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Eulogizing the Sixers Tenure of Brett Brown

Philadelphia 76ers V Detroit Pistons Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Here lies the Philadelphia 76ers coaching career of Brett Brown.

His tenure with the Sixers began in August of 2013, when he was hired by newly-minted general manager Sam Hinkie. Immediately, the two embarked on one of the most daring and systematic teardowns in the history of professional sports.

Right away, Hinkie started with demolishing the then-annually-middling Sixers franchise to the studs. He traded away the team’s best player — point guard Jrue Holiday — for Nerlens Noel, a raw center with a high ceiling and torn ACL, and an additional first-round pick in the following draft.

Brown knew what he was signing up for from the outset. The organization was intent on getting out of the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference. Since Allen Iverson was traded, the team had become synonymous with NBA mediocrity: never good or star-driven enough to meaningfully contend, but also never bad enough to draft in a position to secure a surefire young star. Hinkie’s Sixers were clearly destined to follow the latter plan.

And thus, Brett Brown was entrusted to coach a string of teams purposefully designed to lose games. It was a tough ask. Brown had long cut his teeth in professional coaching circles. He coached abroad in Australia and was the longtime right-hand man to San Antonio Spurs czar Gregg Popovich. Clearly, the optimist in Brett ‘ruled the day,’ as he would say.

In no time, Brown became a media darling. They viewed Brett as the charming antidote to Hinkie’s analytically-driven, cagey and reclusive nature with the press. It’s that aforementioned optimism that truly emboldened Brown as the perfect guy for this particular Process. Many coaches have a tendency to grate on players by being overly critical and draconic with their tutelage. When their teams lose, or lack in effort or connectivity, they ream them out in the media — remember Doug Collins? — and plead with ownership to do away with their underperforming roster.

But that was never in Brown’s character.

Brown signed up to willingly and ably shepherd this franchise through some extremely lean years, because those lean years were a means to an end. They were the price to pay for contention in the NBA, for a team with a roster as bare and asset chest as empty as the Sixers in 2013.

So he coached them. And they lost. The Sixers won 19, 18, and 10 games, respectively, in Brown’s first three seasons as a head coach. But still, (to borrow a Brett Brown pet phrase) his ‘spirit’ never wavered. He coached guys like Tony Wroten, Casper Ware, JaKarr Sampson, Byron Mullens, James Anderson — the list goes on — as if they were any other NBA group. He expected effort befitting the city of Philadelphia.

When the Sixers drafted two players who would absolutely not play in the upcoming season in 2014, Brett didn’t moan and groan in the media. He didn’t roll his eyes. Brett stayed headstrong with Hinkie and maintained the longest view in the room. Sure, those two players — Joel Embiid and Dario Saric — would need to take a sabbatical (or two) before donning a Sixers uniform, and more losses were coming. But Brown knew that the key to winning in the NBA is acquiring top-level talent. You can only go so far with C-plus level players.

And while the team built up loss after loss, Sam Hinkie was often nowhere to be found. For all his virtues, Hinkie did not feel indebted to the Philadelphia or national media. He wouldn’t provide surreptitious quotes to reporters looking for a scoop — he just didn’t see the value in that. Brett Brown became the face of the organization. He would answer for the team’s double-digit losing streaks — streaks that had much more to do with the talent on Hinkie’s roster than plays on Brown’s clipboard.

Then, in April of 2016, Brown lost his partner in crime. Following organizational upheaval that occurred when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver colluded with Sixers owner Josh Harris to elect longtime NBA exec Jerry Colangelo to oversee the organization, Hinkie resigned. Soon, Harris and Colangelo conducted a thorough hiring process that resulted in Jerry’s son, Bryan, being hired as President of Basketball Operations.

Later, of course, Colangelo became ensnared in a disgraceful scandal wherein he was found to be culpable in the release of sensitive team information through a number of ‘burner’ Twitter accounts that Colangelo — or his wife, or both — used to trash the team’s players and defend his honor anonymously.

The one constant throughout it all was Brett Brown. He somehow had an ability to put a smiling face on a completely shambolic organization. He took the job because he believed in Sam Hinkie and his mission. Soon, the owners of the franchise usurped Hinkie of his power, and then, through sheer nepotism and incompetence, hired a new lead executive who would at once make a mockery of his job, the organization, and himself.

Oh yeah — I almost forgot — the Sixers started winning. With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons cemented as franchise cornerstones, the team was starting to show the fruits of Hinkie and Brown’s labor on the court. Flanking Simmons and Embiid were players like Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell — success stories from The Process who turned high minutes on lousy teams into meaningful roles on an up-and-coming contender.

It must have been vindicating for Brown to coach teams that finally had a chance to make some real noise in the playoffs. His players appreciated him as well. Here they are, celebrating his first playoff series victory:

When you write a eulogy for someone, I guess it’s important to not only represent the good things, but to also do your best to provide a full, balanced view of what they did during their time.

Where Brown lacked was, in large part, due to his non-confrontational nature. In Yaron Weitzman’s ‘Process’ tell-all Tanking to the Top, he detailed the coach’s failings as a disciplinarian. As Joel Embiid missed his first two professional seasons due to injury, his work ethic waned and his attitude worsened. If he had it to do over again, I’m sure Brown would’ve set a harder line with his star player from the beginning.

He was often too rigid with his rotations. Especially in the playoffs, Brown relied on veterans often to the detriment of younger, more unproven players who could’ve possibly provided more for the team than their older teammates. He believed in his coaching philosophies and practices. As we just saw versus Boston, allowing the Sixers to continue their drop coverage in the pick-and-roll was a mind-boggling if not fatal mistake. The coverage was torn apart by Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum all series long.

Brown is often derided for his hand in Jimmy Butler’s departure from the team. The two clashed during Butler’s few months with the Sixers, and Brown seemed wholly disinterested in the prospect of continuing to coach Butler beyond that season. There is some conflicting reporting on the machinations of Butler’s exit, but it’s clear that Brett is another in a long line of coaches who quickly grew tired of Butler altogether. Clearly, with the benefit of hindsight, Butler may have been the missing piece to this year’s talented but tremendously disappointing team.

Most of all, in my opinion, Brown’s deficiency as head coach of this Sixers team was most glaring when he made an outright demand of one of his young stars during the season. After a blowout win over the Cleveland Cavaliers wherein Ben Simmons played extremely well and even took and made a rare 3-pointer, Brown quite pointedly relayed via the media his desire for Ben to attempt one 3 a game from there on out. I’m sure he meant it as an assertive nudge in the right direction, but this order was met with outright defiance as Simmons attempted nary a 3-point shot the rest of the way, until play resumed in the Orlando bubble. This reflected poorly on Simmons, yes, but it also reflected extremely poorly on the head coach who made such an explicit demand that completely fell on deaf ears.

It’s clear now that this was a decision that needed to be made. Sometimes in life, you can just be somewhere too long. You don’t always marry your high school sweetheart. It has been a long seven years for Brown, the Sixers, and SIxers fans. It’s time for a new voice in this locker room. The Sixers need to find the right coach to strike the proper balance between engendering himself to Simmons and Embiid and disciplining them without driving them away. The Sixers may not be able to find the perfect coach for these players, but they’ve now determined that in 2020 and beyond, that coach isn’t Brett Brown.

So Brett Brown has been fired, and his tenure in Philadelphia ends here. While he was an imperfect coach and tactician, I would argue that his ‘spirit’ and his character are beyond reproach. Humanity matters. Integrity matters. How you treat people matters.

Since 2013, the Sixers have had a number of different spokesmen. They all had different strengths and weaknesses. From Sam Hinkie to Scott O’Neil to Bryan Colangelo to Elton Brand — none of them acquitted themselves as ably and with as much dignity and class as Brett Brown. Personally, as a fan, I was so happy to root for a team coached by him.

The Sixers will now embark on the search for a new head coach. And they may find someone with far better X’s and O’s than Brett. They may find an in-game mastermind that at long last perfectly blends the strengths of Simmons and Embiid. But they won’t find a better, or more upstanding human being than the undying optimist that is Brett Brown.

In closing, I’d just like to thank Brett for being one of us this whole time. There is no us without him.

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