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Sixers-Knicks preview: Brett Brown continues to build a program

Let’s take a moment to appreciate Brett Brown.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The players have changed, management has undergone a facelift, and we’ve heard the head coach express disbelief at times at the band of “gypsies” at his disposal. Through all the experimentation and chaos, Brett Brown has been the calm at the center of the Sixers’ storm.

Given the circumstances during his tenure, it’s nothing short of a miracle for Brown to have emerged with a better reputation than he started with. The 76ers will have to be one of the best teams in basketball for a half decade or more for the head coach to bring his personal win-loss record back to respectability, and a lot of the team’s struggles to close out games have been attributed to him, fairly or not.

Friday night’s game against the Washington Wizards was emblematic of each team Brown has coached in Philadelphia. Facing an opponent playing some of the best basketball in the league in 2017, Brown’s men returned from the All-Star break missing a couple key players shipped out by the GM during the intermission. As he has for almost four years now, Brown was asked to make do, and his team came away with a convincing victory to start the season’s second half.

The Sixers have earned respect around the league for the way they fight, and Brown’s ability to rally the troops in any circumstance may be most indicative of his qualities as a leader. Most teams who took the type of 30-plus point drubbings the Sixers did in the early years would have folded altogether, and many would have started to tune out their coach. Not Brown’s Sixers, who have (mostly) handled adversity like seasoned veterans even when the roster was populated by a bunch of fresh-faced twenty-somethings.

All the gold stars for effort in the world wouldn’t have mattered if the team didn’t make meaningful improvements under Brown. Take a look around at some of the success stories. Robert Covington is earning respect as one of the best wing defenders in basketball, T.J. McConnell went from undrafted free agent to a catalyst in the NBA’s sharpest turnaround, and Richaun Holmes shrugged off sitting out for over a month, showing up ready to rip any time he gets a chance at extended minutes.

These players obviously deserve credit for the work they’ve put in to maintain and build upon their skills, but Brown has built an environment conducive to young guys growing. His Sixers have consistently been allowed to work through failures for the sake of development, a luxury many young players aren’t afforded in the early stages of their careers.

That stuff matters; a coach speaks loudest to his team with how they assign playing time, and the players see a coach trying to let them grow even when they’re hurting the team with their shortcomings. You win trust and respect when your players believe you’re looking out for them, and Brown has gone to bat for his guys time and time again.

Brown himself has undergone changes and development in his time at the helm. He’s shown more of a willingness to let his players improvise in end-game situations, forgoing timeouts to give his guys control. Despite the high-profile failure of Twin Towers lineups, he’s extracted a lot from funky combinations, like the Ersan Ilysaova-Dario Saric frontcourt, and even some minutes from Jerami Grant as a small-ball five.

I don’t know exactly how good he is as an X’s and O’s guy. Until this year, the Sixers didn’t really have a strong enough roster to gauge what his impact was, and he was forced to fall on the sword nearly every time they came up short in crunch time. Time might tell us that as good of a person as he is, he might not be cut out to be the man diagramming plays.

What I do know is Brown has proven himself to be a pretty extraordinary leader and person over these last few years. He never blamed others for the hand he was dealt, choosing instead to focus on building his program brick by brick. His offense has begun to take hold now that he has the personnel to run it, and their hard-nosed identity remains intact across dozens of lineup combinations.

And oh yeah this is a preview: his guys — shorthanded as they’ve often been — can pass the Knicks in the standings if they get a win in the second half of a back-to-back this evening. That is pretty remarkable when you consider all this team has been through, and to be at this juncture with 25 games left is a testament to the program he’s spent nearly four years building.

See you at 7:30.

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