Philadelphia 76ers: Unwinding Brett Brown’s weird legacy in Philly

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

How will Brett Brown be remembered as Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach?

Brett Brown’s time in Philadelphia has come to an end. Adrian Wojnarowski reported earlier today that Brown has been let go as the Philadelphia 76ers‘ head coach. For anyone following this recent Sixers run of mediocrity despite expectations of achieving much greater heights, this was inevitable. It was a long seven years for Brown full of despair, heartbreak, hope, change, and yes, even a burner gate scandal from his superior.

Seven years is a long time to keep a head coaching job in the NBA. As of 2019, the average NBA head coach tenure is 3.7 years. Even more remarkable than keeping the job for seven years is that he did it despite three significant management changes. That is almost unheard of in this league.

When new management comes in, they often want to clean house, which includes the coach. The fact Brown was kept around as long as he was, despite a plethora of losing seasons and falling short of expectations, speaks to the character of a man who has the utmost respect around the league. That is what Philadelphia will miss more than anything. In one of, if not the toughest market to coach in across the league, Brown shouldered criticism, heard the boos, and took the heat all while remaining a class act.

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Fans have been calling for Browns firing for years now. Their wish was finally granted; however, no Sixer fan should be celebrating right now. The Sixers’ organizational failures and roster woes go way beyond their coach and will not be immediately fixed by whoever roams the sidelines next year.

Brown was not a perfect coach, he made mistakes and often criticism of him was justified. And if you want to argue that he lost his voice in the locker room and his players began to tune him out, I would not disagree.

But here’s the bottom line: Brett Brown is a scapegoat.

This offseason for the Sixers must be defined by way more than searching for a new coach. But this is not about what is to come, rather an account of what has been.

When examining Brown’s legacy in Philly, it is essential to remember the unprecedented circumstances he experienced and the impossible hands he was dealt. Let’s start at the beginning, back in 2013, when Brown was named the Head Coach of the Sixers by former general manager and president Sam Hinkie. Brown had no prior head coaching experience in the NBA but came over from San Antonio, where he served as an assistant coach, with a ton of promise learning from perhaps the greatest coach ever in Gregg Popovich.

Coinciding with the hiring of Brown came an implicit proclamation from Hinkie of the team-building strategy that would be implored: ‘The Process’. The goal of ‘The Process’. was to be as bad as possible for a few years to acquire young assets and draft picks that would eventually result in a championship-contending team.

While I am sure he was never explicitly told to lose a basketball game, Brown was tasked as being the captain of a sinking ship for the first four seasons of his head coaching career. In that span, the Sixers managed to lose 253 basketball games – which is a lot of losing. While Hinkie was not around long enough to see his masterplan through – he was exiled from the team and the league in April of 2016 – he was responsible for the acquisition of franchise-altering players. In Year 5 on the job, Brown unexpectedly turned the ship around, securing his first career playoff series victory over the Miami Heat before getting bounced in the second round.

The 2018 offseason was a whirlwind summer for the entire Sixers organization. It kicked off when Brown was rewarded with a three-year contract extension as head coach. He would soon assume managerial duties for the draft and free agency as Hinkie’s successor, Bryan Colangelo, was forced to resign.

There is no need to rehash the circumstances of Colangelo’s exit, but as everyone remembers it was not a quiet one. Following the burnergate fiasco, instead of scrambling to find someone to become the lead man upstairs, the Sixers gave Brown the responsibility of running the Sixers offseason until a replacement was found. Brown had strictly been a coach and had no prior experience in a front office. These extra duties were assumedly not ones Brown particularly enjoyed.

In September of that year, the Sixers promoted former player Elton Brand to the general manager position, relieving Brown of unwanted obligations. The 2018-19 NBA season was one filled with lofty expectations for the Sixers. Both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were taking the league by storm with All-NBA-level play and had gotten a taste of playoff basketball the year before. However, the supporting cast surrounding the two cornerstone pieces was not enough. Brand recognized that and made an immediate splash by pulling off two risky, win-now trades.

With risk can come great reward, or massive failure and unfortunately, Brand and the Sixers got the latter. The first trade came less than a month into the season when Robert Covington and Dario Saric, two Sixers starters, were shipped away to Minnesota for disgruntled star Jimmy Butler. The second big trade Brand pulled off that season was for rising star Tobias Harris, in which the Sixers gave away sharpshooting rookie Landry Shamet, among other players and draft capital.

At first glance, these seem like brilliant trades for the Sixers, and at the time, most fans were ecstatic about them. The thing about Harris and Butler was that they were on expiring contracts and set to be free agents the following offseason. Sixers management sent a message to Brown, the players, and the fans: It is time to win now.

It is not easy to assemble a team mid-season and go win a championship. The Sixers tried, and failed. They took the eventual champion Toronto Raptors seven games that ended with Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beater as time expired that touched every part of the rim before somehow, someway hitting the bottom of the net.

What people often forget about that series is that Brown was dealing with a sick and out-of-shape Embiid. The illness Embiid dealt with throughout the series forced him to be a game-time decision for many games in that series. Creating a game plan not knowing if your star player is going to take the court is no small task. Who knows how that series and everything that has followed would have gone if Embiid was at 100 percent, but no one wants to think about that.

That June, following the heartbreaking loss to Toronto, Brown give a speech at a basketball camp for kids. He told a story from his time in San Antonio about the Spurs 2013 finals loss to the Miami Heat. He talked about the devastation of that series in which they led 3-2 until Ray Allen hit the infamous corner three in Game 6 before the Heat closed out the series in seven games. Brown described the anger and frustration the Spurs felt and how it was mustered up into positive energy and a determination to run this thing back. Brown ended up leaving prior the start of the next season, but the Spurs would in fact go on to win the championship. The message of the story was clear: The sting of the Toronto loss will not go away anytime soon, but we will use it to be better.

In theory, it sounded perfect. The only problem was they did not run it back. Butler departed for Miami and J.J. Redick left for New Orleans. Brand gave Harris an absurd contract and then did the same with Al Horford. Brand put together a quirky roster with a bunch of overpaid guys who never found their footing. That led them to the six seed in the Eastern Conference and a first-round matchup with the Boston Celtics. Only this time, Simmons would be out the entire series with a knee injury. Another impossible hand dealt to Brown. Which led where we are today, Coach Brown without a job and the Sixers entire organization with more questions than answers.

There are a ton of ways to describe Brown’s tenure as the Sixers coach. Simply put, it was weird. From the day he was hired to his last game coached in an Orlando bubble in the middle of August in front of no fans. The entire seven years was unusual. In fact, I am not sure any coach in the history of the league has dealt with more bizarre, unfortunate circumstances than Brown did with the Sixers.

I personally saw Brown reach out to people going through difficult times in the area he did not know very well. He would stay in touch and offer tickets as a warm gesture. Brown’s impact on Philadelphia goes beyond basketball.

Woj just opened the Jay Wright Pandora’s Box. dark. Next

Whether he was coaching a team looking for their 10th win of the season in April or he was in a Game 7, Brett Brown gave it his all as the Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach. That is how he should be remembered in this city.  Not for the shortcomings or the questionable decisions, but for the fighter he is in a city full of them.