Brett Brown kept Philadelphia 76ers players’ and fans’ spirits aloft through the worst dog days of The Process.
He led the early development of budding stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
He remained upbeat through 253 losses in four years.
Now that the squad is a legitimate contender in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, however, the whispers have started: “Is Brett Brown still the right head coach?”
Is that unfair? Sure. Does that go with the territory any time the pressure cooker of expectations gets turned up? Yes.
So what does his 2019 NBA Playoffs performance so far tell us?
Why He Should Stay
Brown’s assignment has never been easy.
When the playoffs began, the Sixers’ starting five had only played a grand total of eight games together all season. Jimmy Butler joined the team midseason, Tobias Harris joined at the trade deadline and Embiid battled injuries.
Brown, therefore, is still trying to turn a loose collection of talented individuals into a cohesive unit.
Nevertheless, after the Sixers suffered demoralizing Game 1 losses to both the Brooklyn Nets and the Toronto Raptors, the team returned with solid victories in both Game 2s.
Credit Brown for making some adjustments.
For example, in Game 1, Raptors power forward Pascal Siakam went 12 for 15 from the field—a 29-point combination of threes, short-range jumpers, slashing bank shots and dunks. Kawhi Leonard piled on another 45.
Game 2, Brown switched defensive assignments: Instead of Jimmy Butler guarding Leonard, the larger Ben Simmons took primary responsibility for corralling Kawhi. Tobias Harris was moved onto center Marc Gasol, so Embiid could focus on guarding against Siakam’s forays into the paint.
The result? The Sixers held the Raptors to just 89 points total. Siakam had 21, and Leonard 35.
Brown also judged correctly this season when he empowered Butler to be The Closer. Clutch time is Jimmy Time. Everyone knows that, and it works.
The squad is prepared to let Butler play some hero ball in Q4. When the pressure is at its highest, Brown’s young team now seems primed and ready to follow the lead of an extremely competitive veteran who always defends hard.
That trust and leadership is essential in games like Monday’s Game 2 matchup against Toronto, when the Raptors nearly stole a win. Butler helped hold them off, with three assists, three defensive rebounds and 12 points during the fourth quarter.
Brown said Butler “was just a tremendous rock. He willed us to a lot of different situations.”
Butler, however, was in position to do so because Brown put him there over the 2nd half of the season, and that’s a point in the head coach’s column.
WHY he should go
Brown runs the Philadelphia offense through Joel Embiid. With little to no exception, Philly’s talented, outspoken center is the go-to guy.
However, it’s risky to place the Sixers’ postseason entirely on Embiid’s back. Blame it on injury, illness, inexperience, indecision or an incomplete skill set, but Embiid is not capable right now of shouldering the entire burden.
Brown could do more to set Embiid up for success and to enable the rest of the team when its center is struggling.
Embiid is most dominant when he’s close to the hoop, using his physical power. Yet, when the Sixers feed him the ball, he’s often all the way out behind the arc.
If he were Giannis Antetokounmpo, he could Eurostep his way all the way from there to the bucket. And if he were Kevin Durant, he could catch-and-shoot a three over whatever helpless defender might be contesting. Yet, Embiid does not have the speed or dexterity to execute any drives that long, and he’s a merely capable three-baller. (30.0 percent during the regular season; 4 for 19 in the postseason.)
Further, with the exception of JJ “Always Be Cutting” Reddick, the Sixers can become stagnant on offense. They get the ball to Embiid and then hang out while he contemplates, gathers, dribbles, gathers again, hopefully shoots but maybe turns it over. (He has the same 3.0 turnovers per game as primary ball-handler Simmons, despite playing only 26.5 minutes compared to Simmons’ 35.0)
Brown could work on ways to keep players moving, feed Embiid on the block and give him space to operate inside.
He could also put his other young star, Ben Simmons, to better use.
The Sixers are one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the league, and, have a starting point guard who’s a killer in transition. Yet, their 12.0 fast-break points per game is twelfth among playoff teams. (They were a better, but still middling 10th place with 15.0 FBPS during the regular season.)
They are most effective when aggressive, and particularly when Simmons is on the attack. However, Simmons will often slow things down and let the defense catch up while they can set something up in the halfcourt (for Embiid).
Brown needs to let Simmons off the leash more often. And he could also stand to get the ball out of his hands, letting him post up on mismatches or become a secondary playmaker off cuts and slashes. (To Brown’s credit, he started allowing more of this out of necessity during the Brooklyn series, but it should have been a focus all year.)
Conversely, we all know Simmons must improve his shooting. Forget the jumper; let’s consider the free throw. Simmons was only 60.0 percent from the line this regular season and is 14 for 25 in the playoffs (56.0 percent).
Philadelphia owes Brett Brown. After forcing 250 losses down his gullet, the Sixers owe him one more season to prove he’s the head coach that can lead a championship team to victory.
After all, he’s gotten them this far to the point where the expectations have become real.
But can Brett Brown be the tactician they need deep into a playoff run? Is he really helping Embiid’s skill set develop? Is he getting the best value out of Simmons? Can he unify (and re-unify) a team that might continue to have a rotating door of free agents (many of whom have strong personalities)?
All these are questions the 76ers organization must ponder, sure.
Sara Peters is a 17-year journalist who covers cybersecurity by day, basketball by night. She spent the past four seasons enduring a relentless barrage of losses as a featured New York Knicks columnist for Bleacher Report. She loves driving point guards, passing centers, scrambles for loose balls, buzzer-beating blocks, Allen Iverson, and tearful memories of Drazen Petrovic. Sara lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter @3FromThe7.