Getting young NBA players to understand the need to improve their skills and their habits, particularly if they are enjoying success with the way things are going, is not a coaching task for the faint of heart.
What they do and how they do it got those players to the highest level of basketball in the world. It made them wealthy and earned them the praise of adoring fans. For many of them, from the time they were in their early teenage years, right through college and the draft process, the idea of their greatness was reinforced and the necessity to be something better was a secondary thought. Yes, it’s great being me.
And then they get to the NBA playoffs.
That’s a lesson rattling loudly around the hallways at the 76ers’ training complex in Camden these days. The Sixers arrived quickly this season, built around young stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, winning 52 games, including 16 straight to end the regular season. They earned the third seed in the Eastern Conference and easily dismissed the Miami Heat in the opening playoff round.
And then …
“We all go through experiences in our lives where words don’t have the impact that you wished they did,” coach Brett Brown said Friday at his season-wrapping news conference. “Actions most times speak louder than words. I told the guys … you’re going to learn more about yourselves in the next few weeks of the playoffs, maybe more than you’ve ever learned in your career. I feel that last experience in the playoffs is as good a life lesson and as good a coach as our young guys will have.”
If the Sixers weren’t listening fully to Brown’s insistence that their games had to develop and improve, then the coaching advice given by the Boston Celtics should do the trick. There were plenty of helpful takeaways from the five-game dismissal, but just to focus on Simmons and Embiid, the instruction was obvious.
For Ben Simmons to be a truly elite player, he has to be able to shoot the basketball. At the moment, he cannot or does not. For Joel Embiid to fully tap his outlandish potential, he has to be in better conditioning shape and be more fundamentally sound. Sheer athletic ability has gotten both of them to this level, and can obscure a great many of their shortcomings and poor habits in the regular season, but that is not where the NBA hides its championship trophies.
“We were feeling pretty good about ourselves 10-11 days ago. This series with Boston was a little bit of a wake-up call,” Bryan Colangelo, president of basketball operations, said Friday. “The things we were doing in the Miami series, we were not able to do in this series. Adjustments were made; things were treated differently. So, it exposed us to some degree. It exposed individual weaknesses and team weaknesses, and we all have to learn from that.”
The Celtics looked at where Simmons could hurt them and drew up a defensive plan designed to keep him from getting there. They played under every screen and pick set for him because there was no reason to respect his outside shot – and that is what every team does – but also constructed a second-defender wall that would prevent him from reaching the basket area as often.
With Simmons hung up around the foul line, the Boston defense didn’t have to collapse and could remain arrayed near the Sixers who can make perimeter shots. And, of course, the attention limited Simmons’ better shots and harassed him into an unacceptable 24 turnovers in the series. He shot 54.5 percent from the floor in the regular season and 47.5 percent against Boston.
So, perhaps the message that didn’t get received during two years in the gym with the Sixers was made clear to Simmons by the Celtics.
“This inspiration to work is real in his head given the situation we just left,” Brown said. “The commitment by him to invest the time, I believe that’s not going to be a problem.”
Embiid is a slightly different story. He led the team with a 23-point, 14-rebound average, but the overall numbers are deceiving. Late in games, his shooting failed him, his footwork got sloppy, and he had much less of an impact when the outcomes were decided.
In the fourth quarters against Boston and an overtime period in Game 3, Embiid averaged just 4.4 points. He went from shooting 47 percent from the floor in the opening three periods to making 35 percent of his shots after that. It is also when he committed six of his 14 turnovers during the series. He made fundamental mistakes, partly because he has flawed fundamentals, but he was also gassed. Embiid’s dedication to conditioning has been questioned before. This time, at the end of his first really extended season of basketball, it really affected him.
“His whole future is his body,” Brown said. “How does he master his diet, master his strength and conditioning? How does he master rehab and prehab and all the things that equal health?”
This recent experience applies to all the Sixers who will return. For some of them — Dario Saric, T.J. McConnell and Robert Covington are the only other players among the playoff rotation almost certain to come back – there are athletic limitations to their development. McConnell isn’t going to get taller. Saric and Covington won’t become faster. But Simmons and Embiid, the two best players on the team, the two most important pieces collected by The Process, have basic, essential aspects of their games that can be improved. They also have a fresh textbook on the subject.
“If you’re not motivated by what just happened to us, then something’s not right. I think there’s a fire burning right now,” Colangelo said. “I hate to say there is some positive that comes out of losing a series 4-1, but it was a wake-up call to many … and it’s revealing and it serves as a motivator.”
It’s an old story, but a new one for the younger players. Success might be great for today, but sometimes failure is better for tomorrow.