In normal circumstances, you would have expected some degree of equivocation on the part of Elton Brand. Professional sports is a corporatized world where actionable information is limited to those with non-disclosure agreements, and the Sixers’ general manager is well-versed in the sorts of empty words that can chart an executive’s course around even the most direct of questions. So when somebody asked Brand to reveal his specific expectations for his team in its looming playoff run, he had a variety of options at his disposal. And it is hard not to think that it says a little something that he chose an answer with such weighty implications.
“My goal and my expectation is to definitely get past where we got last year," Brand said. "We got to the second round, we lost to Boston. I expect us to pass that.”
In the 15 minutes of questions and answers that followed, Brand left little doubt about where the burden of proof currently lies. One by one, he dismissed all of the potential excuses.
The lack of cohesion among a starting five that has played just 10 games together?
“I think the talent will trump cohesion against other teams," he said, “because we’re very talented with that first five group.”
The lack of depth that came as a byproduct of the trades that resulted in that star-studded starting five?
“I think we’re built for the playoffs," Brand said. “Star players win in the playoffs, and that’s what we’re built for."
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Brand might not have intended it this way, but by the time he was done, he had constructed a framework for evaluation in which the only potential explanation for the Sixers failing to advance out of the playoffs would be the failure of the head coach to get the most out of the talent at his disposal. That’s no surprise, of course. Even if Brand didn’t say it, Brett Brown would have known it. The natural order of things is a process of elimination built on the premise that guys who built the roster weren’t wrong.
“It’s a small sample size ... but I like where we are,” Brand said. “I like our chances against any team. We’ve beat some elite teams recently. We lost to some teams that weren’t elite when we didn’t have our full complement of players. But we beat some really good teams.”
At the same time, there are moments when you can’t help but wonder about the accuracy of this front office’s appraisal of its roster. When asked why he thought the Sixers were better positioned to win a series like the one that ended their season last year, he pointed to the success the Celtics had in taking away their shooters, and the fact that the Sixers now have a couple of players in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris who can create buckets on their own.
“Those weapons that we have this year," Brand said, "I think’s what’s going to separate us.”
But another big factor in the Sixers’ loss to Boston was their inability to stop the Celtics’ dribble-drive pressure, a liability that has only grown more glaring since last May. It’s possible that this new group is like a lot of NBA teams and has spent much of its time together giving the minimum level of acceptable effort required to make it through the regular season. It isn’t foolish to think that the postseason might finally see the arrival of the Jimmy Butler who made two all-defensive teams.
And yet ...
It’s not just possible, but probable, that JJ Redick and Harris will be the same exploitable defenders they have been all season. It’s not just possible, but probable, that the Sixers won’t have a single plus defender coming off the bench.
There was a moment during Wednesday’s press conference when Brand mentioned the possibility of Jonathon Simmons “stepping up," despite the fact that Simmons hadn’t been a regular member of the rotation in more than a month and had entered the Sixers’ regular-season finale having seen action in just three of their previous 13 games.
Maybe he misspoke. Maybe it was a simple case of free association without much thought behind it. But if even a sliver of the Sixers’ expectations are built on any realistic hope that Jonathon Simmons might “step up,” there’s a strong argument to make that those expectations are fundamentally flawed.
Besides, the fact that Simmons is even a tangential part of the conversation is a direct result of a glaring miscalculation for which the front office is culpable. You can’t blame Brand for trading up to No. 1 overall in 2017 instead of targeting a guy like D’Aaron Fox at No. 3, since he wasn’t calling the shots at the time. You can’t blame him for using that No. 1 overall pick to select Markelle Fultz. But you can certainly blame the Sixers for entering the season without a legitimate Plan B in the event Fultz turned out to be the same exact player he was during his lost rookie campaign, rather than relying on Redick to average career highs and points and minutes while backing him up with a shrug. You can certainly blame them for arriving at the finish line of another regular season with T.J. McConnell as their only option at the point when Ben Simmons is off the court. If you did not see Fultz’s implosion and subsequent exit coming, you were not looking at an accurate picture of reality.
Granted, that’s easier said than done. Perhaps the Sixers could not find a free agent willing to sign up for the possibility of a back-of-the-rotation role with Fultz in front of him. In the NBA, benches often need to be built from within.