“Can you imagine if we can get this right?”
Brett Brown said during his introductory press conference as Philadelphia’s head coach seven years ago. I came across it shortly following the Boston Celtics onslaught over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 2 Wednesday night.
I began reading Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports earlier this week, and the quote appears as the chapter on hiring Brown ends. It’s a book I didn’t know existed until I heard it on a 76ers-based podcast. It’s been an interesting experience to read coinciding with the demise of this 76ers’ season and Brown’s tenure as head coach. Weirdly appropriate.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Brown. Once they acquired future superstars in the draft on cheaper contracts, they’d have room to signed well-established stars through free agency or by trades—that’s how it’s aligned in the book.
Long term sustained success.
Sam Hinkie declined to be interviewed as the author, Yaron Weitzman, says in the foreword, but his strategy, his previous quotes and his demeanor are imprinted throughout. It had been written about before, of course, but Weitzman takes it even deeper. Hinkie’s vision was never a guarantee, but as he wrote in his resignation letter four years ago the 76ers were left in a tremendous, advantageous position.
Cap space, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, the soon-to-be first overall pick in the 2016 draft, which became Ben Simmons, a lightly protected Lakers first-round pick, the Kings swap and second round picks galore.
What followed has been a colossal failure involving every single person.
It’s ironic, really. Or pathetic. Brown coached a team full of nobody’s making league minimum for most his first three years as head coach when Philadelphia outwardly tanked, losing game after game in often embarrassing fashion.
Now, he’s coaching a team filled with higher-salaried veterans with the same damn outcomes.
In Game 3 Friday night, Philadelphia certainly fought hard, not unlike those early Brown teams, but alas a loss.
Disappointing doesn’t begin to describe it.
Brown will be fired shortly after their season’s finished. The team should be sold, but that won’t happen. The front office needs to be cast far away. A new regime focused on righting the ship with a clear vision. A chance at figuring it out before it’s too late.
It’s impossible to pinpoint one specific thing, which makes the next head coach’s job increasingly difficult.
Blame Simmons’s refusal to take jump shots. Embiid’s perceived complacency. Tobias Harris being paid like an All-NBA First Teamer despite only sniffing an All-Star Game once. Throw in Al Horford, who shouldn’t be a scapegoat. It’s not his fault the 76ers offered him $100 million. It’s a mess. It’s an absolute messy situation.
The front office will say they constructed this team with the postseason in mind. Their length gave Toronto fits 15 months ago. Although, the regular season matters. You can’t just magically play well after months and months of erratic play.
An identity needs to be formed. Desperately. The coach can only do so much. It’s Simmons. It’s Embiid. And it must be developed long before any postseason play.
When Brown began his coaching career, the 76ers played fast. Up and down. Pace being most important. Plenty of three-point shots taken by the likes of James Anderson, Hollis Thompson and Isaiah Canaan. The players stunk, which is why they lost 60-plus games three consecutive seasons. But they had an identity. They played a certain way, albeit lousy, but at least they had an identity.
The staple of Philly’s offense in previous seasons had been the JJ Redick/Embiid two-man game. It worked. Flawlessly at times. Embiid recently reminisced about it on Redick’s podcast. The five-man starting lineup of Simmons-Redick-Covington-Saric-Embiid in 2017 had the league’s best point differential among starters. You heard stories about a four-point line being installed to help create spacing for Redick, Covington and Saric to jack from wherever, whenever. That feels like ages ago.
They won 52 games. This team could only get better and better, that’s how it felt in the moment.
And who could blame them? With cap space. With future draft picks. With two budding superstars.
Since Markelle Fultz so rapidly and obviously became unplayable, the front office needed to do something. Brown tried to instill confidence in Fultz—inserting him as the starting guard opposite Simmons to begin the 2018-2019 season—but it backfired miserably. With Redick coming off the bench, the 76ers never found a rhythm. Then, disgruntled Jimmy Butler wanted out of Minnesota. Like Hinkie told ownership during the interview process years ago. Asset-rich teams have opportunities to add stars via trades. They struck Butler, costing only Covington and Saric. Those first few weeks with Butler gave the 76ers the jolt they craved.
Butler sunk game winners against Charlotte and Brooklyn days a part.
Finally, the third star.
But Simmons didn’t shoot. The fit felt awkward at times. The offense grew stagnant. Sure, they had their moments. But overall, the 76ers underachieved with Butler. Things happened behind the scenes, which Butler alluded to on Redick’s podcast right before the pandemic halted the regular season.
Redick enjoyed Brown as a coach, but Butler believed a plan didn’t exist.
The thing I enjoyed most about Brown was his positivity, which doesn’t translate to much on the basketball court. It’s enlightening to relive the story of his post college career in Weitzman’s book, which I had heard bits and pieces of over the years. Here’s a guy making good money, but he wanted something more out of life. He gave up comfort for a challenge, back packing in Australia where he eventually found coaching. He finally made his way to the NBA, helping the Spurs as they won their first title during the lockout 1999 season. A few years later, they hired him full-time as a development coach. Hinkie knew he’d be the perfect coach to get the most out of undrafted, less talented players. Since they lost so many games, it only felt right for Brown to see it through, especially if Hinkie couldn’t.
Maybe Brown will tell his side of the story about Butler. Maybe Brown wasn’t Butler’s biggest gripe. Maybe it was Simmons.
Obviously, the front office worried about Butler leaving in free agency. Harris became insurance. Although, who the hell were they bidding against having to give up Landry Shamet and two first round draft picks? Still, you could talk yourself into Harris. After all, he seemed to always get better and better each season.
Because Simmons played the dunker’s spot last postseason. Because Butler handled the ball. Harris mostly served as a spot-up shooter. He clearly struggled in that role, only having a couple memorable moments. I talked myself into Harris at the max because his role would be fundamentally different with Butler in Miami. Then the 76ers signed Horford to $109 million. Which in the moment felt strange—but everyone talked themselves into it because of how wonderful the defense could potentially be, and because why the hell not. I remember hearing the word “historic” a couple times when highly respected NBA reporters discussed Philadelphia before the season.
A problem with Harris. He doesn’t like shooting threes. He doesn’t have a quick release—almost double clutching before releasing the line drive-lite jumper. That matters. He’d rather drive to the basket, or flow in the mid-range. Harris attacks the offensive glass, too. Offensively, the 76ers never figured it out with Horford, Simmons, Harris and Embiid.
Horford, being older and more like Embiid, will be traded instead of Harris. Freeing up that space will do wonders for Harris.
It boils down to Embiid and Simmons. It’s on them.
Simmons became one of the best defenders in the NBA this season, single handedly winning games with his disruption. But it’s time for his offensive game to grow. He needs to shoot the damn ball. Philadelphia fans have driven themselves insane.
Whatever is preventing him from shooting—arrogance, self-confidence, a combination—needs a resolution.
Human nature kicks in. Embiid or Simmons might quickly grow tired of this situation. Fortunately, they really can’t force a trade.
Embiid won’t be a free agent until 2023. Simmons’s new extension will kick in soon. They’re here. It’s why they better stay.
When there isn’t a clear answer. A simple swap of players. Or a coaching change. It’s a larger issue.
The foundation has eroded. Several things must happen for any success.
However, it falls on Embiid and Simmons. If they’re in Philadelphia, there’s reason for optimism.
It won’t be easy. Nothing worth accomplishing is easy.
But can you imagine if they can get this right.