The majority of Brett Brown’s five years with the 76ers can be summarized as a period during which he had neither players nor power at his disposal, but he navigated those still waters like a man who took no offense at what he lacked.
That bleak stretch remains a testament to the stubborn nature of Down-easters and their inbred ability to endure harsh conditions without complaint. Standing a lonely lighthouse watch with the winter wind gusting through the turret is child’s play compared to teaching Henry Sims to rebound.
Amazingly enough, Brown survived the storm and finds himself in a sunny spot few would have predicted, having both players on his roster and power within the organization. It took the embarrassing defenestration of Bryan Colangelo to achieve the latter, but for what might be the most critical month in the franchise’s development since he was hired, Brown not only has a say in the team’s direction — he has the say.
Co-managing partner Josh Harris filled the vacuum left by Colangelo’s departure by elevating his coach to lead the entire basketball operations department, at least until NBA commissioner Adam Silver tells him who to hire as the next general manager. This gives Brown the ability to direct the Sixers’ strategy regarding the upcoming draft, potential trades, and the team’s forays into the enticing free-agent market.
We’ll see how he does. Sometimes, it’s a lot easier to be a soldier than a general, but the sheer distance Brown has traveled since his arrival is impressive. He will enter his sixth season in the fall, and only two coaches – Billy Cunningham and Larry Brown – were in place for more games since the team moved to Philadelphia in 1963. Of course, those two were a combined 308 games over .500, so their longevity isn’t a surprise. Brett Brown needs to win 156 straight games to get his record back to even, and there are various reports that replacing the coach was somewhere on Colangelo’s to-do list before the team was forced to unfollow him.
Whether there was something the former GM found lacking in Brown’s actual coaching, or whether he chafed at the disparity in their popularity, or whether he didn’t like it when Brown put him on the spot by publicly campaigning for a big free-agent signing immediately, Colangelo could be a capable foe when he chose to be.
Now, that danger has expired, and we have reached a stage in the team’s development where Brown is running the show, and it is not entirely far-fetched to imagine him writing a starting lineup next season of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Markelle Fultz. Brown would have to direct some major wheeling and dealing – not to mention finding a Wayback Machine to fix Fultz’s shot – but, hey, it’s possible.
Comparing that to Brown’s first starting lineup of Evan Turner, Michael Carter-Williams, James Anderson, Thad Young, and Spencer Hawes (which beat James and the Miami Heat on Oct. 30, 2013) is like comparing a flowering rose to a seed pressed into unpromising ground. Not many gardeners get from one end of that life cycle to the other in the NBA, but there also haven’t been many comparable stretches like this for an organization. If it seems like forever since Doug Collins threw up his hands and Harris enlisted in the Sam Hinkie revolution, imagine how it seems to Brown.
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After Colangelo was removed and the new order installed, there has been the standard twaddle about working to achieve collaborative decisions among the team’s leaders. Harris said he expects “a lot of dialogue and debate around the table to develop a consensus” when it is time to make the big calls on the draft, trades, and free agency. That sounds great and really inclusive – particularly when you consider it took the organization a week to tell the boss that the general manager’s office was on fire – but it doesn’t work that way on draft night, when the phone rings and you have five minutes.
No, the eyes around the table will all look to Brown, and those eyes will be saying, “What should we do?” Brown, who is far from timid, will provide the answers, and time will be the judge of whether he had the right ones. It’s a vastly different role than the one he occupied five years ago, or even five weeks ago. It’s also a precarious one for a team that is on the precipice of greatness, but still can’t afford a major misstep.
Add it all up, and the next month will be the most fascinating, and most defining, portion of Brett Brown’s career in Philadelphia. That’s saying something, because it’s been a hell of a ride already, and if he thought it was lonely in the lighthouse before, that was nothing.
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