Feel for talent, not the process, has made Sixers better
The 76ers had won three of their last four, and in a couple of hours they would win again. And there was Brett Brown, downstairs at the Wells Fargo Center, trying to explain how it all happened.
For that moment, the talk was not about asset-collection or a process, not about the draft, not about the lottery, not about any back-door slide into basketball fulfillment. For that moment, he was discussing players, among them Gerald Henderson, Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell. And more. And he was talking about their character, and their guts.
“You have to have it,” Brown said, “in your DNA.”
If the Sixers are ever made to be great again, there will be
many reasons. Patience was one, yes. They had it when it was not popular to have it, and that began with Sam Hinkie. That allowed them to find Joel Embiid and to wait for him to work through two years of foot reconstruction before surfacing as a legitimate NBA All-Star candidate. When it happens, if it happens, that will be the featured angle.
But whenever basketball people would gather on the perimeter of the process, and often that literally included halftime of Wells Fargo Center games, in the press room, where scouts often mingle, there was this ever-present hum: You can’t cheat the game. The talk was that, eventually, the only way to build real success was through identifying talents, identifying winners, identifying that basketball DNA that Brown was discussing before McConnell scored at the horn to beat the Knicks, 98-97, Wednesday.
“Some of it is just gutfeel,” Brown was saying a day later, after practice. “When we draft people, we sit them in a room. You look across, they sit there, and you just talk to them. You have a gut feel about the person. And you understand the person, and you understand the pedigree. And you research coaches and teammates and really study the person.
“So that DNA, that toughness, the personality, the passion … do they really love basketball? Do they want to get better? I think that’s a truly revealing question: Do you want to get better? And what does that look like? What does that mean? How do you see that happening? You start listening
and learning, and you just form an opinion of the person.
“I think the people we are growing and have in the program – and we have a long ways to go to get it to where we want – but there is a DNA emerging that is very appealing and endearing to me from a toughness standpoint, from a defensive standpoint and from a competitive standpoint.”
The Sixers have won this season, 11 times already, more than they did in 2015-2016 when they were 10-72. And there are doing so precisely because they are not cheating the sport at all. Rather, behind Brown, they are finally approaching game nights the proper way.
Maybe it’s because Brown is into his fourth season as a head coach and is tired of only fronting for a cockeyed process, but suddenly he has begun to swing his professional elbows. Yes, the Sixers tanked an entire season to acquire Jahlil Okafor. But Okafor doesn’t adequately defend, and so, a reigning NBA All-Rookie player no longer starts. And, yes, the Sixers spent more than $6 million for veteran pro Sergio Rodriguez to help run the point until Ben Simmons was ripe. But in Brown’s view, McConnell, the former walk-on, provides more value, early in games and late.
Nerlens Noel? A good player, also sold as a centerpiece for the future. But he is not as complete a center as Embiid and not as reliable a forward as Ersan Ilyasova, and so, he is a backup big man.
Brown sees something in Dario Saric, and is bringing him along at a steady pace. He sees even more in Henderson, the 29-year-old veteran. That’s why he plays him late in games, like the one Wednesday, when he made
a difference at both ends as the Sixers rallied from 10 points back in the final 2:29.
“He accepts whatever role I want to give him,” Brown said. “And I just have a lot of respect for Gerald Henderson.”
The Sixers needed players like Gerald Henderson, and McConnell, and Embiid, Ilyasova, Saric and even Nik Stauskas, who has surfaced as a valuable guard. And they needed Brown to figure out when to play them in order to win basketball games, not ping-pong balls in that goofy lottery.
The Sixers remain a developing team. The season is nearly half over and they are squatting at 14 games under .500. So that confetti is a long way from fluttering, no matter how many times Embiid chirps about making the playoffs. Their schedule is about to take a tough turn. Embiid still doesn’t play in backto-back games. The overall shooting is questionable.
And yet … the Sixers have a fresh bounce, one that comes from winning.
“It feels good,” Embiid said. “It shows that you have to give a lot of credit to the coaching staff. They have done a great job of getting us ready, and the players are playing very hard. That’s how we are able to come back and win games.”
They are winning with players. They are winning with coaching. They are winning with proper rotations. They are winning with defense.
They are winning because they have players with the basketball DNA that demands nothing else.