The new-look Philadelphia 76ers are one of the top stories of the NBA season, so much that the season opener on Wednesday is being televised nationally on ESPN. The Joel Embiid-led Sixers will face the Kevin Durantless Oklahoma City Thunder, and while most NBA eyes will be on how Russell Westbrook handles live without his OKC co-star this season, many will be tuning in to see the Sixers new star, to get a glimpse of what this whole Process has been about.
Mike Breen is the lead NBA play-by-play man in the country, and will be calling the Sixers game alongside Jeff Van Gundy this week. We spoke about the game, the Sixers now and in the future, working with Van Gundy and the potential for a blowout and whether Brett Brown is the right coach for this team as the franchise goes from, ahem, Process to Progress.
‘Whoa, he put up those numbers? He did THAT last night?’
We spoke a lot about Embiid, as I wonder if fans around the country are as excited about his debut as people in Philly are. The NBA audience is incredibly savvy, but is this as big a deal to them as it is to us?
“It’s certainly not to the level nationally of what the Philadelphia fans are thinking yet because it’s been so long and I think some people might forget how good he was in the limited time they saw him play [in college] before he got hurt. But I think what’s going to happen is, in the first couple of weeks, people are going to see highlights or say ‘whoa, he put up those numbers’ or ‘he did THAT last night’ and all of the sudden it’s going to take off.”
Breen is a realist when it comes to early-season interest in the NBA, a league with a season that stretches from mid-October through June. Not everyone, even die-hard NBA fans, are watching Sixers preseason games.
“A lot of people don’t watch preseason NBA. The preseason, whether is was football going on or the presidential election, it’s been a little overshadowed this year with the exception of the Kevin Durant story. But I think once the regular season starts, and you start to see some highlights on a nightly basis, and start to see some box scores and the numbers he’s putting up, I think people are going to be crazed.”
‘Basketball fans love watching the young stars’
I didn’t even have to bring up Ben Simmons before Breen did, clearly wishing the first overall pick was healthy enough to play in this game. There’s as much interest nationally, if not more, in Simmons as there is in Embiid.
“That’s the thing about NBA fans all over: they love watching the young stars. They love saying ‘oh I remember watching him when he was a rookie, I knew he was going to be a Hall of Famer’ stuff like that. That’s what I think you’re going to see with Embiid.
“It’s such a shame he can’t start with the other kid from the beginning, because [Ben] Simmons already has a cult following nationally just from his limited college stuff [at LSU], so you put those two together and Okafor and all of the sudden you’re going to get interest.
“Basketball fans love watching the young stars in their early years.”
‘Trust the Process’
Last year, the top two stories in the NBA were clearly the Warriors going for the wins record and the Cavaliers and LeBron James ripping the title out of Steph Curry’s hands. Third was surely Kobe Bryant’s last season, then Kevin Durant’s rollercoaster in Oklahoma City, the Knicks mess.
It’s long been my contention that the Sixers, with all their near-record losses and Sam Hinkie’s departure — that letter! — and the Colangelos and all The Process talk and the first pick and just everything that has led to this season, are one of the most interesting and talked about teams in the league. Have I oversold that? Do people just not care?
“It’s somewhere in the middle. I don’t think it’s that way nationally, yet, but there is a — part of it is that it’s Philadelphia, and the 76ers history, and I think that any time, whether it’s Iverson getting inducted into the Hall of Fame, people think ‘ah, remember those Philly teams…maybe they’re going to be like that again…’ That kind of gets the interest going again.
“Young players…people love those young teams, saying ‘in a couple of years they’re going to be great.’ Unfortunately they’ve been saying that for a few years with them and with the horrible injury stuff they’ve had, the Sixers haven’t been able to take off.
“When you lose that much, I don’t think [interest in The Process] was that strong nationally.”
‘You focus on Embiid. That’s the big draw.’
Breen and I spoke about how the ESPN team will prepare for this game, knowing it could be a total blowout, with little interest on the court for the Sixers outside of one guy.
“Number 1, you focus on Embiid. I’ve never seen him play in person, so I can’t wait to see this kid play because I’ve been hearing from people down in Philadelphia and from people who saw him play before the injury, ‘hey, you think Okafor is good or Noel is good? This kid is so much better.’
“I keep hearing this, and how good he can be. I mean, you’re saying Olajuwon. That’s one of the all-time greats, not that you or anybody is comparing him to that yet. But I can’t wait to see him play and I think that’s why people are going to tune in, to finally see this kid and what all the hype is about.”
I did say in one of my questions during our conversation that the excitement around Embiid is so high because he’s showing skills a player at his size shouldn’t have after missing three years, and that on the court, there’s something about him that reminds me of Hakeem Olajuwon, if only he can stay healthy. I stand by that and hope I’m right. Anyway, back to Breen’s point:
“That’s the big draw. And the other thing…we will talk about how what a long, difficult process this has been and how painful it’s been and whether it’s going to be worth it at the end of the tunnel. There’s light at the end of the tunnel once these other guys get back from being hurt.
“I’m always a fan from my own standpoint of doing games of finding the kid that nobody talks about that is having a good game. Who knows, maybe T.J. McConnell goes off and has a good game. So stuff like that. To me there’s always interesting stories to the lesser guys, the non stars, but you still have to have the stars to draw the initial audience, so that’s where Embiid is going to be the focus from us in terms of the Sixers.”
‘He absolutely deserves a chance to coach a full, real, NBA team.’
There have been stories written this preseason to suggest Brett Brown might be on the coaching hot seat if the Sixers don’t win soon. My question to Breen is the opposite: if he’s this good of a coach, as everyone says, why is he still here? This is the worst marriage ever, and he’s still coming home to cook dinner every night.
“First of all, the guy is a terrific coach. I mean, he’s a really good coach. Ask Gregg Popovich about Brett Brown. That’s number 1. Number 2, the way he has handled the situation from the standpoint of remaining positive, being fired up about the organization, about the individual players, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen. I’ve watched this team a bunch…and how they still play hard, and how they still have enthusiasm for the game, despite just this brutal stretch, and he’s a big part of why that’s still the mindset.
“He hasn’t had a chance. I think if any coach has ever deserved to stay on and coach this team when they finally have some talent, this guy has. I remember Jeff once said, I don’t know if it was last year or before when they were having one of these brutal seasons, he said he thought Brett Brown should be one of the candidates for Coach of the Year. And we half laughed, but in some ways it’s true.”
It sounds silly to think that a coach who has won 47 games in three seasons — his next loss with be his 200th — should be a candidate for Coach of the Year, but the point is fair. What he’s done in getting a team with so little talent to compete each night is impressive. Now we get to see what he can do with actual talent. Soon, at least. Certainly Breen thinks so.
“What he’s done with this organization in this situation, I think has been as impressive as guys who take teams to conference finals and finals. He’s done an amazing job and I’m one who believes he absolutely deserves a chance to coach a full, real, NBA team.
“Often he was the front man who had to answer to all the issues. Now they have a bunch of people there and I think the Colangelos are great and will help turn it around, but he had to deal with a lot of the crap himself, being the front man. I hope they give him the chance to coach a real NBA team.”
‘What’s the matter with these idiots? Stick to the game!’
For those in Philly who don’t watch a lot of national basketball, they’ll get their first real experience with Jeff Van Gundy calling their local team. Breen and I spent some time talking about his partner this Wednesday.
“With him, I can bring up any topic, be it something to do with a player or team statistically, it could have something to do with a personal story on them, it could be something that’s in today’s pop culture, music, movies. He will have an answer for everything. You don’t ever have to preview anything for him, ever. You just throw it at him and he’ll have a response. Sometimes it’s fascinating, sometimes it’s really smart, sometimes it’s funny.
“For a play-by-play guy, you can’t ask for anything more, because you never have to worry because he’s always going to have a response to whatever you ask him.
“Last year we were doing a conference final game — I think it was in Cleveland, Toronto versus Cleveland — and it was such a horrible game, and this is one of the most important games of the season, and we were talking about our favorite TV shows from the ‘70s.
“And there was part of me that was saying, ‘No! No, we can’t do this,’ but the game was so horrible and the reaction was so good — a lot of people thought it was hilarious and funny, and of course there are going to be other people who think ‘what’s the matter with these idiots, stick to the game’ — but it was something I probably never would have tried with another announcer, but Jeff and Mark [Jackson] are so quick to follow those things, and they also know how far to go with it; that has a lot to do with it.”
‘There’s usually one or two a night where you’re like, ‘WHAT?!?’
Look, OKC is going to be good, and all eyes will be on Westbrook after Durant bolted to Golden State. The Sixers were supposed to be better, but with Simmons and Noel out, and many of the other Sixers hobbled, this is a bit of a one-man show. Are Breen and JVG prepping some topics for a blowout?
“It all depends on how the game goes, because you never know. I always say, the first two weeks of the NBA season there are results that you can’t believe. There’s usually one or two a night where you’re like, ‘WHAT?!? What happened?!?!’
“It’s just the funky results of the first two weeks of the season. So you can’t predict if it’s going to be a 40-point game [for OKC]. Philly could win by 20 for crying out loud. I’ve seen stranger things than that.
“But because it’s the first night, you look at each team and you go over each team in terms of their prospects, where they came from last year, what’s the long term, stuff like that. There’ll be a lot of Westbrook, of course, a lot about the Westbrook-Durant breakup of course, is Westbrook going to average a triple-double this year, all that stuff.
“We’ll get into some overall league stuff as well, but that’s all depending on how competitive the game is, too. If it’s a 30-point game in the second quarter, we’re doing ‘80s sit-coms and what happened in the playoffs last year. There will be ample time for league-wide issues.”
‘I think you’ll see some trades at the trading deadline.’
The Sixers have too many bigs. But they also have too many injuries, so I asked Breen how many of the bigs will still be with the team by season’s end. In short: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
“They’ll have value to other teams. Eventually they’re going to have to make a decision because they have too many people for just a couple of spots in terms of getting minutes. So that will have to change. But until, from a GM standpoint or a coaching standpoint, until everybody comes back from injury and you have that logjam, you can’t even think about that. You’ve got to hold onto those guys until they come back healthy. Because who knows?
“I think if they all come back healthy and they get that full compliment, I think you’ll see some trades at the trading deadline, there’s no question about it. But they can’t even think about it right now until those guys do come back.”
‘The light at the end of the tunnel’
Breen seems genuinely excited to call this game, to see Embiid, but also to see what kind of excitement the Sixers fans will bring to the season.
“Sixers fans are fantastic and they’re so hungry and desperate just for something positive to cheer about. And now this year they have a number of things to cheer about. The light at the end of the tunnel…it’s still a long tunnel, but now maybe you see the light down that far.”
The NBA season begins Tuesday night with three games, including New York at Cleveland and San Antonio at Golden State. The Sixers and Thunder face off Wednesday at 8p.m., the season opener for ESPN.