By Jack McCaffery
PHILADELPHIA >> With too many injuries, too few players, too much front-office caution and too little time, the 76ers long have been down to minimum of possible 2016-2017 achievements. Through it all, though, Brett Brown has hoped for one reasonable achievement.
“The only goal that we set, from a numerical standpoint, from our second day at Stockton,” Brown said Tuesday, before a 141-118 loss to the Brooklyn Nets. “was that we wanted to be a Top 15 defensive team. If you go back to the tenets of, 'Who are we?,' we'd better grow this through defense, space and pace. It has to begin with that. And as we sit, with four games left after tonight, we're 14th.”
That has been Brown's philosophy in his four years as head coach. And for most of this season, at least the Sixers seemed to comprehend the concept. But without their two most capable defenders, Robert Covington and Joel Embiid – three, including the traded Nerlens Noel - their defense has been decaying. And by Tuesday, it had practically vanished.
The Sixers allowed 40 points in the first quarter and 41 in the second, the Nets' 81-point output being a Wells Fargo Center floor record for a half. Down to what would have been its fourth center entering the season in Richaun Holmes, Brown's team had little presence in the middle. Without Covington, projected as at least a second-team NBA All-Defense choice, their perimeter defense was not much better. In the first quarter, the Nets, often left open, mad 15 of 21 shots, including six of nine from three-point range, for a staggering 71.4 percent success rate.
“None of us could guard any of them,” Brown said. “I could leave now and that should be the headline.”
That was about it.
“It was hard,” Dario Saric said. “It was under any NBA level. I always try to talk honestly and I apologize to Philly fans. I hope we have the opportunity, with three more games at home, to try to show who we are.”
In allowing the 19-59 Nets to score 141 points on just 75 shots, the Sixers dipped from No. 14 to No. 17 in the NBA's overall defensive ratings. With only four games remaining, there can't be too much volatility in any season-long statistic. But the Sixers will play those games without Covington, who has a torn meniscus in his right knee.
“It's hard,” Brown said. “When you take away Nerlens and you take away Joel Embiid and you take away Covington, it's hard. So you just have to rely on more team concepts. You've got to do everything by committee. It's not like you can make mistakes and there's Joel and Nerlens at the rim to put that fire out.”
The Sixers have surrendered 112, 122, 107, 107, 101, 99, 122, 113 and 141 in their last nine games, and were ranked No. 23 in average points allowed before eight Nets to score in double figures.
With that, Brown's singular goal was moving out of reach.
“That's the only numerical stat that I reference to our team,” he said. “The 30 wins and other things, I understand. But for me, it is that: It is being a Top 15 team with the understanding that we want to get in the top 10 next year.”