You could make the unique argument for Brett Brown that every year he's coached has been an outlier. In Brown's four seasons and change as Sixers head coach, he's put 72 different players on the floor (at least 36 of which are no longer playing in the NBA). In fact, it's the number one argument used when people defend his record and job security against people who think he should be fired for some reason. But things are changing. The Sixers' 11 wins this season are 13% of Brown's career total. It's not just that Brown finally has the talent to put his system into place, but that the evolution of his system is finally meeting with the team's evolution of skill.
The modern NBA is all about pace and space. Run the ball up, spread the floor, get open shots. But Brown's system - which is definitely part pace-and-space - can even be described with a less graceful term: Pass and Gas.
Brown's teams have always focused on moving the ball around. All teams do. But as the league's pace has gotten higher and higher, the Sixers' pace has as well (they've never been close to the league average pace with Brown at the helm), and the team's (attempt at, and then actual) ball movement has never taken a backseat.
The coach’s first season truly works as a statistical outlier (the 13-14 Sixers had the 2nd fastest offense from that season to last), as Brett was typically working with a roster of at least NBA caliber players, even if they weren’t the type of players you build around. Taking away that first year, the Sixers’ pace has exploded from 2014-2015, with years of 98.3, 100.2, 101, and now 105.1 possessions per game. And with more possessions (and a system that encourages them) come more passes. That same span has seen 327.4, 332.4, 354.7, and 353.3 passes per game. Let’s look at some other related progressions that show a bit of a trend, if not a pattern:
So there’s the passing, so what the hell do I mean by Gas? Brown’s team, while keeping the pace up, has the speed and agility to absolutely wear down the opposing team.
Among players who have played at least 11 games, the Sixers have the #1 player in average offensive speed (Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot), the #3 player (T.J. McConnell), and the #10 player (Ben Simmons). Overall, the league's fastest player with at least 11 games played is TLC when moving on the floor on offense and defense. Distance-wise, Simmons is 2nd in the NBA (same minimum games limit) in distance traveled per game at 2.67 miles (1.48 of those on offense, also 2nd). J.J. Redick is 9th at 2.56 miles. Simmons is also the NBA's leader (no surprise here) in passes per game at 74.8. TJ is 15th.
In today’s NBA, what is the purest way to describe the offense’s endgame? You can easily argue it is “get easy, open shots, particularly threes.” And that’s what all of that moving and passing is supposed to lead to. On open threes this season - closest defender 4-6 feet away - the Sixers are shooting 38.3% (previous Brown-era high was 34.9% in 2014-15). On wide open looks - closest defender is 6+ feet away - they’re knocking them own at a rate of 38.4% (only 0.3% higher than last season). And this season, the best by far of Brown’s tenure, the Sixers are passing up good shots for great shots, and great shots are available*.
There are a lot of factors at play here. More talent? Definitely. A system honed with lesser talented players over the years? Yup. Brown’s penchant for player development? Sure. Players all clicking once the wins seem to be attainable? 100%.
Brown is not a perfect coach, but for years some wondered whether he was even good. Anyone can lose (and with the rosters Brett was in charge of, it was hard not to), but right now, everything is coming up Brett Brown. And we’re seeing the fruits of his labor.
*The Sixers’ 16.5 wide open three attempts per game is the 8th highest amount in the league, while their 38.4% on those shots is around the middle of the league. Their 38.3% clip on open threes is the best in the league for teams attempting at least 10.