Everyone loves Brett Brown. The Sixers coach has been in a tough position over the last four seasons, but he has embraced his role as the media-facing member of management, and his optimism and joie de vivre have become encapsulating aspects of The Process era.
As tough as this period has been for Brown in on-court results, it has doubled as a time of extreme job security. A coach without expectations cannot disappoint, as even when the 2015-16 Sixers hit their lowest, 10-win nadir, costing Sam Hinkie and his staff their jobs, Brown’s position was never in doubt. And rightfully so— why should the coach be blamed for failing to secure positive results with a team featuring four undrafted free agents among its top nine minutes-getters, and [insert Jahlil Okafor comment that angers half the commentariat]?
The upcoming season is the first of Brown’s head coaching career that comes with expectations. And expectations stipulate more tangible results than what we’ve seen so far. As we prepare for the incoming season, this is the first in which we can set out to answer what kind of coach Brett truly is.
However, hidden in all of the awful play the last few years have been some quietly encouraging signs. These can go some way towards allowing us to evaluate Brett, even if his players were not up to NBA standards.
When assessing Brown’s teams’ performances, you can look at both macro and micro indicators of team success. On a macro level, the Sixers have been categorical failures; they have placed dead last in the league in offensive efficiency all four years, and they have sandwiched two average defensive seasons in with two 28th placements. That’s bad! Not a good look for Brett Brown.
However, the micro indicators acquit Brett much more plainly.
While the Sixers offense has sputtered, they have consistently excelled in their shot selection, one of the principle aspects of play a coach can influence. In Brown’s 4 years in Philadelphia, the Sixers have never taken more than the 6th fewest midrange jumpers in the league, while boosting their rim field goal attempts and 3-pointers. The Sixers have been a top quartile team in the league in both categories for the entirety of Brown’s tenure. (Stats from Cleaning the Glass, whose database goes live on Monday!)
The team has also been a paragon of ball movement, creating an assist on 63% of its made baskets, good for third in the league. Their placement drops slightly when controlled for 100 possessions (only 10th in the league), but they’re still a quality offensive outfit in terms of expected results.
So why has there been such a discrepancy between the quality of the shots the Sixers have taken and the number of shots they’ve made?
The obvious answer is the quality of players who have taken the shots. It doesn’t matter how wide open a player is if, like Jerami Grant or JaKarr Sampson, he is unable to make an open shot. While the Sixers have been a top quartile team in 3-pointers attempted during Brown’s tenure, they’ve also been a bottom 5 team in 3-point percentage for that duration as well.
The lack of an NBA-quality lead initiator has also played a role in limiting Brown’s success. This can be seen, in part, by parceling out the team’s 3-point attempts. While they’ve taken a large share of 3’s in the Process Era, they have been consistently poor at generating corner 3’s, instead relying on above the break shots for their volume. Corner 3’s are, famously, the easiest shot in the NBA, as they are worth an extra point but are closer to the hoop. This means defensive schemes are often designed specifically to take them away, and their creation is often due to the gravity of an impressive athlete sucking defenders towards him as he barrels toward the rim.
John Wall, LeBron James, and Goran Dragic, all players known for their driving and passing capabilities, have been among the league leaders in creating corner 3’s the last few seasons. TJ McConnell and Ish Smith, as dear to our hearts as they are, are somewhat less of creators in that department.
So the Sixers have had bad shooters jacking inferior 3-point attempts. That’s one culprit for their poor performance. But the issue that pervades both their offensive and defensive capabilities has been turnovers.
In Brett’s 4 years in charge of the Sixers, the team’s turnover rate has ranked last, second to last, last, and last in the league. The team simply hasn’t had the ballhandlers to take care of the ball, and those turnovers contribute to a(n) (un)virtuous cycle that allows opposing teams to score easy points and set their defense before the Sixers can get into their own offense. Last year, the Sixers ranked second to last, ahead of only in the lowly Nets, in points surrendered off of turnovers, according to NBA.com.
The additions of multiple ballhandlers and JJ Redick should go some way towards alleviating these offensive struggles. Redick has consistently placed in the top quarter of wings for turnovers throughout his career, rarely posting a rate above 10%. Replacing many of Stauskas’s minutes (7th percentile last year) with Redick will mitigate the TO’s from one position, while simultaneously providing one of the top shooters in the league to bomb away from deep.
Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, while struggling as finishers in the preseason, have demonstrated just how badly this team has lacked incisive penetrators handling the ball. Both have shown a knack for getting to the rim, and both are willing and able passers (especially Ben) who will be looking to kick to the opposite corner as the defense sucks in to contest their drives. Both have (surprisingly) taken relatively good care of the ball in their few early appearances.
The team’s defensive principles have been sound throughout Brown’s tenure. With Embiid anchoring a unit featuring All-Defense candidate Robert Covington, the Sixers’ defense should have no problem jumping into the Top 10 this year. Brown’s teams have shown the ability to defend with the right personnel, and they finally have it this year.
From a principle standpoint, Brown’s teams have achieved well. But there is more to coaching than the practice work, and many of the complaints levied at Brown have been over his game management over the last few years.
Brett has been slightly hamstrung in determining his rotations, partly due to injury and partly due to the experimental nature of the Process Sixers. Can Nerlens and Jah work as a pairing? Let’s find out! We’re out of options for backup point guard? Give it a whirl, JaKarr! But with the exception of giving Dario extended play at the 3 last year (and inexplicably playing lineups with Ersan at the 5 while Noel rotted on the bench), Brown’s rotations have been solid. Players know what to expect, he staggers playmakers, and he slowly works younger players into the rotation.
The biggest complaint about Brown has been his play calling and lineups in the close games they’ve played. It’s a criticism that gained steam during the putrescent 2015-16 season in which the team somehow went 5-30 in “clutch” games, according to NBA.com.
However, this stretch is not indicative of the team’s overall play in close games. Since 2013-14, Brown’s Sixers have a record of 52-97 in games classified as “clutch” (Yes, that seems impossibly high to me to, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ), well above that horrific stretch two years ago. A .349 winning percentage is still well below a 50/50 expectation for games like that, but, when talent level and variance are taken into account, seems well within reason for this team’s performance.
All of which is to say: Brett Brown has been a fine coach so far. His circumstances have been extenuating to the extreme, and to the degree that we can judge what he has achieved so far, he has generally surpassed reasonable expectations.
But his circumstances have changed this year. The team has signed some real veteran contributors, and the kids that survived The Process should be shaping into contributors as well. If the team underachieves expectations this year, it won’t necessarily be down to Brett, but it should precipitate a careful inspection of Brown’s contributions.
Brett signed up for 4 years of babysitting, and he’s down an exceptional job at that. But now it’s time for him to turn his principles into results. Let’s see if he can turn himself into a top coach in the league.