The Payoff of the Player - Coach Partnership
In the heat of postseason battle, there are high-level, on-court conversations taking place.
Down their superstar big man, the 76ers are trying to figure out how to pull away from the pesky Brooklyn Nets, and swing a deadlocked best-of-seven game series in their favor.
During a timeout, Brett Brown gathers first with his assistant coaches, then returns to the bench to share some thoughts. Turns out his players - led by Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and JJ Redick - were talking amongst themselves too.
Brown outlines his plan.
The players say, ‘Fine, but here’s what we think.’
Minds meet, strategies are aligned, the group breaks from the huddle, and moments later, the Sixers have nailed back-to-back 3-pointers - first from Redick, then another from Harris - to push the lead to 15 points. Butler assisted on both baskets, and suddenly the Sixers, in hostile territory, had quieted the Barclays Center crowd, while seizing control of the game.
There are a lot of things that make a difference this time of year, when the stakes are at their highest, and the pressure of the playoffs increases round by round, game by game.
As the Sixers are proving, relationships are as important as anything in the fight to advance.
When you think about the strongest relationships in your life, what are some of the common threads?
Communication, respect, and trust are musts, right?
The first two factors - communication and respect - can be established rather quickly - often a matter of open mindedness.
The third element - trust - usually takes a little bit more time to foster, nurture, and fortify.
Cultivating relationships rests at the heart of Brett Brown’s duties as a head coach, which is a good thing, because he is both a). exceptional at it and b). considers it to be one of his greatest professional joys.
The weight Brown places on relationship building has been consistent throughout his six seasons with the 76ers - the great years, and also those that didn’t fit that description.
These days, with the playoffs in full swing, Brown’s knack for managing and maximizing relationships is taking on even greater significance given the circumstances surrounding the Sixers.
Let’s use Thursday’s Game 3 of the Sixers’ opening-round series against Brooklyn as an example.
With Joel Embiid sidelined (left knee), Brown rolled out a first-string unit that not only had never started together, but never played a single minute together, at any point in any game.
In fact, before the Sixers’ 131-115 triumph, Greg Monroe, who was signed two weeks ago and tapped to start Thursday’s contest at the five spot, had no previous game experience alongside regular starters Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, and Tobias Harris.
It’s a footnote that underscores just how much Brown has had to go with the flow in recent weeks. Nevertheless, the Sixers got by.
Brown’s preference is almost entirely to live on a two-way street. He encourages and seeks out dialogue with his players - a quality that can’t be overstated, especially in the specific case of the Sixers, which added two All-League caliber talents to the fold during the regular season.
“It’s been really good from Day 1,” Harris said of his rapport with Brown.
Harris was acquired by the Sixers hours before the February trade deadline. His game has blended well since joining the fray.
“The coaching staff has been able to really implement me in the right way, and just allowed me to go out and be myself on and off the floor,” he said prior to shootaround for Game 3.
He then proceeded to go out and become the first player in postseason history to finish with splits of 29 points, 16 rebounds, and six 3-pointers (on six attempts, no less!).
“Having that player-coach type relationship is always big for the success of a team, and for me, I try to always embrace that.”
Same goes for Brown. He might not always agree, but he will listen, closely.
While it feels like Redick has been a staple member of the Sixers’ core forever, his tenure with the club has been a modest two seasons. From the get go of his signing, there has been an openness to his relationship with Brown.
Brown seeks to replicate this type of dynamic with all of his players.
“It’s one of my great joys of coaching, when you can sit down and just talk to your players like you’d talk to your family,” Brown said before Thursday’s game. “That’s really - and I mean this with all my heart - that’s one of my great joys of coaching, when the conversation is that real and that informative, I think we all get better for it.”
That Redick has produced the best two seasons of his 13-year career in a Sixers uniform probably isn’t a coincidence. Yes, his skill set is a perfect match. But he’s also been utilized correctly.
“I think the coach-player relationship is a two-way thing,” said Redick following Thursday’s win, in which he scored 26 points on 5 for 9 shooting from three. “You have to be willing to take suggestions as a player and vice versa.
“During the course of the game, a player might see something differently than [how] a coach sees it, and a coach might see something differently than a player might see it. You just have to be able to communicate that.”
With eight minutes to go in Thursday’s third quarter, that’s precisely what happened. Brown, Redick, Harris, and Butler collaborated together. The result was two quick 3-pointers from Redick and Harris on relatively similar plays, just run with a couple different wrinkles on opposite sides of the floor.
“The players talked about this on the bench in one of our timeouts, where I came back with a notion and they said that’s fine, but we think this, let’s do both back to back,” Brown said. “To listen to JJ, Tobias, and Jimmy carry on conversation on the bench, it was high level - pros talking to pros.”
With a coach empowering the conversation.
Sometimes Jimmy Butler, coffee cup in hand, will pop into coaches meetings at the 76ers Training Complex in Camden and spitball for a bit.
Other times, as we’ve seen in each of the last two games in the Sixers’ Eastern Conference Quarterfinals clash with the Brooklyn Nets, he might make a cameo appearance in a coaches huddle.
“I always got two cents to throw in,” Butler said the other day.
Brett Brown clearly values the four-time All-Star’s input more than that.
The extent to which Butler has made a concerted effort to fit in with the Sixers - while also preserving the signature elements of his game - has been well documented.
As the regular season receded, however, Butler’s role began to evolve. In late January, during a Sixers’ west coast road trip, we started to see Butler getting more and more opportunities to initiate offense - an assignment he’s now being tasked with sporadically in the postseason when Ben Simmons is both in and out of the lineup.
Another noteworthy plot twist involving Butler is that since the start of the playoffs, Brown has deployed the November trade acquisition in pick-and-roll offense far more frequently. Here are the numbers, according to stats.nba.com.
In the regular season, Butler was used as a pick-and-roll ball handler 25% of his possessions, and in these situations, generated 0.84 points per possession and 3.7 points per game.
Through three postseason games, Butler has been featured as a pick-and-roll ball handler nearly 44% of his total possessions, a massive jump. He’s manufacturing 1.00 points per pick-and-roll possession, and 8.0 (!) pick-and-roll points per game.
The guiding philosophy behind how Brown deals with players revolves around a simple yet vital question - how can he help them?
In the case of Butler, Brown says he respects the wing man’s history, and his opinions.
“The partnership is driven in a very enjoyable way, a progressive way over the past month plus, as the season has gotten more serious. It’s a partnership, it really is. It’s a respected partnership, and I think especially lately it’s really been effective for me having another voice sharing ideas. It’s been enjoyable.”
And it all points back to the idea of valuing relationships. Brown and the Sixers are hoping the ingredient continues to pay dividends.
“He always is [receptive],” Tobias Harris said of Brown. “Coach just wants to win, and as a player, you can’t ask for any better.”