PHILADELPHIA - Brett Brown claims that he is constantly challenging Ben Simmons.
Yes, that is customarily the role of any head coach in the NBA, but the Simmons-Brown dynamic isn’t your standard NBA relationship. Similarly, expectations being placed upon the reigning Rookie of the Year have been seldom seen in NBA history.
Simmons is a 208cm athletic freak of nature, who's learning to play point guard. Even within a league loaded with athletic abnormalities, this is an outlier of the highest order. Brown recognises the situation, and talks freely on how Simmons’ development will impact everyone involved with the Sixers franchise. Most importantly, Brown is cognisant of the educational process facing his Australian point guard.
“Point guard, in my opinion, is the most difficult position to play in the NBA,” Brown said, ahead of Philadelphia’s lacklustre defeat to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night.
“It’s a mentality,” Brown added. “It’s a gut feel. It’s an intellect. It’s as much a psychological position as it is a skill.”
When it comes to understanding the intricacies of leading a basketball side, on both sides of the ball, Brown knows better than most. He played point guard during his own career, most notably as Rick Pitino’s starting point guard for three years in college. He cites this as a formative experience in development of his own basketball mind.
“You have to own the gym,” Brown said of playing the point. “You have to feel the gym. You have to feel the clock and feel your teammates."
Brown’s overarching message to Simmons is that being a point guard isn’t simply dribbling the ball up the floor. It’s a science, and an inexact one at that, and the Sixers head coach just wants Simmons to lead his basketball team the best way he can. He trusts the improvement will follow.
“I think he is fantastic and I think he is going to be a killer,” Brown explained of Simmons.
“I think he really can connect the dots to all of this without sacrificing the things that he can bring to the table.”
There will be growing pains, with tonight’s unacceptable defeat to the lowly Cavaliers further evidence that Simmons still has a ways to go before he joins the elite floor generals. But in a holistic sense, Brown is impressed with Simmons’ performance as a floor general.
“I want [Simmons] to run this thing,” Brown said. I think he has been great. I think he has been great, because there are examples of his improvement and growth.”
As for those tangible examples of growth, Brown talked ad nauseam pre-game about the countless illustrations that come to his mind. Want some examples?
Running the team’s offence in the half court.
Pushing the ball in transition.
Sensing the time and score of the game.
Attacking the paint and looking for contact when the Sixers are in the bonus.
Finding Joel Embiid, when, as Brown puts it, the All-Star “needs the basketball.”
Simmons has advanced across each discipline, according to Brown. Although his biggest growth has come in ways that aren’t tangibly evident to those watching the Sixers this season.
Trading for Jimmy Butler has accelerated the Sixers timetable. It makes them a more talented team in the immediate, but also forces two budding superstars, in Embiid and Simmons, to grow up quickly as the franchise chases a championship.
Simmons’ ability to sacrifice for the betterment of his team is, in the eyes of Brown, his greatest gift and his greatest responsibility.
“When we drafted him, I thought he could be a point guard. I did then and I still so. It doesn’t mean he can’t play a mobile four. I like him at the five sometimes. This is where I see it and this is where I am trying to grow it.
“He has unique skills. I really think he can be a unicorn that the league hasn’t seen for a long time, with his height and skill package.
“Most coaches would say point guards are born and there is a little bit of truth to that. But I think his gifts and his willingness and his ability to share and care are all there. Somewhere out there, that is my wish and my job. It is what I see.”
On the court tonight in Philadelphia
Talk of improvement dominated pre-game chatter, but a sense of dread characterised the post-game mood at the Wells Fargo Center.
Philadelphia’s defence cratered against a Cavaliers outfit that was yet to taste victory away from home this season. The drought is now over. The Sixers’ 20-game home winning streak in the regular season also ended in a thoroughly disappointing defeat.
"We had no spirit,” Brown said of his team's performance. “We didn't play any defence in front of our home crowd."
Simmons finished with 22 points and 10 assists, while Embiid recorded 24 points and 12 rebounds. On paper, both had impressive outings, but the reality was something different. Simmons drifted in the second half and padded his numbers with a series of meaningless baskets in the dying moments, while Embiid was guilty of lapses that haven’t been seen throughout his MVP calibre start to the season.
"I don’t think we played well defensively," Simmons explained. "On top of that, I don’t think we had that kick to us that we usually have."
Tristan Thompson was a beast on the inside, recording 18 points and 13 rebounds, eight of which came on the offensive glass. Thompson was instrumental in Cleveland attempting 18 more field goals on the night.
"We struggled guarding them," Brown said. "I thought all their guards made tough shots and they could beat us off a live dribble.
"There wasn’t as much resistance on the ball as we need. They just did not feel us sometimes, other times they felt us, and [Rodney] Hood made some tough shots. There’s no denying that this is a disappointing loss, and we’ll talk more with the team tomorrow about it."
In many ways, this was the Cavaliers side many dreamed would accompany LeBron James in the NBA Finals last season. Rodney Hood finished with 25 points and punctuated the game with a series of step-back jumpers in the final quarter.
The Sixers will look to rebound when they head to Brooklyn on Sunday with for a match-up against the Nets.