By David F. Cohen
Brett Brown is nothing if not an optimist.
And, as he is about to take the Sixers into Year Two Of The Great Experiment in tanking to accumulate great players that will lead to the promised land, he sees glimmers of hope.
The Sixers are expected to once again be among the league’s worst teams with another first-round draft pick (Joel Embiid) on the shelf for the season. The second first-rounder this year — Dario Saric — will remain in Turkey for at least another two years. So the dividends from general manager Sam Hinkie’s quest to build through the draft and eventually free agency are years away.
But there are reasons to be optimistic.
Michael Carter-Williams surprisingly emerged in his first season and captured the Rookie of the Year Award.
Potential cornerstone Nerlens Noel, acquired on draft night in 2013, is fully healthy after spending all of last season recovering from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament.
While the organization acknowledged it held Noel back though he was healthy the final month of the season, there are no limitations this season. But Noel won’t have a veteran group of teammates to help in his transition.
The Sixers are painfully young. Hinkie has pieced together a lineup of young journeymen, NBA hopefuls, and a couple of retreads for Brown, who enjoyed great success as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs for 12 years.
“It is frustrating at times,” he said. “We won 50 games every single one of my years in San Antonio. All 12 of them. The motivation I have is I see a big, bright light at the end of all of this. I see daylight. I see Embiid getting healthy. I see some more draft picks coming. I see Nerlens getting older. I see an abundance of money, flexibility to look at free agents. I see daylight.
“For me, it’s about putting the building blocks culturally in place. We have to get our culture right so that when we get these pieces, the foundation is strong enough to grow them.”
The Sixers have one player over 30 years old — past-his-prime shooting guard Jason Richardson — and the rest of the roster is made up of players just trying to make an NBA roster.
Carter-Williams is the lone draft pick before 2014 who remains with the team. Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, Lavoy Allen, Jrue Holiday, and Marreese Speights have all been traded.
The Sixers are trying to build an identity but are dealing with perceptions that by the time they become competitive, Philly will be a low-priority destination for free agents.
“Who’s playing hard? Apples and apples, which apple is playing hard?” Brown said of the culture. “It’s really sort of that juvenile in regards to how you say it. There’s a certain type of species that we’re trying to grow and find in a really difficult sporting city like Philadelphia. We’ve got to find people who can live in a city and gain respect in a city by competing.”
Building primarily through the draft without major free agent acquisitions has had mixed success over the years.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are constructed of mostly homegrown players but they have yet to win a championship.
The Sacramento Kings tried adding lottery picks to more lottery picks but that has failed miserably.
Eventually, the 76ers will need to add through free agency. They are banking that Noel, Embiid, and Carter-Williams turn into All-Star-caliber players, but the 76ers are becoming increasingly insignificant in a market that demands winners.
“I feel that trying to coach myself with a very, very long lens is important,” Brown said. “I see daylight in this program. Michael’s 3-point shot, Nerlens’s progression at the foul line, Tony Wroten’s assist-to-turnover ratio, all those types of things are development things that are our measurements this year. That’s our report card and it’s done with a very long lens.”
Brown has had to turn himself into a cheerleader, life coach, mentor, and guide for his young players and he remains brimming with optimism.
“I get excited to think that Dario Saric and Joel Embiid aren’t that far away,” he said. “We have flexibility with cap space. Michael was the Rookie of the Year. Nerlens is coming around. I see daylight. We just have to navigate through this period where the culture, the behavior, the defensive rules are in place. That’s all I do every day to remind myself of that, and try to coach that and fight for the things we need to have when those guys start to become better players and are available.”
Persevering and turning losing expectations into a winning culture is an arduous job. The 76ers lost 26 straight games last season, and there’s an increasing number of detractors calling Hinkie delusional because of his unorthodox tactics.
“It is a tremendous challenge but that’s what I signed up for,” Brown said. “Trying to keep a locker room together. Trying to be candid with a city and the media and trying to do a good job and fight for the things I know you have to do to build a program. That’s coaching the Philadelphia 76ers.
“I understand how some people may question it. We’ve gone about trying to assess how do we have our best chance to be annually competitive and annually special — where you can at some point be among the elite. And we’ve chosen a path. It doesn’t ensure that we’re right. But I think it does ensure in our eyes that it does give us the best chance. How others view it, that’s fair enough.
“But we’re quite comfortable from ownership to general manager to coach to people that are involved in those decisions that there is a very singular focus that we are on the same page and have a pretty clear, transparent path.”