While watching yesterday's Sixers-Thunder game, I thought back to March 30, 2010.
Allow me to explain. On that night, the Sixers, gearing up for the home stretch of Tankapalooza 2010 and playing out the string with Eddie Jordan's trademark brand of "Harmony and Effort," were hosting an up-and-coming Oklahoma City team that would valiantly bow out to the eventual champion Lakers in a memorable six games later that spring. Unsurprisingly, the Thunder cruised to a fairly mundane 111-93 victory.
I was in attendance that night, excited to catch an in-person glimpse of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. And although the dynamic young trio combined for 48 points, admittedly not a particularly high number for players of their caliber, my only recollection of the on-court action isn't of a step-back jumper, monstrous dunk, or Euro step. Instead, the memory is of Scott Brooks, in his first full season as Thunder head coach, schooling Durant, Harden and Serge Ibaka on defensive assignments during stoppages. All of the players excitedly conversed with their coach, embracing the process of improving together as a unit.
A mental note was made: These guys are locked in, and more importantly, they're building something special.
As much as basketball coverage has improved from the added emphasis on things like shot selection, five-man units, and defensive rotations, culture is still critically important. In a star-driven league, mantras like "Pounding the Rock" and "Ubuntu" have played a major part in recent examples of sustained success. Sure, they're just words, but they're words that represent teams collectively sharing and striving for a common goal. This stuff is important.
Before LeBron James and the luxury tax presented major obstacles to winning a title, the Thunder had the culture thing down pat. Even with maddening tendencies like a comically predictable late-game offense and an insistence on playing the wrong players at crucial junctures, they were not simply just an insanely talented team, but also a cohesive unit. Even with Harden now in Houston, the Thunder still have an extremely tight-knit locker room.
Brett Brown inherits a situation far different than the hand Brooks was initially dealt. There are zero surefire all-league talents in Philadelphia waiting for Brown, who has spent his entire NBA coaching career within the Spurs organization, learning their ultra-successful culture. Brooks never had to manage a roster like the 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers, one that is shorthanded by design.
How do you start constructing something that barely exists?
Brown has mentioned fitness, up-tempo offense, and sound defense as the primary goals for his team. In the initial two preseason games, the Sixers found creative ways to push the ball in transition, but I'm skeptical of that particular style of play translating to regular season games. Conversely, the team's inability to execute Brown's defensive scheme was jarring, as the Thunder were able to create wide-open three after wide-open three.
Again, it was only two preseason games, which certainly aren't anything to get worked up over either way. That said, how do you start to implement a defensive system if half of the roster doesn't have the ability to execute it at even a below-average NBA level?
In one sense, I want Brown to become a mad scientist and experiment with things like "Spencer Hawes: Stretch Five" and "relentlessly pushing the ball after made field goals with a three-guard lineup" because he simply has the leeway to try some stuff. On the other hand, I'd like Brown to install efficient offensive and defensive systems that players like Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel can grow accustomed to, even if the team's talent dictates that they're not very efficient. Balancing experimentation and implementation will be a tricky proposition for Brown as his team most likely plummets to 60 losses.
Next year, with Noel hopefully at 100 percent and potentially two lottery picks from a loaded 2014 NBA Draft, Brown can start to build the culture he desires in earnest, the type Brooks had the opportunity to from the outset.
But that's 82 games from now. How precisely Brown handles the 2013-14 season and its many competing factors is anyone's guess. I know I wouldn't want to do it.