Brett Brown has been through hell. He doesn’t want to go back.
In his five seasons as Sixers coach, he seldom has strayed from the company line, no matter how opaque or absurd it was. This time, he’s speaking his mind.
The Sixers are very good but, after their five-game dismantlement by the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, it’s clear that they’re not close to winning a title. Brown has trusted The Process. For him, The Process is over.
He wants to win it all, right now.
His boss, Bryan Colangelo, is still Processing.
Brown has never crossed swords with his supervisors, but then Brown has never had leverage.
It will be fascinating to watch how this unfolds, especially since Brown is not under contract past next season.
“I think a high-level free agent is required,” Brown said at his exit interview earlier this month.
Unsaid: So go get me one, Bryan.
The Sixers can entice free agents with Embiid, Simmons, their 52-win season, their playoff series win over Miami and as much as $35 million in pending salary-cap space.
“I feel like we have the ability to attract one,” Brown said.
Unsaid: So no excuses, Bryan.
There should be no excuses. A couple of weeks ago, Sixers owner Josh Harris said that he’s willing to pay a luxury tax in the near future to retain the Sixers’ best young players. The Knicks (and Nets) are punchlines in The City and Brown has given Harris a trump hand over Harris’ cronies in New York, so Brown has Harris’ ear, not to mention his heart.
And so, for once, Brown ignored the company line and walked his own. Brown wants a run in the LeBron James Sweepstakes. He wants to be a suitor in the Paul George courtship. He wants his voice heard in the Kawhi Leonard trade talks.
Colangelo seemed stunned. He either played coy or he played dumb — it’s hard to tell — but he didn’t play along with Brown’s declaration.
“This is not about a one-year situation. This is about a long run. This is about the next eight-to-10 years,” Colangelo said. “Clearly, the bar has been raised. The timeline may have changed. If the wrong opportunity is there — if we don’t feel it’s right for our team for the long-term approach of what we’re taking — we’ll be patient.”
“You might see us waiting to make a splash in free agency in 2019,” Colangelo said.
James and George won’t be free agents in 2019.
The Sixers also might need a new coach in 2019.
There’s a chance Brown is waiting to see how Colangelo performs in free agency before he agrees to an extension. If that sounds self-assured by Brown, let’s just say he isn’t afraid to bet on himself; not after coaching a team to a 42-win swing from two seasons ago. He knows where he stands. A source at Game 5 in Boston said that if Brown was on the market that day he would be the top candidate for any team. About a week later, Brown’s lead assistant, Lloyd Pierce, was hired by the Hawks.
Brown’s newfound desirability made it all the more intriguing that Brown and Colangelo were pointedly vague concerning a possible contract extension.
“Bryan and I have spoken briefly about it,” said Brown, who is 57. “This will play out as it plays out. I love being here.”
“I’ve spoken with Brett on a couple of occasions this year to let him know that it’s my intention to sit down and discuss a contract extension for him,” said Colangelo, who agreed that a lame-duck coach reflects instability: “It impacts so many aspects of what you’re doing.”
Such as, which players you seek to add.
This delicious disconnect is so remarkable because of its starkness.
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Colangelo not only talked about waiting a year to land a big free agent. He also said he considers Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 overall pick last year, to be a talent upgrade because his shoulder injury limited him to only 17 games, counting the playoffs. Colangelo also said the team could add significant talent in the draft next month.
Brown isn’t interested in nurturing another project player like Fultz, and he certainly isn’t hoping for some rookie miracle. Not after the exhilaration he just felt. Brown lived in the NBA postseason for 12 years as an assistant with the Spurs. He got another taste this year, but this time as a head coach. It was magnificent for him. He wants it every spring.
But he knows that, without a veteran star, his team isn’t just a long way from an NBA title, he’s one foot injury from a return to NBA irrelevance. (Simmons and Embiid have missed a combined three seasons with foot injuries.)
So, bring on LeBron.
When Brown was asked what traits he hoped the “high-level free agent” would have, he adroitly avoided tampering when he replied: “If the player you are describing is great … ” He said that with a smile, because about a month earlier he declared that James was “the best to have ever played our sport.”
The problem: James is 33, so he doesn’t fit Colangelo’s eight-to-10-year parameter. George, 28, fills a stat sheet, but is he “great”? Leonard is nearly as complete a player as James, and he’s just 26. But the Spurs can pay him a lot more this summer, the Sixers would have to ransom their future and empty their coffers to acquire him and then extend him, and he played just nine games last season due to a mysterious injury. Of course, a mysterious injury makes him a perfect Sixer.
Maybe Colangelo is right. Maybe none of the those three makes sense for the Sixers at this moment. Consider his perspective: Brown’s patchwork team ran off 16 consecutive wins to end the season — half of them without Embiid, their best player — snatched the third seed in the Eastern Conference and then beat the Heat. Maybe more Processing makes better sense, since Simmons can’t shoot and Fultz is an enigma and Brown didn’t exactly recall the genius of Red Auerbach against the Celtics.
But Brown’s profile shot into the stratosphere this spring. He might have lost to Boston, but he charmed his native New England and he became a national name. Brown has been a good soldier, and he might never have this much power again.
You can’t blame him for using it.
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