The Sixers won their biggest game of the year: the culture battle

Updated: Tuesday, April 21, 2015 07:00 AM

It was one criticism of the Sam Hinkie plan that sounded scary. That sounded legitimate.

How could the Sixers develop good habits while playing losing basketball? How could Brett Brown possibly keep the locker room together while losing game after game after game?

With the exception of some minor bickering between since-departed Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel over ball movement, the Sixers locker room has been extremely tight, and as close as any 18 win team you’ll find.

“The attitude was great, the guys were great, guys got along. It was a great locker room,” Luc Mbah a Moute, one of the two real veterans on the roster, said after the final game of the season. “I love it here. I like what they’re doing in trying to develop guys, and I see the pieces that they’re putting together.

‘It was way easier. I thought it would be really hard,” Luc Mbah a Moute said about his expectations after being traded to the Sixers. “I definitely think that’s something I want to be a part of.”

The answer was something you wouldn’t expect from Mbah a Moute, who will turn 29 by the start of next season and is firmly in his physical prime.

But, as the season wore on it was a theme that became increasingly obvious, especially among the two veterans that the Sixers had on their roster.

“I’ve been on bad teams, losing teams, where guys are just counting down the days to go home,” Jason Richardson said. “Nobody was coming in and talking about summer vacation [here]. That’s a good testament to the type of guys that are in this locker room and how much they care about this organization.

“It was a great experience for me. I really like being around these guys. The guys like to be around each other,” Richardson said.

The first step in being able to maintain a positive culture came from Sam Hinkie. It was one benefit of the design of the team and the types of personalities he pursued.

There was much talk about the necessity of veteran presence on the team, and certainly experience from a peer is a good teaching tool for young players looking to develop in their craft. But having a roster comprised entirely of people looking to prove themselves helped promote consistent effort, even in the face of losing.

When you look at the 9 players who logged the most minutes for the Sixers this season, 4 of them were rookies with no NBA experience entering the season. Others, such as Henry Sims and Hollis Thompson, may have played last season, but they still had plenty to prove. Robert Covington, who played the second most minutes on the Sixers this season, was in the D-League when the season started.

Even the old guys on the roster, Jason Richardson and Luc Mbah a Moute, had plenty to prove.

Richardson, who was working his way back from 2 ankle injuries and a fracture in his foot, had to prove he was still an NBA player.

“The foot fracture, that was the one that I was like “I’m done. There’s no way [I’m coming back]’,” Richardson told me after the season. “I worked my butt off, I did everything I was supposed to do.

“It was like a blessing in disguise, though, because my knee really wasn’t as strong as it [needed to be],” Richardson concluded.

Luc Mbah a Moute, more known for his defensive presence, was given a green light on the offensive end that he had never previously enjoyed in his career, and with that green light came a desire to prove that he could extend his game out to the three point line with consistency.

“Any time you have a coach that believes in you, you want to give 150%,” Mbah a Moute said, explaining the team’s consistent effort. “That’s what coach [Brown] does. He believes in his players. He believes in developing them and allowing them to play to their full potential.”

While Sam Hinkie’s controversial roster construction helped keep the Sixers effort level high, it’s head coach Brett Brown who deserves the lions share of the credit.

“It’s more than just basketball,” Luc Mbah a Moute said about Brown as a coach. “We’re still human beings. We still have to live, we’re not just basketball players. I think he does more than just draw X’s and O’s.

“It’s probably one of the best experiences I’ve had with a coach,” Mbah a Moute said.

That effort became one of the calling cards for a club consistently on the wrong end of a large talent discrepancy.

The Sixers had the best defensive rating in the league (98.1) in the 4th quarter. They forced the 2nd most 4th quarter turnovers in the league, averaging 4.2 turnovers forced per 4th quarter, behind only Dallas’ 4.4. Both are signs that the Sixers effort level remained high*.

“The fact that he talks to me is just a big difference right there,” Thomas Robinson, the former 5th overall draft pick turned NBA vagabond, said when asked how Brown was different. “I never had that from a coach in this league, to make me feel comfortable when I mess up.”

It’s that attention, the attention to detail, the attention to the needs of his young players, that may separate Brown from the crowd. Hired in large part as a result of his pedigree as a player development coach with San Antonio, Brown’s ability to engage with his young squad and get them focused on behavior, on repeated behaviors that turn into habits, may be his calling card.

Beyond effort, Brown also scored well on a personal level.

“Everybody feeds off of him a little bit. He’s not a yeller, he’s more like a teacher,” Luc Mbah a Moute said. “He works for guys, he develops guys, and he’s patient. He’s been great this year.”


*Note: Some would argue the Sixers defensive ability in the 4th quarter was tied to them consistently being behind. While there may have been some of that, three things make me dubious whether that was actually the case. First, neither the Lakers nor the Wolves, who were both regularly behind entering the 4th quarter, showed that kind of improvement on defense late in games. The Lakers were 23rd in 4th quarter defensive rating, the Wolves dead last. One would presume they would see the same benefit from teams not trying. Second, the Sixers “clutch” defense, which is the last 5 minutes of the game, within 5 points or less, was the 8th best in the league, indicating that they executed in the 4th quarter of close games as well. Finally, the Sixers had a defensive rating of 78.2 in the 4th quarter games that they won, indicating that improved defense late in games was one of the key components in those victories.


Derek Bodner

Derek Bodner is a credentialed reporter covering the Philadelphia 76ers independently for He is also a college basketball scout for, and an NBA contributor for The Ringer. Contact Information: / @DerekBodnerNBA

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  • tk76

    I remember back when the team was losing 17 straight wanting some amount of vet stability so that they could at least start executing basic offense and defense to help the developmental process. But on the flip side, bringing in vets on a losing team is really dangerous. Bad, vet laden teams get really toxic and often tune out their coach. Think the Arenas gunslinging Wiz or the Eddie Jordan Sixers. They are the last place you want to try and develop young talent.

    So I give the team credit for rounding themselves into a somewhat competitive team on most nights despite the lack of vets. Certainly the addition of Covington, a competent scorer/shooter, really helped. But they also learned to be competitive even when they had the likes of Grant/Jakaar/Hollis all on the floor. That is a major win for the coaching staff, who really was able to make something cohesive out of the most raw assemblage of player I think we will ever see. And to at the same time see Noel blossom amidst this potential chaos it an even bigger feather in their cap.

    • tk76

      Derek, any editing feature for comments?

      • Derek Bodner

        The best editing features is proofreading 🙂

        Not sure, I’ll look into it. I do like the way that sbnation does it, where you can only edit up to a certain amount of time.

  • This blog is awesome.

    • Derek Bodner

      So is your handle.

      I’m assuming you’re actually from Greece? (Not just Greek heritage living in the US?)

      • Thanks Derek, no I live in Jersey But I have a house in Greece and go once a year. Also my wife is from Greece. My sling box came in really handy when I was over there last summer during last years draft, I was so afraid that we were going to draft Exum. Thank god we drafted Embiid. .

        Derek I would like to ask you about Wroten. With his propensity for turnovers, his low field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage I see no future for him to be on this team next season. And I would bet a good amount that there is no way he is on the 2016-17 roster. Do you feel this is a case of the Sixers just wanting to flip him for anything which will probably be a second round draft pick or do you think that he might actually have a future with the team be on next season?

        • Derek Bodner

          That’s cool. Greece is on my short list of places I have to go to asap. I went to Rome last fall and it was spectacular. I love history, particularly from that time period, and I have to get to Greece (and Istanbul, for that matter. Heck, I’d love to get to Syria if it were safe, but I’m not crazy enough to do so right now).

          • Derek when you decide to go to Greece please contact me privately on twitter so that i could tell you the best island or islands to go to. I recommend landing first in Athens, seeing the Parthenon and then getting out of there and to the islands as fast as possible. If your a one island guy or a multiple island guy between my wife and I we can give you great recommendations.

            • Derek Bodner

              Will do. Definitely open to some recommendations from someone with first hand advice. It’s nothing imminent (already traveled a ton in last 6 months), but it’s definitely on the short list.