Over the course of the last 24 hours, the news FINALLY trickled down that the Philadelphia 76ers had ended their coaching search, tabbing Spurs Assistant Brett Brown as their choice. The team’s deliberate approach to their search, despite being without a coach since well before the end of the NBA playoffs, had drawn ire from fans, media, even former players, but this was an extremely important decision for the franchise in what has been their most dynamic offseason since the team signed Elton Brand in 2008. Whichever candidate the team decided on, was going to be part of the brain trust in place to pull the 76ers out of the irrelevance of the NBA and back into championship contention. Unfortunately for the organization, their selling point was not the most attractive one. Following their decision to trade away All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, the team’s talent level, as far as players with NBA experience went, dropped towards the bottom of the league. With their draft-night selections of Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel representing the future of the team, along with at least two first round picks in the 2014 draft, whoever ended up taking the coaching job had to realize that it may be a few years before the roster is fit to be labeled as a contender.
Once it became clear that new General Manager Sam Hinkie was going to be steering the franchise’s ship as far as reshaping the team into a contender, every decision made has been deliberate, forward-thinking, and with a definitive purpose. While there are certain elements of luck and chance in building any professional sports team, today’s NBA appears to have a formula for it. Unlike the NFL, where turning over a poor roster into a contender can be a rather quick process, the current format of the league has made matter difficult for teams to challenge the top title contenders. In fact, save for maybe Brown’s old team, the Spurs, whose crop of ‘superstars’ are at the back-end of their career, only the teams with at least one of the ‘superstar-caliber’ players on their roster seem to even have a chance. While the number of these talents may be arguable (in my opinion there are fewer than 10 in the league), acquiring a no-doubt ‘franchise player’ appears to be the only track to making a run at the NBA Finals. To put oneself in a position to bring in such a talent, a franchise can go one of two directions. The first is the Miami Heat approach. While Dwyane Wade had entrenched himself as the franchise player of the Miami Heat, the supporting roster and Wade’s limitations in his game had turned the Heat from NBA Champions in 2006, to a meddling group that appeared light years away from the team that had won the franchise’s first title. So the franchise decided to let their roster expire, so to speak, allowing themselves to maximize their potential salary cap space for a free agent offseason stock-piled with elite talent. With the added benefit of having Wade on the roster, who just happened to be friends and draft-classmates with LeBron James and Chris Bosh, the Heat were able to land the two top free agents in the class. They went from a fringe-playoff team to the top contender for the title. While this strategy takes multiple factors of luck out of the equation, with the CBA restrictions placed on the maximum contract that can be offered to a free agent, franchises must provide the ideal atmosphere for these players and it becomes more like a recruiting pitch than a meeting with a client.
For the teams that are unable to provide such a situation, they must hope to build their roster’s talent level through the draft. This approach leaves multiple variables to chance and teams must put their future in the hands of fate. For one, even the teams that post the worst record in the league are not guaranteed at having the top pick in the draft. In fact, in the 24 draft lotteries to date, the team with the worst record has only won three times. Even if a team happens to win the lottery and the first pick, there may not be any potential franchise-defining players in that year’s class. There are several teams, such as the Pacers and Warriors, who have built impressive rosters through the draft. It can be an arduous process that takes a great deal of patience as well as a strong emphasis on the player development area of coaching.
So as it stands, with a salary number that is well-short of the league-mandated salary floor of $52.81 million and a couple of picks in next year’s highly touted draft class, the Sixers appear to be giving themselves the option to take either approach, or even mix aspects of both toward a new approach.
With all of that taken care of, the team had a unique pitch to any suitors. While it was going to take a few years to reach a competitive status, the roster does boast a duo of impressive young prospects with at least two more probably coming during next year’s draft. The challenge would be to find a candidate that would be willing to deal with the first year or two of losing. While candidates were rumored, and ultimately picked off by other teams with coaching vacancies, a couple of names surfaced as the legitimate targets for the 76ers. Even before rumors of an agreement on draft night back in June, Brown was a name that was consistently linked to the Sixers’ search and clearly had the interest of the organization. The other target, a person familiar to the organization, was Michael Curry, an assistant coach for Doug Collins who had remained with the team. Curry had coached the 76ers summer league team and established himself as the preferred choice of the incumbent players, such as Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young. While other names were floated at different points during the search, Curry and Brown appeared to be the finalists for the last few weeks.
Obviously, with limited knowledge of Curry as a candidate, it is difficult for me to judge him based on a few summer league games and the opinions of a few players. However, even with no knowledge of Curry, I feel that the 76ers made the correct choice bringing in the San Antonio assistant.
Before discussing Brown’s appeal as a head coach, there is something to be said for Curry’s name remaining in contention throughout. From the way the search was handled, with such deliberation, the franchise must have had a confidence knowing that they could have Curry as their man even if every other option fell through. If this was the case, and Curry was hired by the organization, my expectation would be that he would only coach the team for one year. Obviously there have been instances where the ‘interim’ label is removed and a coach stays on board for an extended stay. Yet, for a team that is attempting to build around a small handful of young players with very little leadership, the flux of having your first head coach in the NBA ousted after just a year could be detrimental to a players development. Especially in the case of Carter-Williams, a point guard expected to carry a heavy load of responsibility as he develops as a pro, the relationship with a head coach is invaluable. Even if the team made it through the season with Curry, with their roster the way it is, expectations are that the team would struggle anyway. As it does not appear that the current management group wants much to do with the 76ers team it inherited, I would think they would have little problem using a sub par record as an excuse to show Curry the door in lieu of a more impressive candidate next offseason.
On that same note, the fact that Curry was the choice of the players from last year’s roster could not have held much weight. I still expect the organization to try to do whatever it takes to get out of its association with former 2nd overall pick Evan Turner and, while I do think there is a place in the rotation for Thaddeus Young, it is tough to see him as someone the organization feels they need to keep happy.
As the second Spurs assistant to land a head coaching job this offseason, Brown brings a lot to the table as the coach of the future. One interesting note to consider, as a popular figure in the coaching community, it was rumored that some did not want Brown to pursue the Sixers job, noting the rebuilding nature of the franchise as a deterrent. Even National Championship winning head coach Rick Pitino weighed in on Brown’s job search.
Rick Pitino warned Brett Brown not to be “somebody else’s sacrificial lamb.” Rebuild,then someone else comes in and reaps reward of his work
— John Clark NBC10 (@johnclarknbc10) August 12, 2013
While it is never great to see a team from one’s home city being painted in a negative light by NBA personnel, it is promising to see how far Brown’s reach goes in basketball circles. Not exactly a huge deal, just worth mentioning.
As far as what Brown brings to the table as a coach, it is easy to see why the Sixers tabbed him as a target. At 52, Brown’s experience in coaching is vast. In addition to being Gregg Popovich’s assistant in San Antonio for the last seven seasons (Brown was in the organization the last 11 years), he also coached the Australian National team in the 2012 Olympics. The expectations are that Brown will bring a great emphasis on player and skill development. As someone who has seen the Spurs establish themselves as one of the few modern-day dynasties in professional sports, Brown has gotten invaluable exposure to over a decade of how to manage a roster. One thing that the Spurs have done so impressively is maintain an organizational identity while shuffling the roster to remain competitive year-in and year-out. Of course, it helps having Tony Parker and Tim Duncan (and later Manu Ginobli) as cornerstones to build around. Still, there is something to be said for an organization that has managed three legitimate superstars while still being able to supplement them with players that can keep them competing for championships. In 2002, Brown was given a player development position in addition to being named an assistant coach. With a heavy emphasis on skill improvement, Brown was in charge of improving individual weaknesses in players. While the new coach will be unable to place excessive individual attention on one player at a time, it is promising that he has experience working with players who are struggling with an area of their game. Considering the team’s two most valuable pieces at this point, Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel, are flawed, albeit talented, it will be interesting to see if Brown can help the young men improve on the areas that kept them from the top of the draft board.
The hiring of Brown made things very clear that the organization has allowed Sam Hinkie to essentially pick and choose how he wants the framework of the franchise shakes out from the top to the bottom. Despite our limited knowledge of the Sixers’ GM, several qualities of Brown as a candidate only reassure the organization’s confidence in Hinkie. As an executive vice president of the Houston Rockets organization for the past eight years, Hinkie has gotten a fair share of exposure to how the Spurs have achieved success. Having shared a division with the Spurs since prior to the NBA realignment, the new 76ers GM has seen first hand what the NBA’s model franchise has done to stay not only relevant, but extremely competitive. Hinkie is of the mindset that the best rosters exhaust every resource possible when it comes to putting together the best team. There are certain teams in the NBA that seem to uncover every hidden gem in the draft, every international talent waiting to be discovered, and every player rotting in the D-League waiting for another shot in the league. The Spurs epitomize that approach more than any organization in the NBA. Looking at their roster, if you include Tim Duncan who was born in the Virgin Islands, the Spurs had nine international players on their 2012-2013 roster. The team’s three surprise contributors in the playoffs; Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and Gary Neal, have all spent stints in the developmental league before returning to the active roster. In addition to his experience coaching the Australian National Team, Brown’s experience with international players must have been a sticking point to Hinkie.
While we will certainly learn more about Brown when he is made available to address the media, what we do know about him is promising for the direction of the team. No matter how strong a candidate for a coaching position is, there must be some level of skepticism entering a situation as bleak as the 76ers is. The franchise reportedly guaranteed all four years of Brown’s contract, so they have shown him a confidence that he is their choice for leading their revamped roster, whenever that may be. If nothing else, at this point it is a relief to not hear any more criticisms of the organizations pace at which they operate. It is no secret that this process is going to take some time and will probably get worse before it gets much better. With the struggles that are ahead of the organization, waiting a few months for a coach to be announced will probably become a welcome wait down the line. As it stands now, it is probably best to get used to following a team with a front office and framework that weighs every single variable with every single decision before finally committing themselves to it. While the coaching search may have flirted with excessiveness at times, there’s nothing wrong with following a franchise that does not jump at the first logical choice in every area, potentially missing out on more suitable options. It will be interesting to see if Hinkie and the rest of the organization can put up with the high expectations set out by the media and fan base. However, if they approach every important decision in a manner that keeps emotion and outside influence out of the equation, it might end up yielding a superior product down the road. While I haven’t enjoyed the waiting for some of their decisions, I have enjoyed the results of every one. The best organizations in sports have a certain element of coldness and calculation in the way they go about their business. While it may not always be the easiest situation to follow as a fan or member of the media, ultimately this approach is the one that produces championships. Just ask the Spurs. Four titles in fourteen years of being the boring, unspectacular, forgettable franchise in the organization sounds pretty good to me. Just ask Brett Brown how it feels, he was there for all of it.