Rob Soni is an NBA cap and CBA savant and contributor to The Five By 5.
One of the darling stories to come out of the 2017-2018 NBA season has been the Philadelphia 76ers. If it’s not people’s love of their on court (and off court) super star Joel Embiid, it’s the enamoring factor of having a legitimate 6’11” inch rookie point guard who’s playing at a historically high level that can only be compared to Magic Johnson. Currently, the 76errs are 24-24 and are the 8th seed in the eastern conference. As per fivethirtyeight.com, they are projected to finish 44-38 with an 86% chance of making the playoffs. In the pre-season, most casinos had their line for the 76ers win total right around 43 wins, which was heavily ripped apart by many reputable media members and experts. Even Kevin Peltons' pre-season projections using ESPNs’ real plus minus had the 76ers at 33 wins. So by all indicators, this season has been a massive success. But honestly? I think they should be even better.
Brett Brown, who is now in his 5th year coaching the team, hasn’t really been properly evaluated due to the 76ers “the process” tank years, during which previous management refused to equip Brown with legitimate NBA talent. On most nights, Brett Brown was forced to play guys that either would be low level rotation players on most teams, or in some cases, guys that shouldn’t have even been in the league. This was all due to management continuously pushing to improve their draft position as much as possible. However, now that Brown has what appears to be a legitimate playoff team, its time to evaluate him a little more closely.
So, let’s start with this question: Do the 76ers show any signs and symptoms of poor coaching? Answer: you bet they do.
Currently, the 76ers are dead last in turnovers at 18 per game (meaning they turn the ball over the most). That’s 2 more turnovers per game than the next closest team, the Lakers, who turn the ball over 2 less times per game than the 76ers do. Most people would attribute the high turnover rate to playing mostly young players and having a rookie point guard. And, in their defense, it makes sense. However, they’re still ranked by realgm.com as the 12th youngest roster in the league, so they aren't the youngest team by any measure. So what else could be the reason? Maybe it’s the system.
According to cleaningtheglass.com, the 76ers only have 3 players in their regular rotation who are above the 35th percentile at their position in turnover percentage: Trevor Booker (58th percentile), Richaun Holmes (78th percentile) and JJ Reddick (72nd percentile). That’s not good. Additionally, their two super stars, who have their hands on the ball the most, have been turning the ball over for a combined 17.4% of their possession’s. This is easily one of (if not the worst) turnover rates by any high usage duo in the league. However, at the same time, both Embiid and Simmons rank astronomically high in assist percentage and assist usage. This seems to indicate that they are making a lot of great passes that lead to assists, but also making an equal amount of risky ones that end in turnovers. This is where coaching, and the system and culture being implemented by Brett Brown could be the reason for these issues. Why? For it to be this late in the season, and for such talented players as Embiid and Simmons to have such high turnover rates, while also having high assist rates, it seems like it may be the fault of Brett Brown and his staff for allowing those guys to continue to make poor (and unchecked) decisions. If Brown and the coaching staff aren’t able to hold those guys accountable for the decisions they make with the ball, they will continue to struggle with high turnover rates, and struggle to learn how to play smarter, playoff caliber basketball. With that being said, I am not at their practices, nor can I hear Coach Brown from the sidelines, so maybe he is preaching it and it just hasn't gotten through yet, but it’s something to consider.
And sure, there are other possible explanations as to why the 76ers could be having such a big problem with turnovers. In fairness to Brown, we should also consider these variables:
The 76ers are the 3rd fastest team in the league in terms of pace of play, while the Lakers are 2nd in pace of play. So what? Well, considering that both the 76ers and Lakers are the two worst teams in the league at turning the ball over, maybe it has something to do with their pace of play.
Another attributing factor may be that the 76ers are playing mostly young players and having a rookie point guard. Makes sense, right? Young players (especially a young point guard) usually = high turnovers. However, the 76ers are ranked by realgm.com as just the 12th youngest roster in the league, so they aren't the youngest team by any measure. And yes, their two main guys, Embiid and Simmons, are younger and lack the playing time relative to the years they've been in the league, but for how talented those two guys are? I can't see that being the primary culprit for the 76ers turnover problem.
So, what other signs and symptoms are the 76ers showing that may indicate poor coaching?
The other shocking thing about this 76ers team, and something that is entirely within the control of Brett Brown and his coaching staff, are their rotations. Among current playoff teams in the NBA, there are only 3 teams that do not have two rotations that have played 100+ minutes together so far this year: the Warriors (which is explained by how often they blow teams out), the Heat and the 76ers. Now, the first two teams we know have elite coaching and have different circumstances that explain much of their lack of 100+ minute rotations (the Heat have 6 players from last years regular rotation, meaning they have played a lot together in the past and probably aren’t worried about it as much, and on top of that, they’ve had some injury issues). But for this 76ers team, it doesn't make much sense. They only have 1 returning regular starter from last seasons starting group that started over 36 games: Robert Covington. So what’s the 76ers excuse? With continuity mattering in the NBA, not having regular and consistent rotations can force a lot of unforced errors. Think to how a game of pick up basketball is with 4 other guys you’ve never played with before. How much chemistry does your team have? How many “dumb” mistakes happen because of the lack of familiarity? Sure, these guys practice together and are paid professionals, but nothing replicates live NBA games and repetitions. If Brett Brown found and committed to a more reliable and consistent rotation, it could clean up some of their warts on offense, and potentially help limit the high turnover rate.
So why does this matter so much?
To turn the ball over 12.5% more than the 2nd worst team in the league… that is a recipe that not only kills you in the regular season, but will also be exploited exponentially by opposing teams defenses come playoff time. The last team to turn it over at this rate was the 2002-2003 Denver Nuggets, who finished with a 17-65 record. That record tied the Nuggets that year with the Cleveland Cavalier’s for the worst record in the NBA. High turnover teams generally don't win come spring time (unless you’re the Warriors, who turn it over a lot, but they also have 4 of the best 20 guys in the league on their roster and a top tier offense AND defense).
So, is it time for the 76ers to fire Brett Brown?
No, I don't think its time to fire Brett Brown. Despite the historic turnover rate of his team, Brown is in the top 6 among coaches in both SLOB efficiency (side line out of bounds) and BLOB efficiency (baseline out of bounds plays) per synergy. That’s a stat that’s strong with the top coaches in the league (guys like Popovich, Stevens, and Spoelstra all rank in the top). So, Brett Brown does have some strong indicators to show that he is a playoff caliber coach, but as outlined previously, there’s also a lot of area’s where he can improve. Just because Brown can draw up nice out of bounds plays doesn’t mean he’s good at holding players accountable or can fix glaring, and nearly debilitating problems with his team.
This is something I think we all should be monitoring as the season goes on.
If the 76ers can’t remedy their bad case of turnovers, come April and the playoffs, the turnovers could very well be the reason their season ends earlier than they hope. However, on the contrary, if they clean this aspect up, they could be really lethal and a team that nobody, not even Cleveland or Boston would want to play in a 7 games series.
Brett Brown: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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