Here they come: Evaluating Brett Brown’s first season with a contending team

 How did Brett Brown’s first season with a team built to win go?

The job of a coach is to get the most out of the talent his players have. Prior to 2017-18, Brown had spent four seasons leading a team that had a severe lack of talent. This past campaign was Brown’s first season with true expectations. A healthy Joel Embiid coupled with Ben Simmons, along with the signing of JJ Redick meant it was time for Brown to prove his worth. Getting the most out of talent is to exceed expectations. Brown did that and then some.

The most simplistic way to judge a season is wins and losses. The Sixers wins over/under to start the season was 40.5. Many thought that number to be too high. Yet without any significant help from their first overall pick in Markelle Fultz, the Sixers managed to win 52 games in the regular season, including a 16-game win streak to end the season, shattering all expectations.

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There are plenty of reasons a team could surpass their hopes for a season, but good coaching is a big one. Obviously, Simmons exceeded his expectations in what was a historic rookie season, but to win 11 more games than projected shows just how much Brown was able to squeeze out of his players.

What did Brown do well tactically?

Throughout Brown’s first season in contention, the Sixers excelled at defense. They ranked fourth in the league in defensive rating (105). Defensive rating is a calculation of how many points a team allows per 100 possessions. Only the Jazz, Celtics, and Spurs finished with a better rating than Philadelphia. Two of the top coaches in the league are in charge of those teams. For the Sixers to be mentioned in the same breath as those teams speak to both their talent and coaching.

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The Sixers defense may have even performed better than that statistic suggests. Philly allowed the lowest field goal percentage against in the entire league (43.4%). One could say that this is more on account of what an elite rim protector Embiid is, but they also allowed the second lowest three-point percentage in the league with 34.2%. When your wing defenders apart from Robert Covington are Redick and Marco Belinelli, defending the three at an elite rate is wildly impressive. A lot of the credit has to be attributed to the defense that Brown and former assistant Lloyd Pierce designed.

Brown kept the locker room

One of the most impressive feats of Brown’s tenure with the Sixers is the job he did to maintain a positive and winning culture in the locker room. A common criticism of the process is that it would build a bad culture and players would not want to play in Philly. Despite a 75-253 record over four seasons, Brown kept the Sixers in a position to build what has become one of the league’s best cultures.

He accomplished this in many ways, whether it be through the powerpoint presentations he has players give every month, or the ceremonial post-win ringing of the bell, playing in Philly has become an appealing option to any player looking for a good culture. I think it would be an understatement to say that Brown and the situation he has created in Philadelphia played a role in Redick’s decision to return.

Playing for the coach

These players respect their head coach, and they want to play and win for him. Brown’s ability to create this reality is both incredible and invaluable to a team that has spent the four previous seasons losing .87 percent of its games. Now, in Brown’s first season where wins are the priority, he has already established a positive environment.

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In what was Brown’s first season with a talented roster, his guys returned the favor, seemingly playing every game like it was their last. The Sixers recovered 9.3 loose balls per game, second-most in the league. In a grueling game in which Embiid played despite a sprained left hand, the team was able to give the former Gregg Popovich assistant his first win over the legend.

 

The players love for their coach is displayed beautifully through this video. Before he can even finish asking Simmons to ring the bell, the entire team steps in to congratulate him and ask him to do it. A simple ringing of the bell or love for a coach does not translate to wins on the court. However, Brown’s connection to his team and the mutual respect he and his player share is a part of what has become one of the best cultures in the league. For him to be able to cultivate this environment through all the hardship the team has endured is beyond remarkable. This may be Brown’s first season coaching for crucial wins, but he’s spent the past four building an important trust.

What did Brown do poorly?

Turnovers were a major problem for the Sixers. They turned the ball over more than any other team in the league, averaging 16.5 per game. This is almost an entire turnover more than the Lakers, the team in second.

There are a few reasons for this problem. The first being that the Sixers’ star player who handles most of the offensive load is a turnover machine. Embiid gives the ball up 3.7 times per game, which is fourth most in the league and more than any other center by .9. A lot of the responsibility to maintain possession falls on the big man himself, but Brown needs to put his all-star in positions where the team does not waste opportunities.

In the past, it would make sense for a coach to try to let Embiid work out of this himself. However, in Brown’s first season where winning was a true priority, he needed to do a better job of putting his star in better positions to maintain possession easily. The ball is often handed to Embiid in the high-post when there is not enough movement. The hope is that he’ll be able to make something happen or even just draw a foul. Sometimes he succeeds, but too commonly the strategy leads to a strip or a bad pass.

The effect of relying on the pass

Another cause of the Sixers’ turnover epidemic is simply the construction of the roster. There is no one on the team that can consistently create their own shot, and therefore they are forced to pass their way into open looks. A staggering 95.4 percent of the Sixers made three-pointers came off of assists. This is the highest clip in the league by close to five percent. Opposing teams are bound to make their way into the passing lanes and come up with interceptions when you rely so heavily on passing the ball in order to create offense.

Whether it be elaborate screenplays or isolation on the wing, Brown needs to find a way to put players in position to shoot open threes off the dribble. If the Sixers continue to depend on the pass to create their shots, excessive turnovers will continue to cause problems.

This is not to say that spreading the ball around and creating open looks by passing is a bad thing. Golden State leads the league in percentage of made field goals off assists (Philly is second). Obviously, their offense, on the other hand, is borderline impossible to defend. The difference is that Golden State is a threat to shoot off the dribble, which forces defenders to lock on to the ball handler approaching the three-point line. This allows passing lanes to remain open, which creates open looks.

Blown leads

As the season came to its conclusion and the Sixers really found their stride, this problem seemed to dissipate slightly. However, several times throughout the season, Philly was on the wrong side of games they had no business losing.

Blown leads, particularly in the third quarter, became a staple of this team. 52 wins is an impressive number, but frankly, there are at least three games that featured inexcusable collapses. This would occur for many reasons, including the turnovers mentioned above. The biggest reason they often found themselves blowing leads is their lack of that true “bucket-getter”. This made it very hard to stop the bleeding when the opposition would go on a momentum-swinging run.

Brown needed to call timeout, rally the troops, and draw up a play to put points on the board. Basketball is a game of runs, and you’ll inevitably endure a few against you every game. The key is to minimize the damage. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself walking off the court with a loss that should have been a runaway victory.

How should we feel about Brown’s regular season performance?

In Brown’s first season coaching a talent-filled roster, he managed to win 11.5 more games than Vegas predicted. He led the team on a 16-game win streak to end the year, some of those games without his star. The schedule was favorable during that stretch, but winning 16 straight games in any league should not be overlooked.

Brown did a fantastic job leading this team through the ups and downs of the season. As fans, we should be ecstatic about what he can provide moving forward.

All stats courtesy of stats.nba.com and basketball-reference.com
Featured photo: mdude4 via Flickr

 

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