The Philadelphia 76ers spared head coach Brett Brown from purgatory Monday, as managing partner Josh Harris told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Brown would return to the team in 2019-20.
In doing so, they took the first step toward maintaining the continuity and cohesion they’ll need to accomplish their goal of completing the Process and winning an NBA championship.
Heading into Game 7 of the Sixers’ second-round series against the Toronto Raptors, Marc Stein of the New York Times reported Brown had “little chance of surviving a second-round exit.” One Kawhi Leonard game-winning buzzer-beater later, and it appeared as though four cruel bounces would condemn Brown to the unemployment line.
Instead, after players resoundingly backed Brown during their exit interviews Monday, the Sixers put an end to the speculation that had run rampant about his job status in recent weeks.
Granted, Harris and general manager Elton Brand fueled much of that speculation in the first place.
In early March, Harris described a potential opening-round playoff exit as “very problematic” and added, “We’d be unhappy. I’d be unhappy. The city would be unhappy.” Although he proclaimed the Sixers had “enough talent to win [it all],” he also said, “We want to make sure at a minimum to advance deeper in the playoffs than we did last year.”
Heading into the playoffs, Brand echoed Harris’ message.
“Expectations changed since the beginning of the season. Now I’m confident that my expectation is to make a deep playoff run,” he told reporters. “My goal and my expectation is to definitely get past where we got last year with this team. That’s why I made those moves. We got to the second round, we lost to Boston, so I expect us to pass that.”
While the Sixers fell short of the conference finals yet again thanks to Leonard’s heart-wrenching series-ender, this team has far more concrete reasons for optimism than it did a year ago. Whereas last year’s Sixers could sell themselves on the nebulous promise of salary-cap space and Markelle Fultz overcoming his mysterious shoulder injury, this year’s squad has the potential to keep its Big Four of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris in place moving forward.
Although the Sixers will become prohibitively expensive over the coming years if they retain that core, it’s the correct path forward. They were in a one-possession Game 7 against a Raptors team that very well could make it to the NBA Finals this year. If they re-sign Butler, Harris and J.J. Redick, find a playable backup center and round out their bench, the Sixers should flirt with a 60-win season in 2019-20.
Brown is the right man to oversee that team.
Turbulence has defined his six-year tenure in Philly, however. For his first few seasons, the team cycled through dozens of players on 10-day contracts, undrafted free agents and otherwise G League-caliber talent. Throughout it all, Brown remained fixated on his long-term vision: a defensive-minded, pace-and-space system that emphasized ball movement and physical fitness.
The draft rarely provided immediate relief for him, either. From Embiid missing his first two seasons with back-to-back foot injuries to Nerlens Noel missing his rookie season to recover from a torn ACL, Simmons missing his rookie season after suffering a freak foot injury in training camp, Fultz’s ongoing shoulder issues and Zhaire Smith’s severe reaction to a sesame allergy, the medical maladies became increasingly more outrageous as time went on.
(At this point, would anyone bat an eye if the team issued a press release titled “Sixers’ first-round pick loses arm after being attacked by shark with laser beam attached to its head” in September?)
As talent began to coalesce around Simmons and Embiid, Brown’s X’s and O’s acumen came under greater scrutiny. When Brad Stevens’ Boston Celtics repeatedly outexecuted the Sixers down the stretch of their closer-than-it-looked second-round series last year, murmurs grew louder about whether Brown was the Sixers’ version of what Mark Jackson was to the Golden State Warriors: the guy before the guy who would help them win it all.
Brown quelled some of those concerns with his tactical adjustments in this year’s playoffs, though.
After a dispiriting Game 1 loss against the Brooklyn Nets in the opening round, Brown removed backup point guard T.J. McConnell from his rotation and allowed Butler to operate as the team’s de facto backup floor general.
As a result, the Sixers won four straight games, including one without Embiid.
After a dispiriting Game 1 loss against the Raptors in the conference semifinals, Brown rejiggered his defensive assignments, slotting Simmons on Leonard and Embiid on Pascal Siakam. While Leonard continued to pour in points throughout the remainder of the series—SPOILER: he’s impossible to stop outright—Siakam went from dropping 29 points on 12-of-15 shooting in Game 1 to averaging 17.8 points on 38.5 percent shooting over the remaining six games.
Those adjustments helped Philly push the Raptors to the brink of elimination, though questions still remain about Brown’s ability to maximize the talent on this roster.
Until Simmons becomes willing to take open jump shots, Brown needs to figure out a way to better utilize him off the ball. Rather than hiding him in the dunker’s spot and clogging the paint, the Sixers could rely on Simmons more as a screener and rim-runner.
“It’s not about being in the dunker, because [my role] is definitely not that,” Simmons told ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe after the Sixers’ Game 6 win over the Raptors. “I’m more valuable than that.”
If the Sixers re-sign Harris on a max or near-max deal, they need to get more out of him next year, too.
His shot attempts and usage unsurprisingly dipped upon his arrival in Philadelphia—such is the cost of playing alongside three other All-Star-caliber players—but his true shooting percentage fell, too, even though his rate of 3-point attempts rose.
Harris is one of the few Sixers players capable of creating pull-up mid-range jumpers off the dribble, though he seemed hesitant to hunt for his own shots at times.
If Brown struggles to find the answers for those problems next year, he may find himself right back on the hot seat. But giving him a semi-normal offseason, training camp and preseason could go a long way toward addressing those concerns. (In other words, Elton Brand should keep his family members off Twitter.)
After a season in which Brown effectively coached three different teams—Remember: Markelle Fultz started for the Sixers on opening night!—Brown can only hope the Sixers bring back Butler, Harris and Redick, allowing them to further develop chemistry with one another. Instead of starting from square one with a new coach, the Sixers’ core will be familiar with his offensive and defensive schemes, which will give them a foundation upon which they can continue to build.
Brown has been with the Sixers since the start of perhaps the most ambitious rebuild in NBA history. He’s ushered them from sub-20-win seasons to 50-plus-win campaigns, building a culture that should make the team attractive to free agents and incumbent players alike. He deserves a chance to see this thing through, at least for one more season.
The 76ers also deserve kudos for acknowledging the critical role Brown has played in getting them to where they are today, even though they dragged their feet before doing so.
Brown is running out of time, but he deserved (and got) a little more of it.