The Philadelphia 76ers’ Christmas Day blowout of the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks is looking more like an exception than the rule for a locker room still trying to find the right chemical balance.
Over the past week, multiple Sixers have taken both blatant and veiled shots at each other and their coach, Brett Brown, who has spent recent days attempting to quell concerns about a potential mutiny.
Following Saturday’s overtime loss to the Miami Heat, All-Star point guard Ben Simmons questioned the team’s effort in a game the Sixers let slip away in the final minutes, via USA Today’s Ky Carlin:
“We were right there. It starts in the first quarter. We’ve got to carry the same energy all the way through. We can’t wait for the last minute to pick it up.”
That seemed harmless, until Monday’s practice, when newly signed $109 million man Al Horford told the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey that Brown was not maximizing his skills on the offensive end:
“I’m out [there] for the team and doing what I can to help us. But offensively, I’m very limited with the things that I can do. So I can’t control that stuff.
“So all I have to do is make sure I’m there for the team, trying to do everything I can to help us win.”
“Ultimately, we have to rely on [Brown] to make the decisions, to put us in position to go out there and play and keep competing.”
After Tuesday’s blowout loss to the Indiana Pacers, Pompey’s tape recorder turned to Josh Richardson, the shooting guard who the Sixers salvaged in Jimmy Butler’s sign-and-trade exit:
“I don’t think there’s enough accountability in our locker room right now, honestly. I think that we got some new guys who don’t want to step on toes, including myself. I feel like we kind of go play and don’t compete as much.
“There’s been games that we have [competed], and it’s been great. But when it’s not going good, we got to hold each other accountable. I think that’s where a lot of our problems start. ... Going forward, we got to talk to some people about it, and we got to do it. We talk about playing hard every day. We talk about, you know, we break the huddle down with ‘chip’ every day, and we got a long way to go before we actually start competing for that. I think our locker room has some growing to do.”
And at Wednesday’s practice, there was this snipe from Joel Embiid, presumably at Simmons:
There have long been questions about the logistical fit for Simmons and Embiid, a point guard who refuses to shoot from distance and a center who refuses not to, but the Sixers entered this season with championship aspirations after coming within a handful of bounces of the Eastern Conference finals.
Problem is, they lost J.J. Redick, who provided much of the spacing the Sixers so desperately needed, and Butler, who served as their closer in the playoffs. In their place are Horford and Richardson, two high-level players who theoretically should play starring reserve roles on a title contender. Only, those roles are significantly diminished on a team that already feeds Simmons, Embiid and Tobias Harris.
Still, the Sixers own a 23-13 record and sit a game out of hosting a home playoff series. They are 5-2 against the four best teams in the East, and yet something does not feel quite right in Philadelphia. This is a delicate balance for the 76ers, one Horford knows all too well after playing for a wildly talented Boston Celtics team that failed to reach the high expectations we had for them last season.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has lamented his inability to corral last year’s team, which talked about turning it on in the playoffs but never took the necessary steps to make that leap in the regular season. Brown is trying to walk that same tightrope this season, and sounding as confused as Stevens was.
“I’m not critical of Al Horford at all. I’m more curious about what I can do to help him," Brown told Pompey on the night Horford registered his frustration with the Inquirer. "A lot of times it comes back to the environment that he’s in. ... Everybody has to deal with a level of sacrifice and role recognition.”
This does not sound like a coach in control at the moment. More, via Crossing Broad’s Kevin Kinkead:
This is an ominous line from Brown: “It happens sometimes when you lose, these kinds of cracks emerge, and sometimes they’re overblown and sometimes they’re accurate, a bit of pre-mortem stuff.”
We have yet to reach the midway point, and the Sixers coach is already coming to terms with his team’s mortality. Barring a massive roster shakeup that sends out one of Philadelphia’s high-priced starters, a solution to this chemistry problem will have to come from within, and a failure to fulfill expectations could cost Brown his job. As he said in September, “There’s an expiration date on us all.”
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