For the 2017-2018 season, Brett Brown will be entering his 5th(!) season as the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. After four seasons, one would typically expect to have a gauge on whether or not a coach is the real deal. Unfortunately for Sixers fans, that is not the case with Brown. Although he has accumulated the worst career winning percentage for a head coach (those have coached at least 200 games), Brown has certainly entered every single season in less than ideal circumstances, to say the least. Where do I even start? He has never had a roster at full strength, as his two best talents (Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons) have participated in only 31 games combined (all of them, Embiid) due to injury. His former General Manager, Sam Hinkie (the GOAT), was intentionally making Brown’s short term player pool worse, for long term gains. Oh, and, one more thing: the franchise was systematically losing on purpose to strike lottery gold. So how does one evaluate Brett Brown?
Brown’s first tenure as a head coach was in the National Basketball League (NBL) in Australia, mate. He coached the North Melbourne Giants (1993 to 1998) and Sydney Kings (2000-2002), having huge success in the ‘94 season with the Giants, earning Coach of the Year honors and winning the franchise a championship. Through 278 games in the NBL, Brown’s winning percentage is 54%². While the NBL is a style all its’ own, with talent that pales in comparison to the talent of the NBA, Brown’s success demonstrates his ability to create a winning culture. It is difficult to bring home a championship, regardless of the league. A coach has to manage professional players’ ego delicately. A coach has to properly utilize an entire roster of players.
I will cede that the NBA is a different animal than the NBL, and the difficulty level increases. If the NBL was an NBA2K difficulty level, it would be Rookie, and the NBA would be Hall of Fame. So it would be naive to suggest Brown’s NBL success would directly translate to the NBA simply due to a competent roster, with players who are able, you know, play basketball. But his NBL career, coupled with years under the tutelage of arguably the greatest coach ever in Gregg Popovich, provide evidence that Brown has potential. So have we seen flashes of it being displayed at the Wells Fargo Center thus far?
As previously stated, Brown has had a rough go of things throughout the Process. So it would be unfair to judge him on wins and losses alone… err, it would be less than insightful. Instead, one must look to other results. One key area to evaluate Brown in would be player development. Brown and his staff have done very well in this field. Joel Embiid is a much more polished player than the raw prospect we saw at Kansas, who shot just 5 3PTs in his lone college season compared to a professional total of 98. Quite frankly, Brown and his staff taught Joel Embiid how to shoot threes. JoJo’s free throw percentage drastically increased as well, going from 68.5% at Kansas to 78.3% this past season.¹ Another example of a player Brown seemed to be able to get more out of was Michael Carter-Williams. While the inefficiency of MCW is well documented, Brown managed to display Carter-Williams as an asset that would ultimately land the Sixers Markelle Fultz. Possibly most impressive is the maturation as a player of Robert Covington (a man whom the nickname “Process” really describes.) Just a few years ago, Robert Covington was playing forward for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the D-League. Now he is one of the most respected wing defenders in the NBA.
Brown deserves a few knocks for never finding a fit for Nerlens Noel and being partly responsible for the value of Jahlil Okafor plummeting. But if you look at some more of the players Brown, again, just seemed to get more out of, it outweighs the negative. The list continues: Nik Stauskas, TJ McConnell, Richaun Holmes, KJ McDaniels. And in the case of Nerlens Noel, I’m not so sure he will get much better than the player Brown drew out of Noel. All of these players have played their best basketball under Brett Brown.
Fans should be confident in Brown’s ability to mentor young players and unlock their potential. Where Brown is questionable is in his strategy and in-game performance & adaption. He has demonstrated, at times, a knack for dialing up the right play. Think back to that glorious January run. There was a nail biter against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The score tied at 91. The clock had only 1.6 seconds remaining. The Sixers were ready to inbound after a timeout during which Brown constructed play. The T-Wolves, along with the rest of the crowd, knew exactly where the Sixers would like to go with the ball. Minnesota double teamed Joel Embiid. Except Brown took a risk, and called on Covington to take the game winner. Covington lost his man, Andrew Wiggins, pulling him into the maze that was Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Ricky Rubio. Tom Brady… whoops, I mean Dario Saric, threw Cov a dime. RoCo, channeling his inner acrobat, finished for the win. Alaa Abdelnaby reacted, “NOBODY thought that Robert was going to be open and able to finish.” Nobody, except Brett Brown.
— Simon Stéphan (@Simon_Stephan_) January 4, 2017
On the other hand, Brown has made major mistakes to cost the team games. Recall a November game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a game the Sixers had a chance to win more than once. After a comedy of errors to wind down the fourth quarter, which included 5 turnovers and 1-4 team shooting. But the Sixers still had a chance to win on an inbound play after a timeout. The set-up began and nothing happened: Gerald Henderson couldn’t find a single open teammate, so he called a timeout. Brown draws up a new play that’s just as terrible, targeting Ersan Ilyasova to take the game winner. Only problem? LEBRON JAMES WAS GUARDING HIM. Obviously, Ilyasova didn’t manage to get open. Henderson instead decides to inbound to Embiid, to receive the ball back on a handoff. Then Henderson proceeds to drive, turn the ball over and lose the game.
Sixers inbounds play 1 https://t.co/eRnk5lOlUV
— Crossing Broad (@CrossingBroad) November 6, 2016
Sixers inbounds play 2, gross https://t.co/bWtLx28n9W
— Crossing Broad (@CrossingBroad) November 6, 2016
Just a bad night right? Except Brown tried the exact same play in the home opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder, meeting the same failing fate.
Brett Brown is finally starting a season with an NBA roster. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that he is on the hot seat from the jump. But this ownership group won’t be as patient as they’ve been in the past, not when they’re shelling out $23 million to a guy in the hopes of proving to other veterans that Philadelphia is legitimate. And we’ve already seen a front office brass that has avoided the label of “the Process” at all costs, and demonstrated a desire to move on from any remaining inklings of the Process. As noted in my previous article, Brown is going to be put to the test early, managing a murky roster in terms of positional fit. He has shown the potential to take this franchise to heights not seen since the Iverson years. He needs to be innovative and committed to success. Or risk, indeed, being put on the hot seat come January. It is hard to tell if Brett Brown is the right coach for this franchise given the circumstances under which he’s been forced to perform, but Sixers fans are going to finally have an answer sooner than you might think.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports