Throughout his first four seasons as the 76ers’ head coach, Brett Brown wore whatever public face, adopted whatever public pose a franchise that had committed to bottoming out needed him to take, and somehow, most of them, if not all, were sincere.
During The Process’ darkest days, when the Sixers were losing four games for every one they won over a three-year stretch, Brown often emerged from the postgame locker room looking as wrung-out as a damp dishtowel. He understood what he’d signed up for when Sam Hinkie hired him, but knowing that a hammer is on its way to the back of your head every night doesn’t necessarily ease the pain. So Brown would stand there, and he’d point out that JaKarr Sampson or Henry Sims had played a decent seven-minute stretch, and he’d plead for patience until the reinforcements arrived.
They started to show up last season, when Joel Embiid gave a 31-game glimpse of what he might become and Dario Saric showed he really had been growing his game while he was on the other side of the Atlantic. They kept arriving this season – Ben Simmons and JJ Redick and those midseason acquisitions of Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli – and given the salary-cap space the Sixers are capable of creating, there’s no telling yet what cornerstone players are coming this offseason. And with these improvements, with a 52-win season and a playoff-series victory, with on-the-record assurances from owner Josh Harris that the Sixers aim to keep him as their coach for a while longer, Brown has shown a face and pose he never could before: one of pride and defiance.
“I don’t feel like I’m owed anything,” he said last week. “I really don’t. I feel like I deserve a lot.”
That is, Brown, who has one year left on his contract, feels like he deserves an extension. By all available indications, he will get one; general manager Bryan Colangelo has confirmed as much. But it’s easy to forget now, in the light of the Sixers making a 24-win jump from last season to this one, just how much was on the line for Brown.
Colangelo had been brought in to accelerate The Process and he had no ties to Brown, no obvious loyalty to him, no duty to wait for him to prove that there was indeed an excellent basketball mind buried under that avalanche of losses. If Brown’s riskiest gambit – his belief that it would benefit the team most to turn Simmons into a 6-foot-10 point guard – had backfired, if Embiid’s development had stagnated, if Brown had failed to assimilate Redick and other veterans into the Sixers’ culture, would anyone have batted an eye if the content and tone of Colangelo’s postseason press conference had been completely different? The Toronto Raptors just fired a head coach who won 59 games this season. The notion that Brown’s job would have been secure regardless of the Sixers’ win-loss record is fanciful at best, and even Colangelo himself hinted that there was a bridge this season that Brown had to cross.
“He should have the opportunity to finish this job,” Colangelo said. “I think he’s taken a big step forward proving that, as the talent increases and the availability of his players is more consistent and as he can adapt and manipulate that talent. He’s doing a very good job.”
Any suggestion otherwise – for instance, that Brown was no match for the Celtics’ Brad Stevens in the conference semifinals – has to include the answers to a few questions: Now that this additional information and evidence about Brown’s coaching ability is available, who would be a surefire better option? What other head coaches in, say, the Eastern Conference would you rather have? Perhaps just the two whom Brown faced in the postseason: Stevens and the Heat’s Erik Spoelstra. Did Stevens, on the whole, outcoach Brown over those five games? Sure, but the gap wasn’t all that wide, no matter how beautiful and effective the Celtics’ out-of-timeout offense was. And if you want to get granular, remember: If Belinelli’s right foot had been beyond the 3-point line, instead of on it, during his game-tying, buzzer-beating jumper in Game 3, it might have changed that series completely, and Brown would have been lauded for drawing up a brilliant in-bounds play that freed one of the Sixers’ best shooters for an open look against the NBA’s best defensive team.
Besides, the criticism levied at Brown now, whether it’s deserved or exaggerated, is preferable to another offseason of emotional recuperation from an endless, hopeless string of 82 games.
“I am my harshest critic,” he said. “I’m fine on my personal judgment. I sleep at night. I sleep just fine at night.” No, Brett Brown wasn’t owed that peace of mind, that chance to see the Sixers’ rebuild through to its brighter and better end. But he did earn it.