,” Brown said. “He’s comes in [at the end of my third] year, you know the style of play and how we do things; I felt confident that we were doing the right thing. And I stand by that.”
As a result, Colangelo, who was hired on April 10, 2016, gave Brown the freedom to continue to run things his way. The two talk regularly, and Brown credits Colangelo with acquiring players that fit the coach’s style of play.
The acquisitions of Belinelli and Ilyasova are the poster boys for that.
Both sharpshooters began the season as Atlanta Hawks. The tanking team looked to move Belinelli before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. Instead, the guard agreed to a buyout, with the intention of signing with the Sixers after clearing waivers. He did that on Feb. 12, choosing Philly over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, and Portland Trail Blazers.
Then, in late February, word circulated that Ilyasova intended on rejoining the Sixers once they created a roster spot, and he agreed on a buyout with the Hawks. Once that leaked out, Trevor Booker, who the Sixers acquired from the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 7, requested to be waived. The reserve power forward was not a good fit with the Sixers and wanted to start anew.
The Hawks bought out Ilyasova on Feb. 26, and he was set to clear waivers two days later. So the Sixers and Booker agreed to a buyout on Feb. 28, clearing the way for Ilyasova to sign that night.
At the time, Colangelo received some criticism for the move.
A lot had to do with the Sixers giving up Jahlil Okafor, Nik Stauskas, and a second-round pick in December for Booker. Not only did the Sixers release Booker two months later, but they did so for Ilyasova, a player, they traded to Atlanta a year earlier. But the Sixers only traded him because he wanted a long-term deal. They were only willing to pay him through this season. So they moved him instead of losing him for nothing.
Colangelo’s goal has been to free up as much available cap space as possible to make a run at A-list free agents in July. And by signing Ilyasova and Belinelli to deals only through the end of the season, that goal is intact.
At the same time, they’ve provided the bench scoring the Sixers have been missing. As a result, the team has gone 20-3 since Ilyasova’s acquisition. Those three loses came during his first seven games, while the reserve power forward was trying to mesh again with his teammates.
In the end, Brown’s recruitment of Ilyasova and Belinelli were justified. At the same time, Colangelo’s decisions to sign the two worked out.
Add Fultz to the mix, and the Sixers have three starting-caliber players coming off the bench. The point guard played at a high level in the last 10 games of the regular season, after being sidelined for 68 while dealing with injuries and regaining his confidence. The trio has enabled the team to not miss a beat while Embiid has been sidelined the last eight games.
“You’ve got to credit our front office,” said Justin Anderson, a reserve swingman. “You got to credit coach. They do a great job of keeping us in a position to keep continuing to develop and continue to keep our spirits high.
“We’ve got a lot of talent. This team is loaded. As you can see, you can throw anybody in.”
So loaded that Brown and Colangelo will have decisions to make in the offseason. Redick, Johnson, Ilyasova, and Belinelli will become free agents in July. Redick ($23 million) and Johnson ($11 million) were signed to one-year deals to provide leadership to the Sixers’ young core.
The four veterans, however, combined with the talent of the young players, make the Sixers the hottest team in the NBA.
They’ve won 52 games and are conference-championship contenders without the addition of megastar free-agent-to-be LeBron James or similar players.
One could argue that there’s no need to break up what they have. That’s why this postseason will be telling. While the regular season was a success, the level of play goes up a notch in the playoffs.
At the completion of this run, Brown and Colangelo will have a better idea of who can actually help win an NBA title. That could shape their plans in free agency.
But for now, the duo has orchestrated a better-than-expected regular season.