After four years during which expectations of success were limited, to say the least, Brett Brown steps into a coaching challenge this season with the 76ers in which the price of perceived failure would be significant.
Since the most recent season ended, a season in which he didn’t have the No. 1 overall draft pick on the court for a minute, and in which his stud center was available for just 31 games and limited in most of those, Brown has said repeatedly he is savoring the chance to coach when the stakes and the expectations are much higher.
“We’ve all endured a lot in the four years,” Brown said recently. “We’re getting to the stage where we’re looking forward to jumping into this in a real way.”
That was even before the Sixers traded up to add the top pick in the NBA draft for a second straight year, a move that promises things will get very real very quickly, and perspective will be even more difficult to keep under control. If the team adds Washington guard Markelle Fultz to the mix – anything else would be a shock – management will be able to sit back, even if it does little else this offseason, and be satisfied with handing the ball to Brown.
“The fan base is already excited by what they’ve seen,” Bryan Colangelo said Monday as he announced the trade with Boston for the top pick. “If you stepped across to our business office across the road, you’d probably hear a bell ringing a lot. The bell rings every time someone sells a new season ticket. I would venture to say we’re going to be sold out this year, playing to full capacity every night. It’s an interesting position to be in … and it will take more momentum on as we select on Thursday.”
That should set other bells ringing for the coaching staff. Since Sam Hinkie’s “process” began, the fans have been, in succession: horrified, apathetic, mildly interested, somewhat intrigued, carefully enthusiastic, very optimistic and, now, with another No. 1 pick to bolster the core, anticipating a winner. The public is buying in, and doing so with cash. The only danger is if the team steps back instead of forward, or sideways, or if the collection of shiny pieces isn’t able to be fit together by the coaches.
There has already been one loud failure in Jahlil Okafor and a slightly more muffled one in Nerlens Noel, who was traded for very little return. It wasn’t that long ago those two were considered real building blocks for the franchise. That hope evaporated, at the expense of another couple of years of delaying the team’s arrival.
The expectations are rocketing again because of Joel Embiid, who still hasn’t proved his ability to stay on the court; and the unique pairing of back-to-back top picks in Ben Simmons and (assumedly) Fultz, neither of played his college team into the 68-team NCAA tournament. There’s a reason to be finally excited. It could work out great right away, but to say it’s a sure thing is a leap even Colangelo won’t take.
“There’s very few situations I can recall in history where you’re putting two No. 1 picks on the court at the same time for the first time,” Colangelo said. “I’m excited about that, but I’m nervous about that at the same time. I’m nervous because we’ve got a coaching staff that is driven to win and young players making their debuts are not always ready to win. We’re going to wind these guys up and do our best to make them ready and the coaching staff is going to have their challenges with a young core.”
Adding to the challenge is the sense, as you read between the lines from Colangelo, that bringing in a multiyear free agent to the mix is probably still a year away.
“I think ideally we’d like to not only have max flexibility now, but maintain max flexibility next year [after] this group has a chance to grow together a little bit more and be more ready to add a high-level free agent,” Colangelo said.
That’s the smart play, because it will give them time to see if either of their rookies has serious holes that must be filled by others, and whether the big center can remain healthy. Still, it won’t make things easier for Brown and his staff as they try to figure things out in front of those capacity crowds.
Along the way, Brown has to refine or reconsider the notion of Simmons as the team’s primary ball-handler, and he has to find perimeter shooting that has been lacking so long. It still isn’t all that apparent He has to formulate an offense that uses Embiid effectively around the basket even as the lane is clogged by slashers who want to reach the rim. On the other end, he’ll be trying to devise matchups that aren’t mismatches for the other team, particularly a knotty problem with a 6-foot-10 point guard (or whatever you want to call him).
“We’re not going to blink and feel rushed to go spend stupid money on something that’s going to get us a result, so we can feel good about a single season,” Brown said. “One of the things I appreciate most about the people I work for is that there has been a non-negotiable vision of what the bottom line is.”
That bottom line is building sustainable excellence and understanding that it would take a good deal of time and, even now, a whole lot of patience. Coaches understand the limits of organizational patience, however. It comes with the territory. And you can be sure it wasn’t a word mentioned to the people on the other end of the phone lines Monday when the bells were ringing loudly and the seats were filling for perhaps the most anticipated season in team history.