One of the most persistent, and most persistently unfair, questions posed during the six seasons of the tank-then-spank progression of the 76ers was this one: Can Brett Brown really coach?
It was unfair for a few reasons. First, it was unfair because Brown’s credentials were pretty good, starting with his animated dinner table arguments with his father, one of the most revered basketball coaches in Maine high school history.
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Go past that to playing for Rick Pitino at Boston University, then serving as a grad assistant under John Kuester, one of the sharper Dean Smith disciples. Add on 10 years absorbing international basketball in Australia, followed by 11 years of sitting alongside Gregg Popovich with the Spurs. I’ve said it before, but if you sat a Lhasa apso next to Pop for 11 years, it could coach you out of the lottery.
So, Brown’s opportunity to learn the craft was sufficient before Sam Hinkie lured him away from San Antonio to direct the start of The Process, a term that ceased to have meaning once Hinkie left the building, but nevertheless.
The other main reason that it was unfair to question Brown’s ability was because, for much of his term here, he didn’t have a whole lot to work with. The Hinkie days of streaming a long line of gypsies, tramps, and thieves through the locker room didn’t leave room for real coaching.
Brown would welcome the new recruits, shake their hands, and put them into the game. The Sixers ran the most basic, vanilla of schemes because the players he had couldn’t have absorbed more in the time they had, and some of them couldn’t have absorbed more if they had a century.
Even in the last few seasons, as Hinkie gave way to the Burner Boy era, and now to Elton Brand and the new horizon, there has always been too much churn to fairly assess how Brown was doing. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons finally played together last season and they won 52 games, but there was the Markelle Fultz drama and the late-season additions of Marco Bellinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, and, face it, the man never had a long stretch of working with one unit.
The same has been true this season. There was more Fultz drama, and then the addition of Jimmy Butler, and yet another period of readjustment. With what happened prior to the trade deadline on Thursday – an upheaval that saw the deletion of four rotation players and the addition, potentially, of five others – Brown should be given a pass on figuring it all out right away.
Sorry, Brett, time’s up.
Amazingly enough, the Sixers have a roster that is fully capable of playing its way into the NBA Finals. Heaven knows, that won’t be easy, but coaches aren’t hired to solve the easy problems.
The answer to the question of whether Brett Brown is an elite-level head coach will be determined in the next three months. After more than five years of prep work here, this is the final exam. And, man, it’s a puzzler.
Let’s leave aside scheme for a moment and just consider minutes.
An NBA head coach has 240 of them in his pocket at the start of every game. If you added up the minutes averaged this season by Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, JJ Redick, T.J. McConnell, Jonah Bolden, Furkan Korkmaz, Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, Boban Marjanovic, James Ennis, and Jonathon Simmons, the total is 282.
Of course, there are no 12-man rotations. At least three guys are out, and probably four when you reach the playoffs. No problem. Which ones?
To me, Korkmaz and Jonathon Simmons are the easy calls. After that, it gets tougher. McConnell and Bolden are likely victims, but Marjanovic is only useful in certain situations, and there was a reason the Rockets dumped Ennis when they opted to upgrade to Iman Shumpert via trade. Regardless, Brown should sort that stuff out fairly quickly.
More difficult, is how it will all work on offense. Embiid, Simmons, Butler, and Harris require the basketball, and, unfortunately, require it in different ways. Butler was already chafing in a system that didn’t value his isolation and pick-and-roll strengths. How will he like the wrinkle of having a power forward who can really drift out from the screens to demand a three-point look? Another mouth at the table!
At his coaching heart, Brown is a pace-and-space coach who took from the international game a love for what he terms the “one-man eye;” and that is the big man who can shoot from distance and can’t be accounted for by a defense forced to collapse on a high-post roller. Harris is that player Brown has coveted. What Butler is in this new world is anybody’s guess.
But, regardless, Brown has to make it work. Oh, not that much hangs in the balance. He has a team that is capable of reaching the league’s championship round. Merely that. Next season, with a roster that has 10 expiring contracts – including those of Butler, Harris, and Redick – nothing is guaranteed, no pun intended. This isn’t the championship he’s coaching for. It’s his job. Make it work.