Emulating Warriors' unselfish culture already paying dividends for Sixers' process
The Sixers came up short against the team whose style they aspire toward, but the future is bright
OAKLAND, Calif. -- You hear people say it all the time: The NBA is a copycat league. What they mean is that teams tend to emulate whatever team and style of play is having success in the moment. Shaq and Kobe dominating? We gotta get two stars. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen fit perfectly? Time for the Big Three era.
Now it's the Warriors who are the original copy at the top, with a pile of yellow carbon copies underneath hoping some ink will trickle down. Golden State has been historic on both ends of the floor of the past three seasons, so if you're going to model your team after someone, why not them?
Sixers coach Brett Brown, who watched his team suffer a 135-114 loss to the world champions on Saturday, is the first to admit that he's adopted certain aspects of the Warriors' style. One characteristic in particular has become a core tenet of the team's philosophy: The pass is king.
"(Warriors coach) Steve (Kerr) and I go way back. His background as a player and my background with Pop (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich) and how I see the world in general, the pass is king," Brown said before the game. "The pass is king, and I've said before, I think it's the link to team chemistry. I think it can creep into a locker room if you're selfish, I think it can creep into a not as cohesive defensive mentality if you're selfish. I think it's king."
And right now, the 10-3 Warriors are certainly atop the NBA's passing throne.
"What [the Warriors] do and the way they play with the talent that they have is hard to pull off," Brown continued. "I have tremendous respect for how they play, and Steve. As importantly, the superstars within that system that have found a selfless type of mentality to play that way. It's easy for me to talk about it with those types of words and examples. It's hard to do that. From afar, I have a lot of respect for the people within it, Steve as their coach and the style that they've embraced."
That style is a good fit for the Sixers, whose 6-10 rookie point guard Ben Simmons, described by Kerr as "a bulldozer," came into Saturday's contest sixth in the NBA at 8.0 assists per game. As a team the Sixers came in second in the league with 25.9 assists per game, second only to ... yeah, you guessed it. The Warriors dominate the league at 31 assists per game.
For the Sixers on Saturday night, against the ball-movement model they aspire toward, the pass was indeed king for them ... at least in the first half. Philly trailed by just a point at halftime, 65-64, and actually out-assisted the Warriors, 18 to 12 -- no small feat. The unselfishness led to nine 76ers with four or more points, and six with seven or more. They were hanging with the Warriors by playing the Warriors' game.
"That's the way we want to play," said Embiid, who struggled facing tough Warriors defense all night, finishing with 12 points and seven turnovers. "Right now we're second in assists behind [the Warriors] so that's the way we want to play -- we don't want to be selfish. We just want to move the ball and that's a model we can follow. I'm excited about our future."
But that's the thing about imitations. The longer you watch them, generally you start to see that they're inferior to the real thing. The Warriors went on one of the third-quarter runs that have become commonplace during their six-game winning streak (they've won each game by 17 or more points, tying an NBA record). The Sixers blinked and they were down by 20, and with seven minutes left in the game the starters were on the bench, garbage time was in full effect.
"We feel good. We're in a good place," Simmons said. "We're moving the ball well, and defensively, we're playing well. It just came down to the second half."
Sure it didn't last, but at least for a half, the Sixers gave us a glimpse of a team that hopes to be a championship contender down the road: One that plays the brand of versatile, positionless, unselfish basketball that the Warriors have perfected; one that has won five of its last seven games, including a victory over another elite team that knows how to share the ball -- the Houston Rockets.
"Simmons is a guy who wants to pass the basketball. He can play in the open court, he can make any pass ... he can pretty much do everything," Durant said after the game. "[Embiid is a] load down low. He can shoot it. He can put it on the floor. He can just bully you down in the paint, so he's got it all. They're gonna be a force in a few years. Even though they're playing well right now, they're gonna be a force down the line."
Kerr, the man who went from the broadcast booth to the top of the NBA coaching food chain in a few short years, also sees that something positive is brewing in Philadelphia.
"It was impressive to watch their young talent and the movement," Kerr said after the game. "They play together really well. They lead the league in passes per game. They do a great job moving the ball. Brett has a similar philosophy as me. No coincidence we both played or worked under [Spurs coach Gregg] Popovich and so we have been influenced by Pop quite a bit. I like their team. It's a good young team -- a lot of talent. Things are looking bright for them."
The pieces are clearly there. The Sixers have their young stars in Simmons (21 years old), Embiid (23) and perhaps 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz (19) once he recovers fully from his shoulder injury. They are already buying into Brown's system, one that preaches assists not just as a style of play, but as a way of life.
Leading by example, Brown brought two-way player James Michael McAdoo, who had yet to play a minute in the NBA this season, with the team on the road trip so that he could receive the championship ring he earned as a member of the Warriors last season. McAdoo received the ring to a rousing ovation before Saturday's game, and even got into the game after it got out of hand -- scoring five points in the final seven minutes.
That's something that sticks with a player, and with the other members of the organization.
"The ability to bring him back and be recognized and get his ring is a great night," Brown said. "We're thrilled to be able to let him enjoy tonight that way."
As Brown continues to build the unselfish culture he's started in Philadelphia, perhaps one day he and his players will don championship rings of their own.
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