It feels like eons ago that Marc Zumoff, full of disbelief and almost reassuring himself as well as the fans, screamed “JIMMY BUTLER, YOU ARE A SEVENTY SIXER!”
But truthfully, no one really knew what it meant to be a 76er at that point, and at no point really up until the playoffs. Their culture had shifted drastically from being a team with two young stars surrounded by fun, albeit kinda bad role players, to a team with four All-Star-caliber starters and a supporting cast of scrappers who know how to hoop.
In the regular season, the team was fun, but frustrating, as there was a consistently inconsistent lineup on a night-to-night basis due to injuries, load management, an uncertainty of who on the bench was actually good at basketball, and more. Dan Volpone wrote a piece in mid-March about the Sixers’ lack of identity, and it is very interesting to go look back on how much things have changed since March.
Back then, Joel Embiid was injured and the backup situation was as cloudy as ever, Jimmy Butler was kind of just... there and there was no James Butler in the room yet, Tobias was fine, Ben was fine, JJ was up and down but down on defense, Mike Scott wasn’t “Fuckin with us da long way” yet, and nothing was jelling on either end of the court. The team was obviously Joel’s and most times, when he went, they went, but there was still an uncertainty in the air about who this team was. Even in the first round, the Nets spanked the Sixers on their home floor, as Philadelphia looked lost and out of sorts. The starting lineup that had played under 15 games together was going to have to find a secret ingredient fast if they wanted to make a run like they were hyped up to do.
The secret seemed to come from two or three places. The largest was a smile from Joel Embiid. He was self aware that when he smiles and he’s having fun, he’s playing his best basketball. Sickness slowed him down and suppressed his grin, but when healthy, the big man knows no limits as to what he can do on the court, and again... when he goes, they go.
Who can blame him for smiling, when the Sixers are showing flashes of how forcefully dominant they can be against one of the premier teams in the Eastern Conference, but smiling is still a task easier said than done. It’s obviously easiest when they’re winning games by 20-plus points in the second round and throwing the Center into a euphoric state with sequences of windmill dunks and steals for fast breaks.
In Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (stick with me here)... Fat Bastard says “I eat because I’m unhappy, and I’m unhappy because I eat”... turn that around to Joel who could easily say “I smile because we’re winning, and we’re winning because I smile.” Winning is fun. That’s the bottom line, and when your team’s centerpiece is a humongous man who embodies fun and joy, the winning is even more fun.
Another huge key to the Sixers’ hot flashes of success is the symbiotic relationship between Jimmy Butler and the fans. During the regular season, this flame was stagnant. We only saw small samples of Jimmy Butler doing wondrously phenomenal things on the basketball court at home. The largest was obviously his shot against the Celtics that clinched the only win the team had against their foes from Boston this season.
Now that Playoff Jimmy is here, the bond between Butler and Philadelphians is growing stronger and stronger, highlighted most recently by his ridiculous sequence at the end of the first half in Game 6. We saw in the matter of a minute and a half of game time, he tracked a rebound, hit an and-one, got another bucket, ripped Kawhi Leonard, then scorched down to the other end to get yet another bucket and extend the Sixers’ lead to 15. Jimmy seemed like he was hooked up to an IV that was just feeding him energy from the Wells Fargo Center crowd and he was growing more and more powerful with every uproar.
That stretch from Butler links back to the Embiidism that when he smiles, they are winning. When Jimmy is balling, the crowd is in a frenzy, and we are probably winning. All this fun and smiling and euphoric feeling has some ground work to become the identity of the Sixers moving forward (assuming we keep the same/similar roster), and you can track it back to one man.
Like it or not, Brett Brown is an everlastingly handsome silver fox players’ coach who is fantastic with the media and better than anyone you’re going to find on the open market right now. If you want to talk about the culture and identity of this team, it all tracks back to him and his longevity with the organization and its rebuild.
For fans, it’s a badge of honor to say we lived through the Process years, through all the turmoil and turnover to the roster and the front office we have seen since the team traded for Nerlens Noel. Through it all, Brett Brown has been a constant stabilizer who pushed through the adversity, much like the fans of Philadelphia did through all those laborious seasons.
A very underrated aspect of what Brett does for this organization has been managing the egos and the locker room in general... without going too much into it, Brett has managed to maintain the egos and appease two young superstars, a fringe All-Star who probably wants to prove that is a certified All-Star, and one of the most outspoken locker room presences in the league. Part of what makes this an easier task for Brett is that he has been through the mud with this organization and knows what it takes to get the most out of his players for this city. Stan Van Gundy spoke in an article with the Ringer about how “Everybody always says, ‘You’ve got to try to be the Spurs. You’ve got to be like the Spurs,’... But then they don’t want to do what the Spurs do, which is stay with the same coach. Value continuity. Handle disappointment and just come back.”
If Brown has made it this far and has been this successful multiple times in establishing who the Sixers are, why uproot it? If the Sixers are playing for this man, and are still rallying behind Brett’s Game 2 halftime explosion that propelled them to a historic 51-point third quarter and the beginning of the series win against the Brooklyn Nets? Behind every Embiid smile and Butler sequence is a lion-hearted man named Brett Brown.
So looking forward to Game 7... what do the Sixers need to do to win? Smile! (And out-shoot, out-rebound, win 50/50 balls, move the ball, defend their asses off, stay composed, and more, but smiling is fun too!) We have seen what happens when the Sixers started playing like the Sexers (their alter ego when they play sexy basketball). Joel effortlessly finds his spots and gets in position on both ends, Ben grabs rebounds and pushes the ball upcourt, Jimmy is sprays straight serotonin all over the crowd, Mike Scott screams hype talk at himself and those in the general vicinity, JJ Redick does his finger guns, and the overall play is simply... fun.
So who are the Sixers? I guess we’ll find out if they’re going to be the fun team we’ve seen them flirt to be.