Brett Brown could not be prouder of the monster he created.
As he sits on the cusp of his first coach of the year award — is there really any other choice? — he realizes that the public will fixate on his Sixers’ winning 50 games this season after winning just 28 last season, and after averaging fewer than 16 wins in his first three, sabotaged seasons. His peers certainly acknowledge the winning.
“In our profession, Brett has become a legend,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, who won the honor in 2002 with the Detroit Pistons. “He has just been unshakable as a leader.”
Brown knows the panel of voters in the media, who vote at the end of the regular season, will focus on things such as the current 14-game winning streak that guaranteed the Sixers home-court advantage in the first round. It’s impossible to ignore 7-foot-2 center Joel Embiid, an all-star starter in his second season of play, and rookie of the year shoo-in Ben Simmons; the integration of shooters JJ Redick, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova; and the continued development of second-year forward Dario Saric.
But what is Brown most proud of?
He won’t say; not directly, anyway. People close to him know, and it’s not even close.
“The decision to make Ben Simmons a point guard,” one of Brown’s confidants said.
Why? Because that decision was all Brett Brown, and the idea came to him long before Simmons played an NBA game.
Even before Brown saw Simmons play in his single season at LSU, where the 6-foot-10 Simmons was a power forward, Brown envisioned Simmons’ running the point in the NBA. He said as much in November 2015. But would Simmons be amenable? Could he learn the job? Could he be a selfless, skilled, durable commander?
These were the questions Brown asked David Simmons, Ben’s father, whom Brown coached as a pro in Australia. They spoke both before and after the 2016 NBA draft, in which the Sixers took Ben first overall.
David Simmons said he wasn’t sure. Not even last season, when Simmons suffered a broken foot in training camp and sat out the entire year.
Now, everybody’s sure.
“Ben is a completely different package than any of us would have ever guessed. The poise. The unflappable mind-set. The continued growth of the intellectual side of what is a point guard. And the skills,” Brown said. “He has exceeded all of the expectations I had for him.”
As Brown has exceeded the expectations of his critics.
As late as March, he dealt with the suffocating ignorance of cognoscenti eager to crucify him for blowing nine double-digit leads, even though his primary ball handlers were Simmons, a rookie point guard who is a converted power forward, and Embiid, his primary scorer, who after a particularly painful loss to the Bucks on March 4 still had played just 82 NBA games.
Even as they struggled to close out games, the principals were improving. Since the all-star break, both Simmons and Embiid have cut their giveaway rates by about one full turnover, and Simmons’ assist-to-turnover rate has almost doubled, from 1.97 to 3.74. Simmons is averaging about one more rebound per game, too, and improved from 7.3 assists per game to 10.1.
The assist increase almost directly coincides with the additions of veteran shooters Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, signings encouraged by Brown, who then masterfully integrated them.
Lately, watching Brown manage nine- and 10-man rotations based on analytic modeling is like watching a fire dancer juggle cats blindfolded. Nevertheless, the Sixers have won 14 consecutive games. In the past eight games, Brown extricated backup point guard T.J. McConnell, an integral part of the team the past two seasons, in favor of rookie Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 overall pick, who missed the previous 68 games with a shoulder injury.
Embiid has missed the last six games with a fractured orbital bone. The Sixers won them by an average of 12 points. That included taking, for the moment, the No. 3 seed from LeBron James and Cleveland on Friday night. That’s not the only reason Carlisle and other coaches consider Brown a legend.
The first picks in Brown’s five drafts have played 64 of 410 possible games of the season in which they were drafted. That’s a little less than 16 percent. Not all have turned out to be productive picks — Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor didn’t pan out, but the development of those two was impeded by supporting casts built to lose. Now that he has the horses, Brown has raced to the front of the pack. Embiid’s growth is staggering. Saric has become a core player. McConnell and forward Robert Covington were part of a wave of what essentially was tryout talent. Brown created them from whole cloth.
But Simmons is his lead dog.
“Brett Brown has done an amazing job to put him in a position to really take advantage of his strengths,” Carlisle said. “I don’t know how you’re going to play him.”
There are, of course, other fine candidates for the award. Mike D’Antoni, last year’s winner, got even better in Houston, but did so by adding a Hall of Fame point guard, Chris Paul. Quin Snyder’s Jazz made the playoffs again despite losing Gordon Hayward to free agency, and the Celtics’ Brad Stevens had the best team in the East for much of the season despite losing Hayward to injury in the first game. Nate McMillan’s Pacers made the playoffs despite trading Paul George, and Dwane Casey’s Raptors are on top of the Eastern Conference because they’re 24-6 since Feb. 2.
Yet there are no criteria for coach of the year that Brown does not meet. He took a remade roster that was altered in February and increased his win total by 22 games with two to play. He made the playoffs for the first time in six seasons and secured at least a top-four seed. He has coached four of the five starters from their NBA births. His best player, Embiid, was restricted early in the season and has been absent lately.
And he turned Ben Simmons into a hybrid of Magic Johnson and LeBron James. The 57-year-old Brown is the finest type of coach: He’s a teacher. Simmons’ development is his proudest accomplishment.
“I hope he looks back and he’s proud we gave him the ball,” Brown said. “He had a coach that believed he could do it. The organization as a whole had the guts to try it. And, I think, to date, it’s the greatest gift you could ever give somebody.”