Extra Pass: How Brett Brown and his 76ers have embraced their youth

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BOSTON – “Do we have young-guy film today?” a player calls from the corner of the 76ers locker room.

Curious, I ask the 76ers’ media-relations official what that is.

“What do you think it is?” he replies.

“I’d guess its film young guys have to watch,” I say. “But, on this team, isn’t that everybody?”

“Pretty much,” Thaddeus Young chimes in.

The 76ers, carrying an average age of 23.4 (weighted for playing time and holding a player’s age constant as of Feb. 1 each season), are the NBA’s youngest team. Their youth permeates through their organizational culture, maybe even defining them more than losing has – though it’s not as if those traits are mutually exclusive.

They have the sixth-youngest team of all-time. By comparison they have the relatively non-descript 51st-worst win percentage of all-time, and even if they lose out, that would drop only to 33rd-worst.

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Philadelphia has only one player older than 26 – 33-year-old Jason Richardson, who has missed the entire season due to injury. Every other team has at least three players over 26.

So, when the 76ers hold young-guy film, it’s essentially team film. Only Young and James Anderson, a fourth-year pro, are exempt.

Rookie 76ers coach Brett Brown implemented the film sessions as a way to provide extra tutoring for young players during an NBA season that includes little practice time, and he personally decided who must participate. He likes the system and would have used it with any roster, though had he taken over certain other teams, maybe only a couple players would have been required to attend.

In Philadelphia, it’s become an essential tool.

Many coaches talk about loving the profession for the ability to teach above all else. But few competitors, which all NBA coaches are, would trade a good team (which requires fewer lessons) for a bad team (which requires more).

Brown doesn’t have that option, and if he did, there’s nothing to say he wouldn’t exercise it. However, he has remained enthusiastic through Philadelphia’s 17-60 season, demonstrating a real passion for serving the 76ers’ youth.

“I love coaching these guys,” Brown said. “They play hard. They play with their hearts on their sleeves.”

Philadelphia’s youngest player is 19-year-old Nerlens Noel, the No. 6 pick in last year’s draft who has yet to play this season due to injury. League-wide, only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Archie Goodwin are younger.

Of 76ers who’ve actually played this season, 20-year-old Tony Wroten is youngest.

“You would never realize that I’m the youngest guy playing right now,” Wroten said.

That’s because Wroten spent last season with the Memphis Grizzlies. The guard has played more NBA games than anyone in Philadelphia outside Young, Anderson and Byron Mullens. At times, Wroten feels he should help the 76ers’ six rookies, but it’s a tough balancing act.

“I’m still learning too every day,” Wroten said.

As are all the 76ers.

The players were recently discussing the oldest one on the team besides Richardson. Young thought it was himself. A lot of 76ers probably thought it was Young, too. Jarvis Varnado sure did.

But it’s actually 26-year-old Varnado, who beat 25-year-old Young into this world by a few months.

Varnado and Young actually graduated high school the same year, but Young left Georgia Tech after only one season, and Varnado played all four years at Mississippi State. Their professional careers have followed similar tracks. While Young is in the midst of a five-year, $43 million contract, Varnado is already with his fourth team in two seasons, trying to extend an NBA career that didn’t begin until two years after the Heat picked him in the second round of the 2010 draft. He signed with the 76ers on a 10-day contract before getting a rest-of-season-deal last month.

Never expecting to be the the oldest player on a team at this stage of his career, Varnado he likes the environment in Philadelphia nonetheless.

“We barely know the NBA,” Varnado said. “So, we’re just trying to go out there and trying to play hard. A lot of guys in here are trying to fight for jobs next year. So, we’re trying to impress everybody.”

And as far as his role as elder statesman?

“I haven’t really felt old,” Varnado said. “I’m around a lot of guys who are young guys, but I don’t feel old, though.”

Neither does Young, whom Brown calls the team’s grandfather.

“I’m still relatively young,” Young said. “It’s just I’ve seen a lot more than they have in this NBA structure.”

Including his veteran teammates traded.

The 76ers began the season with a few 25-year-olds – Evan Tuner, Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen – but they dealt all three at the trade deadline (Turner and Allen to the Pacers, Hawes to the Cavaliers). A separate deal with the Wizards netted Eric Maynor – who, at 26, is the oldest person to play for Philadelphia this season – but, per his request, Philadelphia waived him after just eight games.

That left Young as the only 76er with a history of quality NBA production, even generously counting a few small-sample seasons by his teammates.

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Philadelphia is not young by accident, and those trades and buyouts are part of a long-term rebuilding strategy. In place of veterans like Turner and Hawes, the 76ers have turned to younger, cheaper and less-productive alternatives.

“It definitely tested my patience a little bit,” Young said. “I was just dealing with so many young guys and them not knowing certain things.

“On any team, you want as many veterans as possible. It definitely helps out having a lot of veterans, because sometimes, younger players just don’t know certain things.”

But for all the downside, Young appreciates aspects of the 76ers’ youth movement. He enjoys going fast – Philadelphia plays at the highest pace the NBA has seen in four years – and he’s grown as a leader.

Though Varnado edges him by a few months in age, Young is the unquestioned face of the 76ers.

“He’s had to carry a young team that is in a total rebuild mode, and he’s endured that,” Brown said. “He’s found ways to compete and lead and not whine or cry about it. He’s dug in.”

Young has done so as the 76ers have gotten progressively younger, especially after the trade deadline. They were always headed toward one of the eight youngest seasons ever, but now they appear likely to close sixth.

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Perhaps, I’m overstating the 76ers’ youth. After all, I’m counting their age in human years. Like dog years, maybe another measure – Sixer years? – is more appropriate.

On Jan. 29, the 76ers won in Boston. Their next game began a 26-game losing streak. During it, they traded Turner and Allen, traded Hawes, traded for Mullens, traded for Maynor, waived Earl Clark, waived Danny Granger, signed Varnado, waived Lorenzo Brown, signed Darius Johnson-Odom, waived Maynor and signed James Nunnally.

Finally, they returned to Boston this weekend and won again. Brown recalled Philadelphia’s first victory over the Celtics, just 65 days prior.

“That,” Brown said, “seems like a thousand years ago.”

Short offseason, uncertain financial outlook may mean fewer coaches fired

76ers coach Brett Brown
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Already this season, Kenny Atkinson was out in Brooklyn, the New York Knicks fired coach David Fizdale, and John Beilein was shown the door in Cleveland (with J.B. Bickerstaff hired to replace him). That was just the tip of the iceberg in expected NBA coaching changes this offseason, the buzz around the league was between four and up to 10 more coaches would be fired.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Now those same teams are looking at a shortened offseason, while at the same time the owners have taken a financial hit and aren’t thrilled about paying two coaches at once, and suddenly it looks like a lot more coaches are safe. Brian Windhorst and Tim Bontemps touched on that in their story about next season at ESPN.

After much chatter before the stoppage of changes in the coaching ranks, several league executives told ESPN that teams might be more likely to hang on to coaching staffs longer than planned to avoid paying out millions to coaches fired in current market conditions.

A lot of people around the NBA are saying the same thing.

Expect a few changes. Mike D’Antoni’s contract is up in Houston and few around the league expect him to return next season. Jim Boylen is considered the walking dead in Chicago where there is a new front-office regime. New York and Brooklyn still have to hire their guys.

However, other guys considered almost certainly gone — Brett Brown in Philadelphia or Scott Brooks in Washington, for example — may keep their gig another year because of the uncertain waters of the NBA right now. Maybe not, there could be firings, but don’t expect the tidal wave of coaching changes to wash over the NBA that everyone expected back in February.

Teams forced into difficult choices to trim traveling parties for restart

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The 22 teams participating in the NBA restart were all at the Disney campus together for the first time Friday.

None of them, however, made it to the Orlando, Florida, area with their usual travel party.

Leaving families behind for several weeks — or maybe even three months, depending on how deep a team goes in the playoffs — during a pandemic isn’t the only hardship that teams are dealing with during this restart. Space limitations within the quasi-bubble at Disney also meant that teams had to cut their official traveling parties down to 37, including players, so many people who usually travel with a club aren’t on this trip.

“We’re not able to take everybody — and that stinks, because of the amount of work that they all put in every single day,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve tried to identify how to be the most efficient we can be with people that can be excellent remotely as well. I think that that’s one of the things that we’ve had to identify. In some cases, their excellence remotely probably hurt their chances of going initially.”

It’s expected that as the bubble population shrinks after six teams are eliminated from playoff contention and then eight more are ousted in the first postseason round, teams will be allowed to bring in more staff.

But until then, while teams are playing games on-site at Disney, there will be plenty of work done back in home markets and home arenas as well. Some teams left player development coaches behind, some even left assistant coaches, and all teams traveled with only one media relations staffer and one equipment manager. In normal circumstances, some teams travel with as many as three people to handle media requirements and two for equipment.

“You know, it’s tough,” Orlando President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. “We kind of shied away from some of the language that was being thrown around — the whole idea of essential (staff) and non-essential (staff). It’s not about that. This is a very narrowly defined circumstance, and it requires certain skill sets to address this circumstance.”

Players counted against the list of 37, and most teams brought the full complement of 17 players. That left 20 spots for coaches, assistant coaches, player development, video, security, strength and conditioning, athletic training, media relations and content creators.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said the process of figuring out who goes and who doesn’t was brutal.

“We already have had a model of everybody sharing responsibilities,” Spoelstra said. “We already had a meeting about this where there’s an absolute understanding that this is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation. And that means bags, laundry, cleanup, everything … that’s not just for equipment managers, that’s everybody — coaches, trainers, weight room staff, head coach, coaches, we’re all going to be involved in every aspect of it.”

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan also expressed disappointment that tough decisions had to be made on the staffing end.

He completely understands the NBA perspective. Keeping the number of people in the bubble manageable is a key part of the NBA’s plan for being able to finish the season; the more people in the bubble, the more risk there is of something going wrong.

“Everybody deserves the opportunity, but for the safety of the league and the players we can’t do that,” Donovan said. “So, what we’ve got to do is understand, whether it’s myself or assistant coaches, we may have to be setting up video equipment, we may have to have one of our coaches filming practice in Orlando. There’s things that we’re going to have to do that are going to be outside the box that will normally been taken care of.”

Chris Paul playing cornhole. Luka Doncic trick shots. Welcome to life in the NBA bubble.

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Teams have emerged from quarantine in the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando, getting some run in on the court, and are starting to explore life in the NBA bubble.

Then they are documenting it on social media.

For example, Chris Paul and Darius Bazley played some cornhole.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic was hitting trick shots on the court.

Then Doncic and Boban Marjanovic were doing Disney Channel ads.

Complaints about the food by players have died down, in part because they are out of quarantine and get a choice of restaurants, in part because they saw the backlash and realized the complaints looked elitist. Or maybe it’s just the Mickey pancakes.

Everyone is out and exploring the campus and having fun…

Well, except for Robin Lopez, who sees no reason to leave his room.

Zion Williamson “just went back to square one” with quarantine workouts

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Zion Williamson looks cut — like he spent the entire quarantine doing workouts — and ready to be a force at the NBA restart in Orlando.

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Built for this 💪

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What workouts did Zion Williamson do during the break to get that look? He took everything back down to step one and built it up again working out with his stepfather Lee Anderson, Williamson told reporters on Friday (hat tip Andrew Lopez of ESPN):

“It just felt like I was 5 years old again,” Williamson said Friday. “Just went back to square one, tried to get my body where it needs to be, get my fundamentals back to square one and start from there. So yeah, it was just like starting over at 5 again. It was a great process to learn it all over.”

Williamson did a little more than that. He also had approval from the league to go to the Pelicans practice facility throughout the quarantine and get treatment on his knee, the one that kept him out the first 45 games of the season. So he stayed healthy.

He also worked on other aspects of this game, such as his jump shot. Williamson took 76.7% of his shot attempts at the rim this season, and while getting to the rim is critical to his game, he’s going to have confidence in his shot and knock down jumpers to reach higher levels in the league.

The Pelicans enter the bubble 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed in the West, and with the softest schedule of any team in Orlando (matching their schedule before the interruption), they have a legitimate chance of forcing a two-game play-in series. It’s not easy, but there is a path to the playoffs for New Orleans (setting up a Zion vs. LeBron James first-round showdown that league broadcast partners are drooling over).

A stronger, improved Zion could help get the Pelicans there.