How are all the pieces going to fit together?
It’s one of the more intriguing questions surrounding the Sixers as they continue preparations for the season opener in Washington in a few weeks. When they opened their gym to the media on Thursday for the last few minutes of a five-on-five drill, the array of possibilities was remarkable to consider. There was Ben Simmons, first posting up against a guard underneath the basket at one end of the court and then, at the opposite end, beating a big man with his first step from the wing and slashing to the basket. There was Jerryd Bayless spotting up from the left corner and later gliding to the hole, Amir Johnson knocking one down from the left side of the arc.
The general manager had said a couple of days earlier that he expected a competitive gym, and there it was: Richaun Holmes slapping the padding on the hoop after failing to finish on a pick-and-roll, T.J. McConnell landing on his stomach and pounding the court with the fleshy ends of his fist while barking at referee running in transition the opposite way.
The man responsible for fashioning all of it together into something presentable has a lot of work to do. It is a challenge that is diametrically opposed to the ones he confronted in his first four training camps, when the season’s objectives were individual evaluation and development. Now, the Sixers are three weeks out from a murderous start to the season, with 12 of their first 16 games against playoff teams, their first three coming against three of the best point guards in the game (Washington’s John Wall, Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry). In previous years, the Delaware Valley would shrug and find something else to watch. This year, Brown is responsible for fielding a team that competes, if not wins.
“We feel like the base of how we want to play is there, and now you start moving the furniture around in the house to suit the family,” Brown said. “J.J. obviously has a skill package, Amir has a skill package, Ben with his size needs to be put in position where we can exploit that,” Brown said. “And so, that’s part of NBA coaching, is trying to help these guys score, put ’em in really good spots, put the defensive and key players and teams in situations where they’ve got to think a little bit about how they game-plan for that. But the house is there. The pieces underneath the roof are going to be a little different.”
There are so many potential combinations that it is impossible to project how the flow of personnel might look over the course of a game. In Simmons, they have a player capable of guarding anyone on the court, and scoring with his back to the basket or off the dribble from the wing. Johnson is 6-foot-9, 240 pounds and coming off a season in which he shot 41 percent from three-point range (on 66 attempts). J.J. Redick has shot nearly 45 percent from downtown over the last three seasons, averaging nearly three three-pointers made per game. But he’ll be dipping from the same pool of minutes as Bayless, who has been a meaningful part of three playoff rotations in his 11 years in the league.
“The versatility and depth of this roster, I think, is going to be our strong suit,” president and general manager Bryan Colangelo said earlier this week.
But it’s also going to shine a spotlight on Brown, both with how he uses that versatility to the team’s advantage on the court, as well as how he manages the temperament of his locker room regarding the distribution of minutes.
The variable upon which much of the equation is dependent is Brown’s deployment of Simmons, given his ability to play any position on the court, and the uncertainty about how opposing coaches will attempt to match up against him.
Brown said he suspects Simmons will be guarded by bigger 3 men rather than traditional 4’s. Though he can’t be sure.
“And where I could be wrong is two areas,” he said. “When you look at our league, the mobility at the four spot is pretty impressive. And so in those situations if all of a sudden Draymond Green is gonna go guard, I get it, or one of the Morris twins, I sort of get that, Joe Johnson at a four, maybe, LeBron, maybe, so none of those should surprise us. Is LaMarcus Aldridge gonna go guard him? I don’t think so. And so then you get into the other side of it, maybe big point guards. Maybe John Wall will work him up a floor. Maybe Russell Westbrook will work him up a floor. But I think it’s gonna be more the likes of Jae Crowder or Gordon Hayward or Kawhi Leonard, that type of player, but who knows. What I do know is that every game is so well scouted, the evolution of game-planning, the league sniffs weaknesses quick, and then they jump on it. So we’re gonna see, I think, in a bunch of different ways.”
We should get our first extended look at the collective identity of this team on Sunday afternoon, when the Sixers host their Blue-White scrimmage at the Palestra. At the same time, intrasquad five-on-five is a lot different from a game that counts against John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter. In other words, stay tuned.