Brett Brown doesn’t like calling plays.
We’ve known this for some time now, as the 76ers head coach prefers organic and free-flowing basketball to rigid half court sets.
I’ve always found that somewhat quirky, since Brown is typically good with the whiteboard, especially when it comes to dialing up stuff coming out of timeouts and working from the baseline and sideline. Earlier this year, the Sixers won a handful of games with the late looks he was able to draw up, such as the Furkan Korkmaz Portland three-pointer and high-low entries that resulted in Joel Embiid looks in the post.
Does that extend to non-ATO plays? Why aren’t we seeing as much of the typical horns and ’12’ action we saw in 2017 and 2018? What about, for example, the dual-action elbow set that Brown called three times in a row during game four of the Brooklyn playoff series?
It’s just part of his space and pace philosophy, the idea of being hands off and letting his team run the offense on their own. That was fine when you had JJ Redick and stretch-fours like Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova who would hunt corners and shoot the three-pointer, but with the oddly-constructed lineup he was given by Elton Brand this year, the Sixers typically go heavy post-up when left to their own devices. They’re gotten away significantly from the A to B base motion offense of years past.
As such, the offense looks really rough at times, and now Brown is calling more plays, citing analytics as a reason why.
“I like a free-flowing offense,” Brown said before Monday night’s win over Oklahoma City. “I’ve coached kind of my whole life. It was San Antonio, I did it my, first six years here I did it and it’s clear statistics say this that this team is better when I get to stamp my foot and call (a play). I don’t like doing that.”
Today, he gave a much more detailed answer that spanned multiple questions over the course of five or six minutes following the team’s practice in Camden. Here’s a truncated transcription:
Crossing Broad: You’ve mentioned that you don’t like calling plays, but you’re calling more because the analytics tell you there’s been success with that. What can you tell us in that regard?
Brett Brown: Just that it’s overwhelming. I have come from a philosophical belief and style and family and experiences, that the sport is free-flowing. Obviously you have to stop and control it when you think you have to, but by and large, there’s a pace and flow to how we want to play. You all experienced it with me during some of our earlier days. There’s Marco (Belinelli), and Dario (Saric), and JJ (Redick), and the (ball) moved. It moved through multiple sets of hands. At times it was painful and there were turnovers, but it was fun to play, fun to watch, and fun to coach, and that’s just how I’ve played. I’ve seen many championships doing the same thing in my old life in San Antonio, and that’s it. That’ just how I think it should work as it relates to offense. And then you come in with this year’s team, and it was a little bit awkward, but I’m thinking let’s persevere, let’s plow through with this, and I think by Christmas we can get some vibe and feel and flow to this.
It just wasn’t happening. It wasn’t happening. We were sort of clunky and turnover prone and everybody is trying to grab the post when space still rules my world. It was just not a great fit. So part of any coaching job is to take your team and now coach that. Help that team. You’re not going to change a decade’s worth of habits. It screamed as this thing played out, of, ‘I gotta help them, I gotta put them in spots,’ to create not organic space, but floor space. And then you hope to grow it from that base. Your question is massive. It’s so much on my mind that I can talk a lot about this.
Crossing Broad: How much time do you have?
Brown: I’ll give you as much time as you need. It’s a good question and I hope I can give you an intelligent and accurate answer.
Crossing Broad: Let me ask this then; is the goal of calling more plays now to get back to, eventually, free flowing and organic basketball? Or is this slower half court game going to have be sustained throughout the regular season and into the playoffs?
Brown: I see it like this; I think there is a delineation between ‘miss offense’ (offense that happens after a missed shot), with Ben Simmons, fastest guard in the NBA, 1v1 he can shoot it a thousand times in a row. If you see a crowd, hunt corners with Tobias Harris and Al Horford, all of these guys hunt corners and find space. You’ve got an all-star coming down the floor who gets 10 rebounds per game. That space is Joel’s. Everybody else move. That’s a free-flowing type of thing. Maybe Tobias has the ball and Ben has to space. That’s a miss offense thing that happens in about one-third of the sport. That’s free flowing, downhill, proactive, not a coach stamping his foot and calling a play.
Then you get into ‘make offense’ (offense after a made shot). Sometimes there’s a bit of pace to those makes, where Ben has a high outlet and he’s moving down the floor and there’s something in there. But when it’s slow, I’m calling a play. I know where I want to place them.
It’s not what I have been historically used to. This year’s team, it teaches you things and you adapt to your players. You adapt to your players.
Brown went on to note that turnovers are down significantly since he started calling more plays. They had 10 last night in a 120-113 win. He mentioned that he’s calling 50 to 75% more plays now than he was at the beginning of the year.
I asked a handful of Sixers players about this and one of the themes that popped up was the idea of ‘organization,’ the idea that adding some structure can help push things in the right direction offensively.
“It’s just kind of made it more organized,” said Josh Richardson, who wasn’t here during the Redick and Belinelli days. “I think we’re all still finding a balance of getting the ball, running, letting us play, stopping us, slowing us down, and really executing. I think every game has gotten better so this is going to be a process probably for the next few games still.
Joel Embiid echoed that sentiment.
“According to numbers and analytics, we’ve been better since he’s been calling plays every time down the floor, in half court situations,” he said post-game Monday. “If the numbers back it up, I guess that’s good.”
Does Embiid like playing that way? More play calls and slower half court work vs. free-flowing basketball?
“Yeah, I mean, from time-to-time,” he explained. “I feel like we’re more organized, so the fact that he does it I think is good.”
If you sense that the Sixers are running fewer handoffs this year, you’d be correct. That number is down from an 8.2% frequency and 9.5 possessions per game in 2018, to 5.3% and 5.9 possessions per game this season. That’s a result of Redick’s exit. At 12.3% and 13.8 possessions per game, the Sixers run way more post ups than anybody in the league, a number which is up from 10.7% and 12.3 last year. Isolation possessions and pick and roll ball handling frequency are both just barely, slightly up this year, while the Sixers do very little rolling to the rim. Beyond that, there’s a high percentage of stuff that falls into the “miscellaneous” category via NBA Stats.
Here’s a play I liked from last night, just a simple staggered screen here with a smart cut to the rack from Richardson:
We call that “elevator doors,” which is a pair of screeners that a player runs through. In this case, Richardson could have rubbed off both Al Horford and Joel Embiid and received the pass from Ben Simmons higher near the three point line, but cut between them instead for a backdoor look at the rim:
This is based off a staple Brett Brown ‘horns’ set, which he showed a lot of in 2017 and 2018. You’ve seen it at times this year, but not to the same frequency with which he ran actions like this back then:
This is a simple elbow entry with Simmons to Horford, then an off-ball pin down screen from Embiid on the weak side, which allows Tobias Harris to pop for a three pointer.
Nothing super complicated here. Ben is just going to play Horford and clear out towards Richardson while the key action happens on the opposite side:
Here’s what Simmons said when I asked him about his head coach calling more set plays offensively:
“I think it’s just a new team running different sets and plays. It’s not the same plays as if we had JJ here or Marco, guys like that. It’s a different team, so we just have to look at different things and find a flow.
You start figuring it out a bit, what works and what doesn’t work. Who’s in the game and who’s not. You start to figure it out.”
Hopefully the Sixers continue figure it out, and hopefully Brett Brown continues to dial up these types of sets. The Sixers are good when running this stuff, and when the players are left to their own devices, sometimes the offensive becomes sloppy and unimaginative. Structure and organization helps, and if that comes at the absence of free-flowing basketball, then so be it.