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The Process’s Lone Survivor

Brett Brown has seen some things. But with most of the pieces now in place, can the head coach turn the Sixers’ grand vision into results?

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Brett Brown used to tell what amounted to a running joke, though it wasn’t designed to be, and it certainly never amused him. Functionally, it was closer to a coping mechanism.

The Philadelphia 76ers went through some dark days under Brown. Lots of losses. Lots of players, too. The organization was essentially a professional pit stop on the journey to a different destination. Alexey Shved. Darius Morris. Casper Ware. Jarvis Varnado. Lorenzo Brown. Countless others you probably don’t remember or never knew.

Where other teams might tinker only with the end of their bench, those Sixers underwent top-to-bottom roster churn. As a result, the players just passing through were often pressed into duty before they had time to learn the system—or even their new teammates’ names. That’s when Brown would run through a familiar routine with the media. It went something like this: “I met [insert new player name]. I shook his hand. I welcomed him. Then I told him he’s going to play [insert number of] minutes.” Brown never delivered the lines for laughs, but boy did he get good at telling them.

There’s a stark contrast between then and now. With more than 70 players (depending on whether you count the guys who were acquired but never actually stepped on a court) picked by two front-office architects over five years, the Process-era Sixers are starting to stabilize. Through all the changes, Brown remains a rare constant.

Last week in Sacramento—before the Kings ended the Sixers’ five-game winning streak, the longest since Doug Collins commanded the team—Brown smiled and shrugged when asked about the difference between his first season with the franchise and this, his fifth. He name-checked players, praised assistants, beamed about the gorgeous new practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, and credited the organization for growing its strength and conditioning staff (and also the medical staff, which Sixers fans are forgiven for being less bullish on). He would never boast look how far I’ve come; instead he made the predictable pivot to look how far they’ve come. And yet, more than anyone, he lived the Sixers’ sacrifices along the way.

“I’m mindful of the years it’s taken,” he allowed.

Which does not mean Brown believes the Sixers have completed their journey from rebuilding to relevance. Entering Wednesday’s game in Los Angeles against the Lakers, the Sixers are 7-6. Things might be better than before, but Brown doesn’t see today’s comparatively good times as a reward for yesterday’s struggles.

“Whatever you’re going to write,” he told me in Sacramento, “I hope you make this the loudest. Make it bold. I don’t feel even close to any notion that we’ve arrived. I’m so numb to what we’ve gone through. I just walk and see straight. I don’t get too high. I don’t get too low. I really mean it. It’s not a throwaway line. It’s true. I’m hardened and numb. I’m just doing my job. It’s like, head down, ass up. I’m just moving forward.”

It was the opposite after shootaround at the Golden 1 Center last week; he had his head up and his ass planted on a chair next to Jahlil Okafor. That afternoon, Brown put in extra effort with his marginalized center—not so much with Jah the player as Jah the person. The two of them sat in plush courtside seats and discussed what has become an increasingly difficult situation for both men. Okafor isn’t playing much these days, and when the season is over, he won’t play for them at all. Despite not picking up his option, the Sixers elected to keep Okafor around in the hopes of maybe getting something/anything for him before the trade deadline. Okafor wasn’t thrilled.

Some coaches might just let a player like Okafor atrophy at the end of the bench and not worry much about it. It’s the general manager’s problem, not the coach’s. That kind of thing. That’s not Brown’s style. When Okafor had various issues his rookie season—from a fistfight in Boston, to a dangerous altercation outside a Philly nightclub, to speeding across the Ben Franklin Bridge at 108 mph—Brown was always the guy defending him. Brown admitted he has “an incredible soft spot” for Okafor, and so he sat with the center, because who knows how much longer he’ll be able to.

Brown said he impressed upon Okafor the need to stay in shape. (Later, long after his teammates left the floor, Okafor ran the arena stairs.) At any moment, Brown told him, someone could inform Okafor that he’s been traded, and he has to get on a plane, shake the hand of [insert new coach’s name], and go play [insert number of] minutes.

“There’s an appropriate fear that you need to have,” Brown said, employing a phrase he adopted while serving as an assistant under Gregg Popovich for more than a decade. “We’ve all gone into exams where maybe you didn’t study as hard as you want. That’s an uncomfortable walk into the classroom. Well, we’re trying to avoid that.”

The “appropriate fear” concept is something that “comes out of my mouth freely,” Brown said. He applies it to his players, but also frequently to himself. That’s what those early Sixers seasons were really about: Brown was studying for his own exam. Now he’s finally walking into the classroom to take the test—and after all these years, he will no longer be graded on a curve.

The Process remains highly divisive, but it has also provided a certain amount of cover for Brown. No rational person could have looked at some of those D-League/G-League rosters he was saddled with and blamed him for not presto-changing them into winners.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

But that was then, and this is now, and now is different. Joel Embiid is healthy and running the floor most nights instead of Philadelphia’s streets. Ben Simmons is the early runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year. Embiid leads the team in PER, points, rebounds, and blocks per game. Simmons leads the Sixers in assists and steals per game. Embiid is tops in trash talk; Simmons is first in highlights. (Or maybe they’re tied in highlights.) They’re the best Philly duo since butterscotch teamed up with the krimpet.

Meanwhile, Robert Covington is one of the premier 3-and-D wings in the league, J.J. Redick adds more outside shooting to a team that lacked it for years, and Dario Saric and T.J. McConnell are solid contributors gobbling up much-needed minutes. They’re still finding their way—the Sixers are 19th in net rating—but it’s a real team now and not just the professional version of a pick-up squad. (Nearly forgot about the disquieting Markelle Fultz saga. Probably my subconscious triggering its anti-amnesia protocol.)

Brown’s staff has remained largely the same over the years, but the coach said they’re not “doing much different than we used to do.” More talent obviously helps, but so does keeping those players around so they know what to expect. “When you travel. What plane you’re going to take. How you watch a videotape. How you lift weights. How you talk with someone. Relationships,” Brown explained. “It’s not, ‘Oh, this is a great offensive play or defensive play.’ It’s not that. It’s way deeper than that.”

Continuity has its advantages, but it also strips away any built-in excuses and it invites the usual NBA head coach scrutiny. Maybe more scrutiny, considering the long build-up to this season and the fact the Sixers play in Philly—which is a lovely place and home to the world’s most underappreciated breakfast meat, but also sometimes feels like a sports penal colony populated by online comment-section enthusiasts. Brown caught some internet shrapnel after that Kings loss from couch-cushion coaches who thought he should have called a timeout at the end of the game. (Brown pointed out that the Sixers didn’t need a timeout because the game was already stopped. He said they had a play designed, but his young guys “went rogue.”)

That same drive-by criticism happened earlier this season, when Brown was asked if he had “buyer’s remorse” for how he used his timeouts in a loss to the Rockets. It evidently did not matter to the detractors that Houston is a very good team that needed a fantastic side-step 3-pointer by Eric Gordon at the buzzer to win. You wonder if some of the same fans who called sports talk radio stations to complain about Brown might have also applauded him for playing Embiid a career high in minutes in the win over the Clippers on Monday in L.A. (Brown preserved his timeouts late, which aided the extended Embiid deployment effort.)

The second-guessing is unlikely to end, though Brown thanked his “tremendous selective deafness” for helping on that front. The never-ending noise is part of the gig now, but it also indicates progress of a sort. People are judging Brown on wins and losses and not just on his capacity to endure an interminable franchise reboot. Before the Sixers upended the Clippers, Bruce Bowen, who spent eight years with Brown in San Antonio, said it’s about time. “I hope they allow him to finish it out,” said Bowen, now a Clippers TV analyst, after sharing family photos and hugs with Brown before Monday’s game. “He’s earned that.”

Brown won 75 games in his first four seasons and lost 253. The Sixers suffered losing streaks of 26 and 28 games on his watch. It’s not an accurate reflection of his coaching ability, but the ledger is lopsided nevertheless. Not many coaches could survive that. Yet only five others—Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, Rick Carlisle, Dwane Casey, and Terry Stotts—have coached their current teams longer than Brown. (Mike Budenholzer, Steve Clifford, Doc Rivers, and Brad Stevens joined their teams the same offseason as Brown.)

If Brown ever weighed his professional mortality along the way, he wouldn’t openly admit it—but he did appear to hint at it. During the preseason, before Embiid was officially cleared to play five-on-five, Brown explained how important it was to get Embiid’s recovery from meniscus surgery on his left knee exactly right. Mapping out the perfect practice plan for the big man consumed Brown.

“What we do there, how we spend our money, is on me,” he said at the time, “and is important.” At that point, Embiid had played 31 games over three professional seasons. And then Brown added one more thought that put all the others in proper perspective: “I’ve been able to coach him longer than I had expected.”

After the Sixers practiced in Santa Monica this week, Brown told me he didn’t mean that last part the way it initially came off. But even if he had, it would have been hard to blame him. It’s a fickle business, and the shelf life is often short. It’s natural enough to wonder how much real coaching he’d ultimately do before someone came along and told him to pack his things and move along, just like all those interchangeable players who had passed through Philly.

“He coaches everyone, from me to the young guys,” Redick told me. He listed Brown as “1A or 1B” for why he signed with the Sixers, which is pretty good company considering there were 23 million main reasons Redick went to Philly. “He’s constantly coaching. That’s his passion, teaching.” Redick thought about it for a second, then smirked a little when he emphasized that Brown gives everyone “a lot of feedback.” The tips aren’t exclusive to NBA players, either. A few summers ago, Brown invited his son’s AAU team to the Sixers’ old practice facility. His kid was maybe 10 or 11 back then. He was good, too—a pint-sized point guard in the mold you imagine his father once was. Brown spent the afternoon coaching the lot of them like they were about to land 10-day contracts.

There was plenty of coaching to do with those early Sixers, too. His first season, Brown helped rebuild Nerlens Noel’s shot while the rookie center recovered from an ACL injury suffered in college. Before games, Brown would hover behind Noel while the center stood at the foul line on one leg and shot with one hand. It was almost like a crane-kick routine, with Brown playing the Mr. Miyagi role to Noel’s Daniel.

Much of the teaching Brown did back then was on behalf of players who would quickly become some other coach’s concern. That never seemed to matter much to Brown. There are all kinds of stories about how much energy Brown put into otherwise disposable players—like when Darius Johnson-Odom was let go, and Brown spent a long while telling him he believed in him and that he hoped other coaches would get into “the DJO business.” Johnson-Odom played a total of 15 minutes for the Sixers on a 10-day contract back in 2013-14. That was the end of his time in the league.

That approach is part of what sold the Sixers on Brown in the first place. As a former staffer put it, Brown is “borderline amazing” at being able to recover from the previous night’s disappointment and rally the next morning on behalf of his players. He frequently employed the same strategy with the media. Off-court incidents. Trades. Injury updates. Brown was in front of the cameras for almost all of it, usually with typical aplomb.

Memphis Grizzlies v San Antonio Spurs - Game One

Whether by design or default—there’s some disagreement among current and former staffers about whether Brown wanted the added responsibility—Brown has often served as the official company spokesman on matters small and large. The Colangelo family insurrection was supposed to change all that, but more times than not, it’s still Brown who answers questions and positions himself as a human heat shield between the team and anyone who might want to torch it—none of which is surprising to the people who know him best. There’s no shortage of players who praise him for putting his relationships first. McConnell called Brown “the most genuine person” he knows and volunteered to find a proverbial wall and run through it for him. Manu Ginobili said he’s “one of my favorite people, not coaches.” And Noel recently told me “he kept that team together and our spirits high” during several seasons of protracted losing. (There’s another story about Brown being so upset when Noel was traded that he kept his sweatshirt hood up, so no one would see him get emotional.)

Not surprisingly, Popovich is arguably his biggest proponent. A few years back, Popovich used the word “love” more than I thought possible in describing his former assistant. “Over time,” he said, “you’ll all be very happy.”

That’s all Brown has ever really wanted from the Sixers job—time to prove himself. After shootaround at Santa Monica High School this week, Brown, whose contract runs through the 2018-19 season, said he’s “privileged” because “it’s not like I’m unsure of what championship success looks like.” He spent 12 years with the Spurs—first in the basketball operations department, then as an assistant—and was part of four championships. Whatever the Sixers ultimately become, Brown is confident that he and his staff sketched the proper blueprint. “We sleep at night,” is how he put it.

“I’ve come from what is, arguably, the best environment there is in pro sport,” Brown said. “Pick any sport. Much of what we’re doing is copycat. I don’t feel like a mystery of what needs to be done. And hopefully [we] buy some time and let these guys get healthy and show people that it will work.”

We chatted for a few more minutes before Brown had to go. The Sixers were staying a few blocks away in a beautiful beachside hotel, and he planned to walk back with Embiid, Saric, Bryan Colangelo, and some others. Before he left the tiny gym in Santa Monica and headed into the California sun, Brown turned around and shouted back at me, “it will work.” As symbolism goes, it was pretty good—Brown walking out of a high school after another classroom session, confident about passing his test.