This will be a three part Sins of the Past Countdown Series taking a look at what I think were Brett Brown’s 3 biggest mistakes of the 2018-2019 season, and what if any lessons can be gleaned for this year’s group.
For the second season in a row, Brett Brown may be willing to scrap sizable swaths of his regular season playbook to enhance the teams’s playoff chances. And like last year, he may be fighting for his job next year, one few would expect him to keep if the team loses in the first round this summer. Reading the tea leaves from bubble practices, it sounds like superstar Ben Simmons has been playing more power forward, and Shake Milton has been inserted as lead-guard. There may be more pick-n-rolls. So has the team learned from one of their biggest mistakes from a year ago?
What are the three biggest mistakes Brett Brown made last season? We can begin with number 3.
3) Not enough creative off-ball action for Ben Simmons
Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons had some solid chemistry, especially when cutting for each other or filling lanes in transition for one another:
Here is what Jimmy Butler looks like when he really really respects his teammate’s ability pic.twitter.com/Qm8FN76621— Liberty Ballers (@Liberty_Ballers) November 17, 2018
But by now you know how this narrative goes....
The Sixers last year used pick-n-roll less than any team except Golden State during the regular season but when they faced the Raptors they needed to change on the fly and so Brown put the ball in Jimmy “The Closer” Butler’s hands, and the move turned the series around.
Per Yaron Weitzman, author of Tanking to the Top:
“[Against Toronto] Brown responded by coaching the best series of his life. After spending years building an offensive system heavy on ball movement - “Pass is king,” he’d say- and light on one-on-one action and pick-and-rolls, he tweaked his playbook, something coaches are typically loath to do....He took the ball from Simmons’s hands and gave it to Butler.”
Butler was actually a lethally efficient pick-n-roll ball handler in Philly. During the 2018-2019 regular season the five-time All-Star saw 7.1 PnR possessions per game in that role. He generated 1.04 points per possession this way. It was a top 9 overall rate in the entire NBA, (for players who get to lead at least 1.5 PnR’s per game) ranked ahead of fellow stars Steph Curry, Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Paul George, LeBron James, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard. 
Butler ranked just behind Mr. 7th overall per the category in JJ Redick, albeit on much lower volume (1.6 poss/g) for JJ. The Duke alum was probably getting PnR “credit” here for some of those slick dribble hand offs he’d do with Joel Embiid. It was a very efficient play for Philadelphia. But Butler didn’t run it with Simmons all that much.
In fact, during the regular season, Butler would often take over as lead-ball handler in a backup point guard role when Ben wasn’t even on the floor. The team missed an opportunity to get in hundreds of live action reps of a play type that just might have given the Raptors trouble and kept Ben more engaged offensively.
So was it a mistake to use the pick-n-roll so infrequently?
It’s difficult to knock the team for not employing more pick-n-roll during the year. Overall, the Sixers had an elite offense that season, finishing 4th in ppg and 5th in points per possession. Considering Brown only had 161 minutes to see his starters on the floor together, they still posted a staggering +19.4 net rating, a real testament to their top-end talent.
But much of what they’d run that year abruptly stopped working when the eventual champs put the clamps on them. And when they changed it up there was a too real “banished to the dunker spot” vibe for Simmons. Pulled from NBA.com:
In Butler’s own words on JJ Redick’s podcast this past season:
“But to this day I don’t think that that was fair....The entire year Ben had the ball so you mean to tell me that in one playoff series you just switch it up like that? I would be...like he was. I would feel a type of way....And I used to tell Brett ‘Brett, I think we should mix in me handling the ball a little bit,’ ‘nah we do A to B, we do this.’ Cool. cool. But I would be pissed....”
Butler is brash and often shamelessly self-serving in his public comments. There are probably numerous other sides to this subject. But I also think JB has a point.
Had the Sixers mixed in more half court sets featuring Butler as lead ball handler (which he absolutely thrives at and loves) and Simmons (who we’re learning is a punishing screener and dynamic roll-man) more throughout that season, they may have been prepared to implement at least one more creative way to unlock Simmons’ ridiculous skill set than they did.
And in a series that came down to that quadruple-doinker, where buckets were so hard to come by, it could have been the difference.
Take aways for this year’s group
We did see some signs that Brown (if not the front-office ) learned from the mistake this past winter. Before his injury Simmons displayed more off the ball capability in half court sets, and was never really relegated to the dunker spot for large chunks of games. He would screen, he would post up, he’d do more cutting. But the offense overall was pretty hard to watch.
Then late in the season, when Ben was out, they did see glimmers of hope from an unlikely newcomer.
Now as reported by our own Tom West, the Sixers are looking closely at some intriguing ways to use Simmons.
I can only imagine Vince McMahon’s face when he then saw Simmons hitting 3s in live scrimmages.
It all seems to be in preparation for facing elite defenses who’ve had a tendency to sag off Ben and limit him when he’s lead ball-handler in playoff half court sets. The good news is that it already sounds like Brown has done a bit of reflection over the break and plans on doing some real experimentation in the few scrimmages and 8 seeding games before the playoffs.
The emergence of Milton here may allow Brown to demonstrate he’s not only learned from a crucial mistake but turned it into a strength for the 2020 Broad Street Bubble Bullies.
Here’s a sneak preview of how it might look courtesy of our former writer, Sixersadam:
Watched as many possessions as I could with Shake Milton initiating the offense and Ben Simmons operating as a big. What I think most gives the pairing potential: Ben Simmons' catch radius as a lob threat and his instinctual nature as a cutter. Here are a few of the best plays: pic.twitter.com/gqOejvJq1Q— adam aaronson #BLM (@SixersAdam) July 17, 2020
Stay tuned for Brett Brown’s two biggest mistakes from the 2018-2019 season coming this week....
 Butler finished 46th overall (0.91 ppp) in his last full season in Minnesota playing alongside Karl Anthony-Towns and now sits at 90th overall in 2020 down on South Beach (with the filter set for players who met or exceeded 1.5 PnR possessions per game). Redick has maintained his top 18 overall ppp finish for the third consecutive season now with New Orleans as a lead PnR ball handler.
 If the front-office had truly taken this lesson to heart, they might have understood that replacing an elite PnR player like Jimmy Butler and an efficient PnR (or DHO) player like JJ Redick with Al Horford and Josh Richardson would leave them in desperate need for a lead-ball handler.