Philadelphia 76ers: What Kenny Atkinson’s firing says about Brett Brown

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

By firing Kenny Atkinson, the Brooklyn Nets have set themselves up for success moving forward. Can the Philadelphia 76ers say the same about Brett Brown?

Brett Brown has won .5 percent more of his games with the Philadelphia 76ers than Kenny Atkinson did over his 308 game tenure with the Brooklyn Nets. Both began their head coaching careers at the helm of a rebuilding franchise, and through some hard work, player development, and ingenuity, transformed their respective clubs into perennial postseason contenders.

Both franchises have an All-Star in both their frontcourt and their backcourt and have amassed a solid collection of talent before capping out their roster in the summer of 2019.

And yet, with some 20 odd games left to play in the 2019-20 NBA season, Atkinson is officially out of a job while Brown continues to push his team towards arguably the most consequential postseason run in franchise history.

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Did the Nets move on too quickly? Or have the Sixers allowed Brown to waste precious time and a ton of resources without much to show for it?

Ironically enough, in 2015, the 76ers and Nets were in remarkably similar (bad) situations.

After spending the first part of the century grasping at any possible path to contention, including a pair of bonkers trades for Andre Bynum and half of the Boston Celtics‘ 2008 championship squad, the franchises found themselves trapped at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings with little hope of returning to the title conversation.

Actually, scratch that, one of the franchises had a plan.

With Sam Hinkie in place at general manager, the Sixers undertook the most radical player acquisition strategy in the history of the NBA, maybe sports in general: The Process. Empowered with an ability to trade anyone at any time for any future asset down the line, Hinkie amassed a mountain’s worth of treasure that would make a fictitious dragon blush, all the while developing future players for some mystical team down the line. Hinkie also mastered the art of adding supreme talents at a discount due to injury or contract status – drafting 2016 Rookie of the Year finalists Joel Embiid and Dario Saric two years earlier in 2014.

This foresight gave fans in Philly hope, something their counterparts in Brooklyn could only dream of.

You see, to secure the ‘New Look Nets’ made famous by a now-hilarious Sports Illustrated cover, Brooklyn had to trade away an absolute Brinks truck of compensation, including three unprotected first-round picks and the rights to swap firsts in 2017. This trade secured for the Celtics Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and, in a roundabout way, Kyrie Irving, while leaving Brooklyn in a near-hopeless cycling of losing without the benefits of losing.

And yet, back against the wall, General Manager Sean Marks found a way to make his team competitive.

By identifying undervalued assets in their price range, Marks delivered his head a coach solid roster featuring eventual starters like D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris, and Caris LeVert. This team overachieved down the stretch in 2018-19 on their way to an eventual first-round playoff bout against the Sixers and paved the way to the Knicks-spurning marquee signings of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.

Hmm, overachieved, you say? Who does that sound like? Oh yeah, the Sixers. Weird.

The Sixers had their own surprising turnaround in 2018 when the team won 16 straight down the stretch on the back of 2017 Rookie of the Year winner Ben Simmons to earn a surprise playoff appearance. Rejuvenated by the buyout additions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, the Sixers finished out the season with a 52-30 record and made it all the way to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, where they lost to their division rival Boston Celtics.

Things were good in the City of Brotherly Love. Sure, the Sixers lost out on the LeBron James-sweepstakes and traded away hometown hero Mikal Bridges on draft night under the tutelage of interim-GM Brett Brown, but they retained J.J. Redick and looked primed to make a run at it with a one-year older roster.

Enter Elton Brand.

Under Brand’s rule, the Sixers effectively turned over their roster twice over a six-month stretch, flipping Dario Saric and Robert Covington for Jimmy Butler, and a trio of players plus two draft picks for Tobias Harris and company. Brown’s squad still finished out the season in the third seed, an impressive feat when you consider the turnover, but the damage had been done: Fans, pundits, and writers alike openly questioned if Brown was the man for the job.

Tasked with coaching for his life in a first-round bout with Atkinson’s Nets, Brown and the Sixers found a way to overcome yet another Embiid injury and came four bounces away from their penultimate goal of punching their tickets to a date with the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals.

But which season was truly indicative of the Sixers? Was it the plucky crew of overachieving youngsters who weaseled their way into the playoffs, or was it the team struggling to stay afloat despite a massive injection of top-tier talent? And more importantly, was Brown the man for the job?

That choice will go on to define the 76ers for the foreseeable future.

Had the Sixers cut ties with Brown, a move the team’s ownership group was reportedly mixed on, they would have had coaching prospects the world over lining up for an interview. Monty Williams would have been in play, as would Taylor Jenkins, and potentially even everyone’s favorite Philly suite Phanatic Jay Wright. Mark Jackson, David Fizdale, Jason Kidd. You name a head coaching candidate, and I guarantee they’d be lining up for a chance to pitch why they could deliver a championship with a roster built around Simmons and Embiid.

Presuming everything else remained the same, this head coach would have had a hand in building a roster that fits their wishes and may have opted against letting Butler walk, re-signing Tobias Harris, and/or adding Al Horford for a cool $109 million.

Everything could still be the same, but with one final chance to reshape the roster before the franchise’s cap situation goes off a cliff for the foreseeable future, it’s hard not to look back at this stretch and dream about what could have been.

In a way, what the Nets did was out of courage, not fear. Would it have been easier to keep Atkinson, the coach who built a winning tradition that drew the attention of Irving and Durant in the first place? 100 percent. However, if the franchise knew wholeheartedly that Atkison wasn’t the guy, why waste a year to double-check that theory?

Every coach under the sun would line up to coach an Irving-Durant pairing, and now, with an extra month of foresight, the team can identify the perfect person for the job, even if the search ultimately starts and ends with Tyronn Lue.

As sobering as it sounds, the Nets don’t want to become the Sixers. They understand that they have a limited window to contend, a maxed-out salary cap, and a collection of mercenaries with little connection to the Nets culture of yore. To keep everyone happy, fans in the seats, and fans tuning into games in the crowded New York television market, they need to put the best product possible to keep people engaged.

If you can’t upgrade the roster via free agency, never have lottery draft picks, and have committed to a win-now philosophy, the only real factor left to change is the head coach, for better or worse.

Is firing Atkinson with 20 games left to play a bad look, especially after blowing out the San Antonio Spurs 139-120 the night before? Maybe so, but by all accounts, it was a move that was a long time coming.

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Ultimately, is Brett Brown a better head coach than Kenny Atkinson? Who’s to say. They have the same winning percentage, were hired to do one thing, and vastly outperformed their initial expectations to take their teams to another level. They’ve also both received their fair share of scrutiny for their (in)ability to adjust their schemes to star players and have had their long-term viability scrutinized by their own fans. The only difference is that one was fired after a season and a half of contention, and the other is about to lead his team to a third straight 50-win season, and a third-straight premature playoff exit. Which franchise is in a better position going into 2020-21?