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On a late-summer afternoon in 2016, Joel Embiid is throwing a fit — and Elton Brand is catching it.
For weeks, Embiid has been dominating pickup games at the Sixers’ old practice facility at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. After losing the first two seasons of his career to a broken bone in his right foot, he’s spent months refining the exquisite footwork that would, in short order, propel him to almost instant stardom. But for now, in this gym, the chore of defending Embiid down low is the burden of none other than Brand — a 37-year-old who’s just played out a veterans minimum contract for what will ultimately become the last season of his 17-year career.
On certain days, when NBA big-man prospects and journeymen drift through PCOM to participate in workouts, Brand is relieved of this Sisyphean duty, as indicated on a sheet posted on the wall. But on this day, a certain highly touted collegiate center who was scheduled to face the 22-year-old Embiid is a late scratch — so Brand finds his name back on the wall. And Embiid, who’d been licking his chops at the chance to school a contemporary, is incensed.
“This is bulls–t!” Embiid yells, stomping across the hardwood.
And then, in case the point wasn’t yet clear, he hurls the ball across the gym.
“The night before, I’d been watching Shaq’s highlights, and I wanted the competition,” Embiid says today. “I needed someone to go back at me.”
For all the conversation in recent years about the vital role of organizational culture, the most pivotal figures in its construction are typically not the suits upstairs or the head coach but the superstar. Michael Jordan‘s exactitude and pathological competitiveness defined the ’90s Bulls. Gregg Popovich’s insistence that the Spurs’ culture was a distillation of Tim Duncan wasn’t a display of false modesty but a truism that has revealed itself in Golden State, where a team that plays with infectious joy reflects the passion of Stephen Curry.
But today, two years removed from that outburst, on a team searching for an identity to propel a Process the Sixers have trusted to its highest goal, it is an open question whose team they are — and exactly whose spirit they will channel.
ONE MORNING EARLY this summer, Ben Simmons arrives at 7:15 for a workout at the Sixers’ new practice facility, to the consternation of the Sixers’ staff. This cathedral of a gym is bathed in natural light, and one of the two practice courts is set up for an early-morning sponsorship event — since when did players in early summer need use of the court before 8 a.m.?
Simmons gets to work on the empty court, with the folding chairs, royal blue paraphernalia and busy facilities staff in his peripheral vision. He moves through his regimen of drills methodically, indifferent to the scene around him, sending a clear signal: A guy who often strolled in 30 minutes before practice last season is now aiming to be a round-the-clock presence.
Though more than a couple of voices characterize the Sixers as “Jo’s team,” there’s a common belief inside the organization that Simmons is every bit the killer Embiid is. And Simmons, who keeps a close-knit circle with his brothers at its center, is starting to spend more time at the facility at the urging of those confidants, who felt it was time his daily habits reflect that competitiveness so evident in live games.
To wit: Simmons and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry found themselves in a dustup last season, after which both players were ejected in the closing seconds of a Sixers win. Moments earlier, with 20 seconds left and Toronto clinging to faint hope as Lowry pushed the ball up the court, Simmons had poked the ball away with his octopus arm, sealing the deal. When Embiid had stepped to the line on the subsequent possession, Lowry had gone at Simmons. The rookie, in turn, grunted a few choice words but was unwilling to fully engage Lowry in a conventional jawing match.
Lowry, somewhat bemused by Simmons’ quiet yet confrontational style, later facetiously asked Simmons’ agent, Rich Paul, if his client, an Australian still relatively unknown in the NBA fraternity, spoke English.
“You start barking at Ben, he just smiles,” says Lloyd Pierce, a former Sixers assistant coach. “He uses different forms of engaging with the opponent. There’s no ‘I’m the guy.’ He’ll just go drop a triple-double and say nothing.”
While there have always been elite teams in the NBA stacked with transcendent talents, the superteam in the age of the 24-hour news cycle is still a relatively new phenomenon. Stars assembled on rosters with championship aspirations have never had more at stake: money, the cultivation of a personal brand, the hazards of a digital fishbowl where an embarrassing video clip can surface at any moment. Multiple superstars having to breathe the same oxygen and share the spotlight in this environment is a potentially combustible situation.
So what does a culture defined by the Sixers’ young superstars look like? Is there sufficient oxygen in Philadelphia for Simmons, a far more introverted personality than the vocal Embiid, to contribute to the collective identity? Can Simmons be satisfied with broad admiration for his competitiveness and selflessness as a player, if Embiid is beloved as a charismatic leader?
Many inside the franchise believe that the dynamic will reveal itself over time, as it does in any marriage. “Those guys are still figuring it out,” JJ Redick says. “They’re evolving players, but even more important, they’re evolving people.”
The character of this evolution is vital, particularly after a year in Philly that saw a sequence of events worthy of a prestige TV drama: another mysterious injury to a top draft pick; a playoff series loss to a Celtics team destined to be the Sixers’ primary rival; a social media scandal that saw the unceremonious departure of the organization’s lead basketball executive.
For a team that’s made order its calling card, that’s an awful lot of tumult.
IT’S THE FIRST Monday of training camp, and the 2018-19 Sixers are fanned out along the baseline of the near practice court. The players face coach Brett Brown, who holds the ball in his hand. It’s a scene that resembles a game of middle school dodgeball, except that Brown is a team all his own — and he’s already chosen his first target. Brown zips the ball at Markelle Fultz.
The drill’s design isn’t hard to pick up. Brown throws the ball. A player catches the ball. And then that player must walk to the foul line and shoot a pair of free throws. It has only one rule: Miss either attempt and the whole team sprints the length of the court and back. And now the throng of media assembled at the far end of the court look up from their devices and sharpen their focus on the NBA’s most scrutinized shooter.
There’s a reason Brown has chosen Fultz first — and it is perhaps the single greatest variable to determining the success of the Sixers this season: It is not at all certain how well Markelle Fultz can shoot a basketball.
Last season Fultz suffered a shoulder injury (a scapular muscle imbalance) and underwent a difficult rehab, which in turn altered the shot mechanics of one of college basketball’s most dynamic scorers and the 2017 No. 1 pick. The timeline of these things was well-documented. Information about the injury, which occasionally contradicted previous reports, was dispensed sporadically. Video clips of his reconstructed jumper and free throw from practice and pregame warm-ups circulated widely. Fans constructed their own narratives, watching Fultz shoot an awkward brick and diagnosing a mental collapse as its cause.
A point of irritation during Fultz’s whole injury ordeal last season was the insistence of observers on assigning his problem to one of two boxes: “physical” or “mental.” For Fultz, it’s ridiculous to suggest that a shooter who relies on muscle memory won’t doubt his shot when the machinery is broken.
“Say you tear your ACL or Achilles,” Fultz says. “The first time you do your rehab, no matter what you do, your first step out of the boot, you’re going to think that your foot … it doesn’t feel right, but what is it? If something happens to you, you’re automatically going to start thinking about it because you’re normal. You wanna figure out what it is. And just trying to figure things out, you’re gonna fry your brain. I didn’t have any special mental illness. It was a normal mental thing of just trying to figure out what was going on and just working through it.”
When Fultz ultimately returned to action in March, he showed flashes of his talent, if little of the range he displayed at the University of Washington. Those who have observed Fultz over the summer report that his shot-creating abilities are on full display and that he looks reasonably good coming off pick-and-rolls for midrange jumpers. Those same individuals also report that they haven’t observed Fultz shooting from long range in live games.
So it is that Brown is prepared to field a backcourt of Simmons and Fultz, two otherworldly athletes and No. 1 picks with boundless creativity. Simmons is a 6-foot-10 locomotive with night-goggle vision and already an elite defender who can guard every position. Fultz is a multifaceted scorer who can destroy defenses off the dribble and whose 6-10 wingspan projects him to be a solid defender.
But in a league where long-range shooting has become mandatory for success, the tandem offers absolutely no range. Brown has always been an unconventional coach willing to challenge rote NBA thinking, but this experiment will test what unconventional thinkers before him determined was best practice: Get guards on the floor who can shoot — or for heaven’s sake, at least one!
And now, today, with everyone in the gym observing his form like a panel of figure skating judges, Fultz breezes up to the line.
“I don’t care how good you are, how many years you’ve been in the league, how old you are,” Brown says. “Walking up in front of 40 people in the media, and your teammates and coaching staff, all alone on an island, and if you miss, your team’s gonna run. You can dust it off any way you want, there’s a little bit of anxiety there. I knew all this — it wasn’t by mistake. He just grabbed the ball, walked up there. Bam, bam. That f—ing matters.”
And if you’re wondering why two made free throws in a preseason practice f—ing matter? Well, because even though a training camp practice isn’t Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, the plan in Philadelphia — one that’s been in the works for months with input from the highest levels of the franchise — is to insert Fultz into the Sixers’ starting lineup this season.
“Those guys are still figuring it out. They’re evolving players, but even more important, they’re evolving people.”
JJ Redick, on teammates Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
To be clear: The Philadelphia 76ers will likely voluntarily break up the league’s most prolific high-usage five-man unit from last season — a lineup of Simmons, Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Embiid that outscored opponents by 21.0 points per 100 possessions. Redick, who in 12 seasons has converted 1,464 3-pointers at a 41.5 percent clip (and exceeded that percentage in each of the past four seasons), will be replaced by a guard who, in 14 career games, has hit two field goals beyond 14 feet.
A week after Fultz drained the pair of foul shots, he unleashes a pair of 3-point attempts in the first half of the team’s second preseason game. When the second of those attempts falls through the net, the Sixers’ bench erupts. And though one successful 3-pointer in preseason does not portend much, empowering Fultz is a gamble the Sixers are willing to take in the present to service the future. When the franchise imagines confetti falling in Philadelphia, it’s Embiid, Simmons and Fultz at the center of the shower. Fultz motivated the Sixers to trade a considerable asset (and forgo Jayson Tatum), a move they orchestrated with unequivocal zeal. The organization is pot committed to Fultz.
“I’ve put in so much work, I wasn’t really worried about anything,” Fultz says as he catches a glimpse of a Sixers preview segment on NBA TV on a far wall at the team’s training facility. “I saw the media and I was kind of smiling, because I was like, ‘They probably can’t wait for this moment right here.’ I’m pretty sure a lot of them were probably thinking, ‘Oh, he’s gonna miss.’ I just made both free throws — shutting up the haters.”
THE STREETS OF West Philly look like Class II rapids as a torrential downpour soaks the city on a late Tuesday afternoon. The Sixers are scheduled to perform in an intrasquad scrimmage at the 91-year-old Palestra, one of basketball’s holiest temples, but the rain has flooded 32nd Street, and soaked fans in Sixers jerseys skip desperately across the asphalt, trying in vain to find any spot to plant their feet that isn’t submerged in 2 inches of water. Early reports from the Palestra floor express concern that patches of condensation blanket the hardwood; at least that’s what Brand is hearing as he drives his Tesla on the Penn campus en route to the arena.
Two years ago, Brand was waiting by the phone in hopes of finding a job on an NBA roster as a journeyman in his twilight, all the while killing time practicing yoga and performing carpool duty. Today he’s on the phone conferencing with the team’s CEO, president, head coach and facilities management folks to determine the best course of action.
“The temperature is 72, the humidity is 75,” Brand says. “We’ve got 30 other things going on back at the office, and the question comes to me, ‘What do we do, Mr. Brand?'”
For Brand, it’s an easy call — the slightest risk of player injury warrants a cancellation. This will not be his most consequential decision as the Sixers’ new lead basketball executive, but five days into the job, it crystallizes his reality: He’s now the guy calling the shots in Philadelphia.
And how that came to be is a story that would’ve been inconceivable a decade ago and is still incomprehensible today, even in a league that has elevated absurd storylines to narrative wonder.
In late May, The Ringer published a lengthy report on a collection of suspicious Twitter accounts operating in anonymity in the dark recesses of Sixers Twitter. The accounts seemed to have knowledge of sensitive information — injuries, aborted transactions, internal discussions about on-court strategy. Personal jabs at Embiid were even found among the tweets.
Sixers brass promptly launched an investigation, and the findings determined that the accounts belonged to Barbara Bottini, the wife of president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo. The investigation was inconclusive on the matter of Colangelo’s knowledge of the accounts, but it determined that he was careless with sensitive information that clearly informed the tweets in question. A week after the investigation began, Colangelo resigned.
This summer Brown oversaw basketball operations while ownership went in search of Colangelo’s replacement. The Sixers had initially gone big-game hunting, and a number of veteran general managers had reached out through intermediaries to inquire about what was now the most coveted executive opening in the NBA. Discussions with Rockets GM Daryl Morey were “pretty far down the road,” according to a source close to the process, but Morey elected to remain in Houston.
As the search wore on, a consensus began to build in Philly that maintaining front office continuity was essential to the future health of the organization, a feature Brown in particular valued and fought for. Two days before the start of camp, Brand — who had helped, as a junior executive, guide the basketball operations over the summer — was announced as the general manager.
“When you live with these guys over three months, from draft and free agency, you appreciate what we already had,” Brown says. “Elton was always going to be a general manager at some point, in some city. And it might as well be here, and it might as well be now.”
“You start barking at Ben, he just smiles … He’ll just go drop a triple-double and say nothing.”
Former Sixers assistant coach Lloyd Pierce
Brand is universally admired — particularly by players — and regarded as one of the quickest studies ever to graduate from the ranks of former players. He had nearly unprecedented access as a fledgling junior exec to top-level discussions. He is also only two years removed from serving as a sparring partner at summer workouts. Yet this season he will start overseeing a huge basketball operations staff at the franchise’s most crucial juncture in decades.
When the ownership group and top executives drew up a list in descending order of the most important facets of the job — recruiting stars to Philadelphia, continuing to build out a top-notch infrastructure — the top priority was player management. The Sixers’ lead basketball exec, first and foremost, must ensure that the guys in the locker room love one another, that he catches them before they fall, that he has a daily pulse on their wants, needs and insecurities.
In short, it was a job for Elton Brand.
Several league insiders interpreted Brand’s hire as a statement of control by the Sixers’ ownership group, as was Brand’s title of “general manager.” (Colangelo served as president of basketball operations.) The thinking goes that should they have second thoughts, the owners can return to the big-game hunt and install someone at the top of the org chart above Brand.
At his introductory news conference in late September, Brand was pressed to define the decision-making hierarchy in Philadelphia. Sitting alongside controlling owner Joshua Harris, Brand emphasized that whatever input he and Brown had in personnel matters, he would ultimately make recommendations to ownership, who had the final say.
Still, just as Brown is investing faith in an inexperienced guard, ownership is giving credence to Brand’s prospects as a lead executive. The Sixers are trusting that Brand can go toe-to-toe with the Danny Ainges and Masai Ujiris at the NBA’s high-stakes poker table, that he can oversee 100 people and distinguish good information from bad — and can snake-charm one of the league’s most aggressive local markets, where the knives come out early and often.
IT’S A NOVEMBER night in San Antonio, less than a month into the Sixers’ 2014-15 season, and a back room at the AT&T Center has been set up for a conversation between Joel Embiid and Tim Duncan. It’s been an inauspicious start to the season for the Sixers, who’ve managed to lose each of their first 10 games. Regardless, Brown, who served as a Spurs assistant before taking the head-coaching gig in Philadelphia, has brokered the meeting between his injured rookie big man and the five-time champion. And though the rookie wouldn’t take the floor for nearly another two years, the message is clear all the same.
“We spent quite a bit of time together, probably 30 or 45 minutes,” Embiid says. “He spoke mostly about smaller details, and I took notes on my phone.”
Four years later, embedded deep on a phone that can rightly be called the most lethal weapon in the NBA’s social media wars, the instruction manual Embiid recorded is something he still returns to. With his lunch waiting for him in a paper bag marked “JOEL” that’s resting on an ottoman, he reads from the phone:
Keep a schedule during the offseason, and work hard — but carefully.
Boxing is a good workout. (“I box sometimes at a gym in Philadelphia …”)
Leaders lead by working hard and serving as an example, not by yelling at people.
Identify a good weight to play at.
“And this one is typical Tim Duncan,” Embiid says: Develop 1 or 2 great moves, and counters for each.
That Embiid has called up that litany of Duncanisms today isn’t a coincidence. He’s just come from his first extended meeting with new Sixers assistant coach Monty Williams, a former teammate of Duncan’s. Williams has a pastoral authority with players and credibility as a former head coach and Spurs alumnus. And today, with Embiid, he shared them both.
“I told him, based on what I’m seeing, you have a lot of things, but there’s something that you’re missing,” Williams says. “The one thing I’ve learned — you don’t get to win your way. If you want to be an all-time great, then it’s going to require something other than just the talent and the work on the floor and all the stuff that we tend to think is essential. It’s more than that.”
Embiid couldn’t be more temperamentally different from Duncan, who had a severe allergy to the animated life that accompanies basketball stardom. But for as much as Embiid treasures the opportunity to declare that a rival young big man will be getting his ass kicked, he is gradually getting acquainted with the idea that Williams is right — there might be something missing.
Embiid still speaks about “potential,” which is natural — he’s only 24 and didn’t pick up a basketball until 2011. But though he’s nearly unanimously respected as a dogged worker on his game, there were the occasional mornings last season when, moments before a film session was to begin, nobody had seen Jo.
Such transgressions are regarded as baby fat that Embiid is quickly shedding. His favorability ratings among teammates and management are high. They believe that the social media moments will grow more selective and the passes out of the post more selfless. That which is missing can be discovered in time.
And so it is that a team born of data and formula now rests its aspirations on hope and faith. Faith that an untested guard can achieve stardom, faith that an inexperienced executive can fulfill his potential. Faith that two otherworldly young talents can forge a bond that can lift a franchise.
And faith that there’s time — so much time, still — for that process to repay the trust. “Everything still feels new,” Embiid says, unfolding his 7-foot frame from his seat. He puts his phone back in his pocket. “Now we have bigger expectations.”