More to Do | To Accomplish Goals, Young Stars Know They Need Each Other
On the heels of the 76ers’ breakout season coming to an end in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, we’ll be spending a few days publishing short stories as part of our “Looking Ahead” content series, which will focus on how the team, and its players, can build off the eye-opening success they enjoyed in 2017-2018.
Part I: Embiid, MVP?
Part II: A Destination With Increasing Appeal
Part V: Fultz Eager to Take Next Steps
Part VI: Overseas, Prospects Make Progress
Part VIII: To Accomplish Goals, Young Stars Know They Need Each Other
It was as an important a conversation as it was necessary, Brett Brown judged, and he made sure it happened quick.
Quick, as in just about as soon as the 76ers began making their way back to campus in September for pre-training camp workouts.
The item that Brown wanted to strike swiftly from his to-do list was having a sitdown with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, not because of anything the two young, transformative talents did or didn’t do in advance of the 2017-2018 campaign, but because of what the head coach envisioned them being able to accomplish, together.
The message, Brown felt, was straightforward.
“It was the first thing out of my mouth as the season began, way before the season began - bringing Jo and Ben in a room, and telling them clearly they need each other,” Brown said during the final week of the playoffs. “Let’s just admit that: you need each other.”
Before the chat even happened, though, Brown had a hunch about how it would go.
Uncanny individual gifts and immense star potential aside, Embiid and Simmons, by all accounts, seem driven by a singular, prevailing factor. They have a mutual, deep desire to win, and win at the highest level.
This, more than personal gain or self-interest, appears to represent the primary source of motivation for Embiid and Simmons alike.
By huddling up with the pair of coachable prospects, Brown hoped his words would resonate.
“Those two players coexisting, and letting me coach them and allowing me to create a table and a template and a culture that they would expect a coach to do, they want that, you need that,” said Brown. “You need each other. I explained that to them, easily, and with examples and situations I’ve been in previously.”
While Brown didn’t expound on any specific “examples and situations” during his year-end press conference, it would probably be a pretty safe bet that he was referring to experiences from his 12-season stint in San Antonio. As an assistant there, Brown assumed a key role in creating an environment that allowed the All-Star trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker thrive, and turn the Spurs into a four-title dynasty.
Similar to Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker, Brown initially sensed that Embiid and Simmons were high-impact performers cut from the same team-first cloth.
And although Embiid and Simmons are each compelling in their own right, as rare physical specimens with ridiculous skill sets, they are, at the end of the day, different players, making it easier for Brown to drive home his points.
“The growth of [Embiid and Simmons] over the season [happened} organically,” Brown said. “It was not anything that people shied away from. They’re good people. It’s not like where you’re trying to force feed positionally similar players. They’re dissimilar. They can complement each other.”
Which they certainly did.
In 1,305 minutes logged together over 62 regular season games, the big man - point man tandem combined to produce a net rating of 16.1, the best mark among the 10 two-man line-ups that shared the floor for at least 1,000 minutes for the Sixers.
Even at the earliest stages of the year, despite never having played together in an NBA game of consequence prior to the 2017 pre-season, Embiid and Simmons displayed encouraging signs of what they could do.
From game no. 4 of the regular season, a 10/23/2017 97-86 win at Detroit. Joel Embiid dropped 30 points, while Ben Simmons finished with his first triple-double (21 pts-12 reb-10 ast).
But owners of trained eyes knew there was still plenty of work to be done.
“There would be times in the season early where Ben would come down the floor, and Joel wasn’t sure do I stay and post up, or do I come and run a step-up pick-and-roll,” Brown said. “They’re not too sure which one does what. I think that, over time, became clearer.”
“At the beginning of the year it was complicated,” said Embiid, reflecting on how his chemistry with Simmons developed. “Just the way he plays, and the way I play, I need a lot of spacing. He wants to score inside, so we had to figure it out, and we did. We made it work, and we definitely got closer.”
From game no. 67 on the year, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons rely on a two-man game to produce a basket.
That the schematic waters smoothed over time was a testament to multiple parties.
There were the efforts of Brown and his coaching staff, which found ways to put Embiid and Simmons in situations where they could consistently do damage together, and also flourish on their own.
A tremendous amount of credit is also due to Embiid and Simmons, for buying in, and understanding that the stage would look best with a spotlight for two, rather than one.
Embiid thought he and Simmons “definitely” became closer as the season went on.
“Looking at ourselves,“ said the All-Star, “we feel like we’re the leaders of this team. Looking at what we did this year - 52 wins, get to the semifinals in our first year together - we could have done better, but I thought it was good. And next year, we definitely going to have much bigger goals than that.”
Ambitions that strike at the very heart of Brown’s reasoning for bringing in Embiid and Simmons for their September talk in the first place.
“The pressures of who’s team is it, and social media, it’s quite hilarious, really, to me,” Brown said. “I’m getting old, I guess. We go there. I use those examples. You can’t get tricked. Do not get tricked. It’s noise, and in fact, you’re going to need two others, so you’re certainly going to need each other, if you want to win a championship."
Precisely the target that Brown and the Sixers are shooting for.
“I think on the court, off the court, those two young guys were fantastic growing together.”