A Tribute to Brett Brown, Who Deserved Much Better From Philadelphia
Updated: Aug 25, 2020
Expectations were lofty in Philadelphia this season, as the 76ers were projected to be one of the best teams in the league. They were the most likely team to win the East in FiveThirtyEight's preseason projections, they were the third-most picked team to win the Finals among ESPN's columnists, and they were among the top five at nearly every major sportsbook.
But when they took the court, they simply didn't work together. Al Horford, the team’s prized free agency acquisition, did not fit with the team’s two best players, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Tobias Harris, the man who they paid a hefty price in assets and in cash for, failed to be a max player. The elements that fit best around Embiid and Simmons—ball handling and shooting—were nowhere to be found.
The Sixers finished the abbreviated 2019-20 season 43-30, only good enough for sixth place in the East. On Sunday they were swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the postseason—not exactly the result you expected from a team “built for the playoffs.” And like many people in the organization, head coach Brett Brown looks to be out of a job soon.
Brown was the head coach of the 76ers for seven seasons, but his tenure felt eons longer. He was hired at the start of The Process all the way back in 2013, and saw more in those seven years than most in the business see in a lifetime.
Brown shouldered a lot of undeserved blame, weathered countless PR storms, and acted as the spokesperson far too often for an organization that spoke to the public far too little. He was the face of the Sixers for several years as they remained a mostly blank slate. Coaches of losing teams are often easy targets, and Brown was treated no differently. When the team got competitive, many expected him to be let go in favor of a more experienced name.
Then Joel Embiid played, and things changed in an instant. The No. 3 pick in 2014 spent two years on the shelf, rehabilitating injuries and honing skills while the on-court product stunk (as you would expect, Brown had to explain that to the press too).
When he finally stepped on the court, the Sixers weren’t just watchable—they were good: in Embiid’s rookie season (2016-17), the Sixers had a plus-3.0 net rating in his 783 minutes on the court. Put another way, they were on pace for about 50 wins when Embiid played.
This caused a shift in the organization’s thinking, as they surrounded Embiid and Simmons with veterans such as J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson. The 2017-18 team blew expectations out of the water, finishing with a 52-30 record, the 3 seed in the East, and a starting lineup that had the best net rating in the league. They lost their second round series to the Celtics that year, but the future was glistening.
Was. Just weeks before the 2018 draft, a Twitter scandal got then-lead executive Bryan Colangelo fired, putting the organization in a bind at one of the most crucial times of the year. Colangelo’s underlings formed a collective front office in his absence, with Elton Brand acting as the final decision-maker.
Brand's first season in charge, 2018-19, brought about tons of roster turnover. The Sixers traded for Jimmy Butler in November and Tobias Harris in February. The final product of those trades was tantalizing, but it also lacked continuity; Brown effectively coached three teams over the course of that season. The loaded starting lineup of Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris and Embiid took the eventual champion Toronto Raptors to seven games in the conference semifinals, only losing on a four-bounce shot by Kawhi Leonard at the buzzer.
Jimmy Butler left for Miami last summer, and the Sixers pivoted to a lineup of large lads. Simmons, Josh Richardson, Harris, Horford and Embiid sounded a lot better on paper than on hardwood though, and it’s unlikely that a different coach would’ve made them much better.
The one constant in all of this change was in fact Brett Brown. The front office was overhauled in the middle of the 2015-16 season and then again in the summer 2018. The roster changed seemingly every few months from Embiid’s rookie season on. Even his staff changed from year to year; three of his former assistants now coach their own teams, and one other is the men’s head coach at St. Joseph’s University.
The off-court happenings were just as hectic as the basketball. From Embiid’s career uncertainty to Markelle Fultz forgetting how to shoot to Colangelo’s unique mishap, Brown saw more in seven years than most coaches see in their entire careers.
And at the end of it all, he got most of the blame. Coaches are often the scapegoats for unstable organizations, but make no mistake: the front office deserves much more blame than Brown. The Gregg Popovich disciple had his warts, most notably being stubborn with defensive schemes in the postseason, but ultimately a team goes as far as its players go.
Brown was a talking point on any night the Sixers underperformed, right or wrong. He seemed to be on borrowed time from the minute he was hired, and rarely got credit for their success—only their failures.
Well, here you go Mr. Brown. You were an excellent person throughout the entire rebuild, somehow keeping an upbeat and motivated culture around the team through constant losing. You spoke for the team when it refused to speak for itself, giving the media a ridiculously easy target while maintaining pristine composure. You aged like the President with all the shit the organization put you through, but also like fine wine with how entertaining your pressers were as your tenure went on.
It’s hard to say anything bad about you as a person, either. You were a class act through it all, all the way up until your final postgame presser on Sunday. Players generally liked you, and people around the league have little bad to say about you. How you stayed composed through all this deserves some sort of award.
And all of this is to say thank you, Brett. You were loved by the good parts of Sixers fandom, and appreciated by many more. You’re sure to find another job if you want one, but after what this team put you through, I wouldn’t blame you for hanging up the suit (polo?) and taking some well-deserved time off.
From the bottom of our hearts here in Philly, we wish you nothing but the best going forward.