The NBA playoffs have a tendency to amplify every little detail, to the point that there have been real arguments about Joel Embiid not caring enough about winning because he eats cheeseburgers or attends comedy shows ending at 9:30 p.m. on a Saturday night. There are more serious repercussions too — Philadelphia’s entire 2018 summer was driven by the memory of their defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics, their switch-heavy scheme inspired by what was to come.
The Sixers should certainly look at what has happened in the postseason to date as they prepare for the offseason. What they cannot do is allow the result of Game 6, good or bad, to be the only factor in their preparations for the years ahead.
We have learned a lot about Brett Brown
In the months since Sixers owner Joshua Harris declared that another second-round loss would be problematic, the questions have never stopped coming about what it would take for Brett Brown to lose his job. His long tenure in Philadelphia has given plenty of ammunition to people on both sides of the aisle.
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Harris did not offer the strongest vote of confidence in Brown during a press availability before Game 1.
“Brett, Elton [Brand], me, a lot of us, the players on the team, we have high expectations,” Harris said when asked if Brown would be the coach next year no matter what. “Look, we have a lot of confidence in Brett and are glad that he is leading us in the playoffs and we are focused on that.”
For better or for worse, the Sixers should know by now whether or not they believe Brown is the guy for the job. And if his job security truly rests on whether or not the Sixers are able to get past Toronto in this series, it strikes one as a search for someone to blame, rather than an earnest assessment of where the team is at currently.
During the last playoff run, there were numerous, legitimate complaints to be made about Brown’s approach to the postseason. He was slow to adjust, their offensive repertoire was predictable, and his team was susceptible to one weak link being exploited over and over again on the defensive end of the floor. Had the playoffs unfolded in the same way this year, a strong case could have been made to move on this summer.
But in these playoffs, we have seen Brown react quicker and more proactively than he has at any point in his tenure. He has benched players (T.J. McConnell, Boban Marjanovic) swiftly that were hurting the team, rearranged defensive matchups to slow down the best opposing players, and their upgraded personnel have been given the chance to run more diverse sets. We have never seen the Sixers run as much pick-and-roll as they have in the playoffs, nor have they ever done a better job avoiding bad defensive matchups for JJ Redick.
In other words, he has done the exact things many of his critics have claimed he was not capable of doing.
Take a look around the league, and some of the criticism directed at him during the regular season also looks even dumber in hindsight. Philadelphia’s switch-heavy scheme was panned by some fans who saw what the Milwaukee Bucks accomplished on defense with more “old school” principles in the regular season. But after Boston came into their building and beat them down in Game 1 of their playoff series, the Bucks’ players advocated for more switching, and it was one of the major keys to their beatdown of the Celtics in five games. Sometimes the vision line has to be higher than a regular season game against the Atlanta Hawks.
Brown is not wholly responsible for the Sixers’ successes in these playoffs, just as he is not blameless for Philadelphia’s defeats. A billion-dollar organization should always be searching for upgrades at every level, head coach included.
But if they are making that decision because of an arbitrary line in the sand drawn by the owners or management, the likelihood is they will live to regret it.
The futures of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris
The other major subplot of the summer is straightforward — which players will the Sixers bring back next season, and how much will the Sixers be comfortable paying them?
Based strictly on the marketplace, it seems unlikely Butler or Harris will get less than a max deal. Someone is going to pony up the cash after they miss out on bigger targets in free agency this summer, and few have as much to lose as the Sixers do if they come up empty in the summer of 2019.
So the Sixers must know by now whether they want to keep them or not. And while the results have been pretty far apart for these two in the postseason, they shouldn’t let Game 6 cloud the bigger picture.
This playoff season has been about dispelling myths for the players as much as it has for Brown. It was Butler who came to Philadelphia with a reputation as a locker-room killer and a general pain in the ass to be around. But he has been a leader by example during these playoffs. After Philadelphia’s Game 5 defeat in Toronto, Butler sat in the corner of the locker room listening to country music and trying to rally the guys around him.
“It’s going to be alright. We live to fight another day,” Butler could be heard saying to veteran center Greg Monroe by their lockers.
All the samephysicalconcerns exist when discussing Butler’s future. He has a lot of wear-and-tear on his body, he’s not getting any younger, and yes, he is still a dominant personality who may not be great to be around all the time. Butler may have mailed in a few regular season games this year, but there is rarely an off switch for his voice, and tolerance for that fact will vary from person to person.
Still, there are a few essential facts to consider. Joel Embiid is the team’s best player by some margin, and there is no telling how long his body is going to hold up. Ben Simmons is the second-most important player to their future, and on a team built around a post-up center, he presents a litany of fit concerns.
Unless the Sixers somehow shoot the moon and steal Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant in free agency, it is going to be insanely difficult to reach a title-winning future if they let their big free agents walk. Some of that can be blamed on the mistakes made by Bryan Colangelo during his tenure, but the Sixers need productive, versatile players around their two core pieces, and Butler and Harris fit the bill.
Butler is able to take the responsibility of handling the ball away from Simmons as the moment warrants, serve as a good second option defending the perimeter behind Simmons, and has the inner confidence to shake off playoff pressure, which Philly desperately needs as their young guys figure it out. Harris has had a much worse postseason and overall time than Butler since coming to Philadelphia, but he is a Swiss army knife on offense who can dominate for stretches without needing to be force fed touches. Some of his plus/minus numbers have been ugly, but they have been a product of lineups, and Harris has been better on the defensive end than he looked at times in the regular season.
The season is on the line in South Philly on Thursday night. By now, the Sixers should know if they truly believe this group can contend over the long-term.
Winning or losing a series against a 58-win team featuring a top-three player in the league should not change much about Philly’s future. But it very well could.
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