Call it “the process.” Call it traditional team building. Call it whatever you want.
Even with the changeover from Sam Hinkie to Bryan Colangelo as GM of thePhiladelphia 76ers, from where head coach Brett Brown sits the main goal has not changed — create a sustainable winning environment. That means both with talent on the court, and building a culture off it.
“I feel the partnership I have with our owners — with David Blitzer and Josh Harris — has been very transparent and clean from day one,” Brown told NBC as part of a recent PBT Podcast. “We’ve sat and talked a lot about the direction we want to grow our program… I think Bryan Colangelo has come in and has been tremendously helpful to me with many different things. We spitball ideas. We talk all the time about what’s the next step.
“But the basic core beliefs of what we’re trying to do with the growth of the program, how we want to get things done, and how we want to grow this at a very responsible rate, and what the end game needs to be, those core values have not changed.”
As part of building that culture, the Sixers spent Tuesday touring the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, team building exercised looking to expose players to new things and the broader outside world.
“I think when you go there, Arlington Cemetery is breathtaking,” Brown said. “I think just the scope of it, the width of it, the historical perspective of it, you can’t help but understand you are at some place quite significant.“
Brown hopes one of the side effects of that outing — including laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier — is that his best and central players learned a little something about leadership.
Before being chosen to coach the Sixers, Brown had spent a dozen years in the Mecca of NBA franchise culture – San Antonio. While Gregg Popovich certainly helped set the tone, the thrust of the culture came from the players themselves — David Robinson first, then Tim Duncan. Players like Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard fit in with that ethos.
Brown is trying to set a tone in Philly — and it works to a degree, they may not be the most talented group, but the players go all out for Brown — but he knows ultimately his key players have to lead. They have to set the tone.
“I think at the end of the day it most definitely does (have to come from players),” Brown said. “We talk to our team unapologetically that I don’t want this program always being run top-down. It’s their program, they play the game. At the end of the day I think that’s what culture really is — when the team establishes their own set of standards and their own sort of direction of behavior of what they want others to think about ‘this is what their program represents, this is what they stand for.’
“Growing leaders and understanding what responsibilities someone like Joel Embiid can inherit and grow toward, apart from just growing his NBA skill package, I think is key.”
The challenge is leadership is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. How Tim Duncan led the Spurs to five titles was very different from how Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to five titles. Players learn differently, and they lead differently. Some take to it naturally, with others it has to grow.
Brown has challenged his center Embiid — who spent his first two NBA seasons on the sidelines with foot injuries — to take on that role.
On the court, Brown likes what he sees from Embiid, even with the minutes restriction the big man is facing.
“I feel you can see how frustrated he gets when the minute restriction is employed, he doesn’t like to come out of games…” Brown said. “But to date, what I’ve seen competitively and what I’ve seen on the floor gives our city, gives me, gives our program great hope that we have something with tremendous potential in our program.”
Embiid is showing a nice shooting touch, he’s a very willing passer, but still has work to do on core things like balance, and Brown said reading the game “at warp speed in real time is a challenge.”
One of Brown’s goals for training camp and the coming season is to see how his glut of young bigs — Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric, and Ben Simmons — can fit together. What player combinations work, which ones don’t. And he’s gotten to do precious little of that through the preseason due to injuries that sidelined Saric, Okafor, Noel, and most notably Simmons.
“I think the challenge right now is that people just unhealthy and aren’t able to play,” Brown said. “So our preseason has been very challenging, where Jahlil has not really done too much with the group.”
Brown wants to see if Okafor and Embiid can play together, “you have to give that a chance to work.” He thinks the two of them together have enough shooting to space the floor a little and not allow the other team to clog the lane. On top of that Brown wants to see if Saric — “a natural four man” — can play some three in a big lineup.
Brown also needs to see if Saric and Simmons can grow and play together, “but now that’s on hold.”
It’s a lot of questions about fit up front, and some of that logjam likely gets cleared up by a trade down the line. GM Bryan Colangelo has said he’s not comfortable with all the young big men fighting for minutes, and it’s no secret around the league that they have entertained offers for both Okafor and Noel. Just not ones Colangelo likes.
Brown isn’t going to concern himself with that. Coaches rarely can. As frustrated as he admittedly gets with all the losing — 199 games in the three years since he took over as coach — Brown says he is trying to focus on the big picture. Build the foundation now that means a lot of wins down the line, and a culture that will sustain those wins.
Patience may be a virtue, but it is hard.