One mark of a successful startup CEO is, Eric Ries argues in The Lean Startup, a willingness to learn and listen and to make tons of experiments on the fly until the company finds the optimal strategy- without sinking the ship along the way. I really can’t think of any coach who embodies that description better than Brett Brown.
Brett Brown wasn’t the Sixers problem. Contrarily, he was probably a top 10 coach in the NBA this year by my non-expert estimation. It wouldn’t make sense to fire him without a definitive and identifiable upgrade. The list of people who fit that bill is quite brief. If the team can persuade Gregg Popovich to leave the Spurs and take over for Brett Brown, I think Brett himself would be the first to congratulate his bosses for landing the greatest coach of all time. But that’s not likely. And neither is upgrading over Brown this off-season. Replacing him with a rookie signal caller or a name who failed in his last job isn’t worth the risk. Joel Embiid seems to agree:
"I just thought it was bullshit. He has done a fantastic job," Joel Embiid says of the rumors surrounding Brett Brown— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) May 13, 2019
It seems there are going to be plenty of rumors about Brown’s ousting until the front office either speaks up to defend him or fires him. And the latter would probably be a very costly mistake.
Let’s put into perspective some challenges the Sixers coach has faced over the last two seasons- we don’t even need to get into “The Process” here or the way his leadership helped shape the current team’s culture through the adversity of that trying period. It’s too much, but I have heard Knicks coach David Fizdale refer to Brown as a model of strength, stability and culture he looked up to this season. It’s something.
Following “The Process” and all of its intended losing, the 2017-2018 season was Brett’s first where he had a viable and healthy enough roster to work with. Reasonable expectations for the first regular season he had Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons together were exceeded. Projected for about 42.5 wins, they beat that number handily and posted 53 a year ago. Those types of surprises often have guys in the conversation for Coach of the Year.
How did he do it? He found ways to win when Embiid was healthy and he found new and creative ways to win when he was out with an orbital fracture, featuring more of Ben Simmons. One thing that does not happen much in the NBA is high profile point guards acquired in the top of the lottery helping to turn their teams around immediately. While guards like Kemba Walker or Steph Curry had through their age 25 or 26 seasons to refine their craft, Simmons was thrust into the spotlight immediately and delivered under Brown’s tutelage. Simmons, without a jump shot and a sometimes clunky fit alongside Embiid worked with Brown and they won games. Every day people debate what Simmons’ natural position is or how he and Embiid might best co-exist. It’s not a seamless fit but they’ve come so far from the beginning when Brett would stagger as many of their minutes as he could. They won then before there was any chemistry; much more wins than reasonable folks thought the team might win.
A well known successful sports gambler who (known for targeting poor coaches to bet against) was eventually hired by the Dallas Mavericks. Haralabos Voulgaris pointed out last season that Brown was routinely beating vegas’ expectations for his fledgling core and should be lauded for his adjustments. By the time the season was over, only the Celtics’ (Brad Stevens) and Pacers’ (Nate McMillan) had posted better records “against-the-spread.” (Smart money always knows who to bet on or against).
It wasn’t until the second round of the playoffs when the team lost in 5 games to the injury-depleted Boston Celtics that anyone felt the 76ers had underachieved. But despite being led by a rookie point guard in his age 21 season, and a center playing in his age 23 and first full season, there was very little playoff experience among any of the team’s best players.
This season presented plenty of new challenges. Expected to win around 53.5 games they fell a half-win short of that mark. Of course vegas didn’t know they were going to attempt to work Markelle Fultz into the lineup even though he wasn’t at all a reliable perimeter threat or that there might be so much roster turnover.
While it may feel like a life-time ago that Brown was attempting to figure out ways to win NBA games with Fultz or Wilson Chandler in the starting lineup, he managed. When he was asked to find ways to win by convincing Embiid, at this point an MVP candidate, to space the floor more to allow more opportunities for Simmons and the newly acquired and tempestuous Jimmy Butler, he managed. When he later wanted to put the ball in Butler’s hands more to close games and had to take the ball away from Simmons, he managed that too. If difficult personalities challenged him, he managed. When players would get injured or sick and the team would release vague, confusing or simply false information, Brett was asked to handle that publicly. And he managed that too.
(Pause: has any head coach ever, in any sport, been asked to deal with and handle more awkward medical updates than Brown has over the last few years? If Brown went to another team where he was simply asked to coach one team all year and not spend tons of time thinking about what to say regarding scapular dyskinesis, yips, allergies, broken feet, meniscuses, load management or knee tendinitis, how much better of a coach might he be?)
When he inherited the final (and in many ways flawed and incomplete) iteration of his final team in February, he did some experimenting and managed again. For the second consecutive season, the Sixers had locked up the 3 seed. He did so without ever having a viable and reliable back up center. He did so in large part without Embiid (who played in 64 games). He kept tinkering and experimenting and figuring things out on the fly without costing himself many games.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, the Sixers dispatched the Nets and gave the Raptors all they could eat for 7 games. Round two was projected by many experts to not even be close.
Nate Silver’s site 538 gave the Raps an 81% chance to win the series before it started:
Our projections reallllly like the Raptors, which I'd feel about if our projections didn't also really like the Raptors last year and the year before. https://t.co/N2POng5S0P— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) April 26, 2019
Following a game 1 loss, the prognosticators were supremely confident in Toronto. The exceptional Jacob Goldstein’s predictive model gave the Raps a 27.6% chance to sweep the series and a 92% chance to advance:
But the models hadn’t accounted for the adjustments Brown would make. With some deft strategic counters on defense, Brown helped flip the probabilities on their head over the next two games. The Sixers put Joel Embiid on Pascal Siakam and asked Tobias Harris to handle Marc Gasol. They used Embiid as a spy in rim protection but expected him to still get out onto shooters when necessary. They matched Ben Simmons against Kawhi Leonard and used Jimmy Butler to bother Kyle Lowry with his size. Even JJ Redick played some of the best defense of his career. They still switched most matchups on screens, but they implemented a hedge in other instances. It was a massive gamble to ask guys who hadn’t played much at all together to make that many changes and execute them on the fly in so many quick-read situations vs. elite competition. Stunningly, it worked and the players limited one of the best 3-4 teams in the entire NBA in their own gym. The series wound up being a coin flip in the end.
What had Brett Brown accomplished before that four-bounce miracle by Kawhi Leonard doinked in? He was facing the NBA team with the second best record in the league; a team that was without it’s superstar for 22 contests. But now he was playing in every game. It’s entirely possible that the Raptors could have been the regular season’s best team had Leonard not saved himself so much for the playoffs. As for Brown’s superstar? He looked to be operating at about 50 percent health for large swaths of the series.
And they still nearly won.
As our own Jackson Frank argued:
“Roster continuity extends to coaches as well. Longevity breeds familiarity. Holding Brown’s employment to a Finals-or-bust standard, given the incredibly short time frame he had to maximize his personnel, is malpractice. It’s not fair to him and conveys disillusioned standards of excellence for this season.”
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse deserves consideration for the Coach of the Year award. And in this series Brown won the chess match. It was his defensive schemes that changed the entire series after game one and it was ultimately Kawhi Leonard, a Finals MVP, who simply transcended.
So who or what is to blame for the loss?
In my opinion, there were three absolutely crucial elements the Sixers were missing this year that made it hard for Brett Brown to deliver one more victory:
- a viable backup center: given the sheer dominance of Joel Embiid when healthy, had Brown had a reliable backup big who didn’t cost his team points, he could have potentially had a healthier version of Embiid for the biggest games of the year, and not have needed him to play so much in game 7. Greg Monroe was the best bet of their backup 5 rotation but he was a -9 in 2 minutes of play yesterday. The Sixers had multiple late picks in the NBA draft last year (when players like Mitchell Robinson were available). Any analyst at the time would have told you they desperately need a backup for Joel, one who can stem the absurd swings that occur when he sits. Elton Brand reminded us he needed a rim protector as the Trade Deadline neared, but his solutions to that dilemma all failed predictably and miserably. Instead, the team went the entire season without a credible answer at that position and it likely cost them this series.
- They needed another solid reserve guard capable of perimeter defense and hitting triples. We’ve written about this one all season. Philadelphia only had 7 usable players for the biggest game of the year. That should bother fans more than any missed shot or blown call made as the summer progresses. Even Cory Brewer may have been useful yesterday. Elton Brand was as good as we might have reasonably expected him to be as a rookie GM who didn’t first work under an elite GM. But he went for large portions of the season with an empty roster spot as more experienced managers scooped up cheap but serviceable backups.
- Lack of continuity and chemistry. The most difficult thing to master is a defense that switches (but not all the time), especially when guys don’t have a ton of time to play together. Without a chance to gel and without a good bench they still held the second best regular season team featuring a top 7th ranked offense to 89, 95 and 92 points in 3 out of 7 games. That is extremely promising. Having a coach who can get his players to figure out a complex system that requires lots of spoken and non-verbal communication on the fly and deliver in a hostile environment is an invaluable resource. The offense will come. The players can work obsessively on their shooting in the off-season and chemistry will just happen with practice if they can remain intact.
Scapegoating Brett Brown rather than accounting for the challenges he has faced and overcome would be a very bad decision. The team should do all they can to retain their starting 5 and show some faith in a very good leader. Brett isn’t perfect. I don’t mean to imply he’s the best coach in the NBA. I wish he would have rested Embiid much more throughout the year long before he missed games with tendinitis. I wish he used more small-ball at times. But this is a challenging roster he has and there has not been much practice time. Brett was never the problem. This piece focused primarily on recent stretches and expectations. But there is so much more as well. JJ Redick playing the best basketball of his career under Brown at an advanced age. Robert Covington and Dario Saric playing so well they were traded for an All-Star like Jimmy Butler. Developing older and younger players and helping learn what works for each player.
I’d love to see what Brown could do with the same group next season.