Brown's 76ers are making strides

Brett Brown has played the role of teacher and motivational speaker as much as coach for the 76ers. Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA -- Brett Brown's pleas grew louder and louder as the final seconds ticked down.

"Foul! ... Foul!!! ... Foul!!!!" the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers yelled at his players, as the Brooklyn Nets played "keep away" Saturday night at Wells Fargo Center.

The Sixers trailed 94-87 with 15 seconds remaining -- their 51st loss of the season all but a formality -- yet Brown wanted to extend the game and keep hope alive. He even began motioning with his hands, as if to say "Let's go already!"

His pleas, however, fell on deaf ears. The Sixers never did foul a Nets player and send him to the free throw line. And once the buzzer sounded, a visibly frustrated Brown headed straight for the tunnel leading to the locker room. He had to stop himself so he could give opposing coach Lionel Hollins the traditional courtesy wave before heading out of sight.

You don't have to feel sorry for Brett Brown. He gets paid millions of dollars to coach in the NBA. And he knew exactly what he signed up for when he agreed to a four-year contract in August 2013.

Sixers GM Sam Hinkie was about to try something out of the box -- using current CBA rules to his advantage in building a roster full of young players that was likely to lose on a nightly basis. High draft picks would come as a result. And those players selected early in the first round hopefully would either develop into stars themselves or be packaged in trades in exchange for star players or picks from other teams.

Lose in the short term and accumulate assets in order to (hopefully) win in the long term. We call it tanking. The Sixers don't. It's a polarizing topic. Some people love it. Others hate it. Will it work? We'll find out.

Brown, 51, formerly a longtime director of player development/assistant coach in San Antonio, was hired to shepherd the Sixers through the tanking -- or, if you prefer, rebuilding -- process. The hope is he'll still be here when things finally turn around.

So far, he has coached 149 games in Philadelphia, compiling a winning percentage of .228 (34-115). Last season, his team lost 26 games in a row. This season, his team started 0-17. Veterans Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen, as well as 2013 first-rounder Michael Carter-Williams and diamond-in-the-rough K.J. McDaniels, have all been traded. Forty-eight different players have seen action in the past two seasons: 23 in 2013-14 and 25 more (and counting?) in 2014-15.

Brown, no doubt a prideful man, has had to endure it all, playing the role of teacher and motivational speaker while sprinkling in some occasional tough love. He reminds you of a powerful college basketball coach -- who just so happens to have a very captivating hybrid Boston-Australian accent, and, well, a program full of college-aged athletes. Twelve of the 15 players on the roster are 24 or younger.

His team plays hard. As 34-year-old veteran Jason Richardson puts it, Brown's players "fight for him, because he fights for them."

And lately, the Sixers have been playing much better. Since March 4, they are 2-5. Losers by margins of 53, 40, 36, 35 and 32 earlier this season, their past five losses have been by five, six, nine, seven and 19 points -- two of those defeats coming in overtime. Defense remains the hallmark for this young, athletic crew. Offense is another story.

On Friday night, they rallied from an 18-point deficit to defeat Sacramento after Brown ripped into his team at halftime.

"I can," Brown said, before pausing, when asked to paraphrase the contents of his speech.

"That's just not who we are. You work so hard and the guys have been fantastic. They have delivered every inch of the way except in a huge way [Friday night]. And I'm sure we've fallen down in smaller examples, but it was gross last night. We work so hard to draw our line in the sand and say this is who we are, this is what the program stands for, and when we stray from that line, that's unacceptable. And we reminded them that they're better than that.

"There are a lot of ugly games maybe in March with teams that aren't in the playoffs, and we don't want to be one of them."

With Carter-Williams in Milwaukee, the Sixers have essentially become Nerlens Noel's team now. The 20-year-old rookie center, who missed all of last season following knee surgery after being acquired in a draft-day deal with New Orleans, has made a huge impact on the defensive end, holding opposing scorers to just over 45 percent shooting at the rim. The Sixers allow nearly 100 points per 100 possessions with Noel on the floor -- which would translate into a top-five ranking in the league.

His offense remains a work in progress, though he's certainly made significant strides on his jumper. On Saturday night, the 6-foot-11, near 230-pounder displayed his explosiveness when he emphatically slammed home Richardson's missed layup with two hands.

"I think we have a more of a team identity," said Noel, who reiterated his desire to stay with the Sixers for the long haul. "We've done a much better job of moving the ball, guys know their roles and I think the chemistry has just gone to another level.

"Everybody respects each other in this locker room, and no matter what we've gone through, everybody stays close and guys aren't getting too into themselves, which is something you have to be concerned about. Hats off to these guys, they come and bring it every night."

Developing that chemistry Noel discussed has been hindered some by constant lineup and personnel changes. The players have just had to overcome it as best as they can.

"Sometimes as a teammate, we don't even know who our teammates are," Richardson said, laughing. "But you know it's amazing; this group right here has only been together like 2-3 weeks, but we're playing better and buying into the system."

And that system continues to evolve. Brown, who knows his analytics, noted that the Sixers had been No. 1 in the league in percentage of shots taken at the rim. But the additions of Isaiah Canaan and Ish Smith have given the team some additional 3-point shooting to go along with proficient floor spacers Hollis Thompson and quality-NBDL find Robert Covington.

So with that comes this: In their past seven games, the Sixers have averaged a whopping 34 3-point attempts per game, though they're connecting on those at about a 31 percent clip. It may not be a winning formula -- more of a balance needs to be struck and the ball needs to continue to move.

Nevertheless, it doesn't appear that the Sixers are just going to be content to play out the string -- even if it means fewer pingpong balls in the upcoming lottery. Philadelphia (15-52) currently has the third-worst record in the league behind Minnesota (14-52) and New York (13-53).

"We don't have a losing mentality here," Richardson said. "We might be outmatched, undersized, outskilled, out-experienced, but these guys come out here and play hard every day. And you have to tip your hat to them.

"A lot of these young guys are playing for their NBA lives. For a lot of guys, this is probably the only opportunity they'll ever have -- so everybody is cherishing that moment. I think we've gone down almost every game by 20, and somehow we manage to fight our way back into the game.

"And we're getting that reputation throughout the league that you have to come out and take us seriously -- it's not going to be an easy win and we're going to fight hard until the final buzzer. We don't go out there and try to lose games on purpose."

Philadelphia's future could be bright. That is, if Noel continues his ascension, 2014 No. 3 overall pick Joel Embiid (foot surgery) makes strides as a rookie next season and Hinkie hits on his upcoming draft choices -- he could have as many as four first-round picks in the 2015 draft depending on records and pick protections -- while making smart decisions. The Sixers also hope Eurostash Dario Saric becomes an impact player when they eventually bring him over. And one day all of that cap space they'll likely have should come in handy, too.

Until then, expect the Brett Brown-led Sixers to play hard. It's the only way they know how.

"I love the direction that we're heading in," Noel said. "I love what Sam Hinkie is doing with our team: building through the draft, getting young guys and being very particular about the pieces that he brings into this organization.

"I think this is going to be a very solid team in the next few years and we're just going to continue to grow together."