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The Sixers Gave Brett Brown Everything Except What He Needed

From the Process to the playoffs, Philadelphia put its trust in its head coach for seven seasons. But despite the loyalty, it never rewarded him with the tools to keep his job.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown was fired on Monday after seven years on the job, five of which he spent on and off the hot seat, sweltering, stalling, and selling the dream of another season when everyone would be healthy and everything would be different. On Sunday, the Sixers were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Celtics, their longtime rival. Letting Brown go after yet another playoff failure—Philly was eliminated in the second round the past two years—was an inevitable move. Not often does a coach whose firing feels this long overdue draw such enormous sympathy. But people—even some Philly fans, according to my Sixers friends—feel sorry for Brown. After all, they understand the suffering that comes with a front office’s egregious mismanagement better than anyone.

Sixers managing partner Josh Harris said in a statement Monday that the organization had fallen short: “It’s unacceptable and it’s important that we all hold ourselves accountable. We’re going to be doing a real assessment of how we got here and expect that more changes will need to be made.” Current GM Elton Brand will continue overseeing basketball operations, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported, but wide-sweeping changes are expected. Making amends begins with hiring a capable new coach; so far, the early candidates are Clippers assistant Ty Lue, Sixers assistant Ime Udoka, and Villanova head coach Jay Wright. The latter has resisted moving to the NBA for years despite unrelenting interest, and would be the franchise’s biggest free agency signing since before Brown was hired.

There is no quick explanation for how the Sixers got here. Here meaning in a desert, disoriented, with a backpack filled with faulty equipment and a broken compass, looking to two stars on opposite ends of the sky with no clarity on which to follow. They’re coachless, with a bungling front office, and a roster stuffed with overpaid, inadequate role players that is anchored by two generational talents being wasted. This isn’t entirely Brown’s fault. Yes, he was ineffectual. He couldn’t put Ben Simmons, one of the most promising point forwards in the game, alongside Joel Embiid, one of the most promising centers in the game, in a way that made either player or the team better. And he couldn’t fit Al Horford, last summer’s last-ditch move, with Embiid. But Brown was also underserviced. He needed shooters. He never really got them, and when he did, the fix was only temporary. Brown served under three separate front offices in his time with the Sixers, and in that span, the organization made the following moves:

  • Drafted Markelle Fultz over Jayson Tatum
  • Failed to re-sign JJ Redick, the team’s best/only shooter
  • Traded away Robert Covington and Dario Saric for a Jimmy Butler rental
  • Hired Elton Brand as GM, who had no experience in the position
  • Failed to re-sign Butler
  • Traded Mikal Bridges for Zhaire Smith and a 2021 first-round pick
  • Traded away Landry Shamet, their own lottery-protected first-rounder in 2020, Miami’s unprotected first in 2021, and two second-rounders for Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, and Boban Marjanovic
  • Signed Tobias Harris to a five-year, $180 million contract to be the 3-point shooter they’d been missing; Harris made two 3s all series against the Celtics
  • Signed Al Horford to a four-year, $109 million contract; he was rendered useless

Obviously, if the outcome to some of those bullet points was different, the others wouldn’t matter as much. (For example, trading Covington and Saric is an acceptable sacrifice if Butler stays in Philadelphia.) The macro—the lack of options and the instability—made Brown’s shortcomings somewhat excusable. The micro—the rotations, the X’s and O’s, the p*ck-and-r*ll drop coverage (censoring for Sixers fans; may you all find peace)—was inexcusable. He tried and failed numerous times to get Simmons to incorporate a 3-point shot, and tried him out both as a point guard and power forward to varying levels of success. When Simmons was sidelined, which was often, Brown failed to find lineups that best complemented Embiid. It’s 2020, and it’s no longer possible to build around an elite center alone, especially when Shake Milton is the best you can offer him.

“He’s a good guy,” Josh Richardson told the media after the Sixers fourth and final loss to the Celtics on Sunday. “He’s a good man. He means well. I just think going forward, he’s gotta have some more accountability. … We’ve just gotta start from scratch.” Embiid also seemed to have accepted Brown’s fate, saying that his coach was “gonna be a great friend no matter what. … Great guy. He’s an even better person than a coach.” Which was always the problem—though Brown never got the best results, three front offices liked him enough to keep him for seven years. In the NBA, that’s an eternity for someone with so little success. But even Brown’s allies knew his time had come. When Embiid was asked if Brown should continue as coach, he said, “I’m not the GM.”

It’s difficult to be too harsh on Brown, who admitted after the sweep that he hadn’t lived up to expectations. “You have to take the team that you have and maximize it and get the most out of it, and I did not do that.” In his defense, he did not have Simmons, who was recovering from knee surgery, during the Celtics series. Brown was also four bounces away from the Sixers making the Eastern Conference finals last season. He endured a rebuild so epic that it began in the earth’s mantle, signing his name onto one of the worst stretches in NBA history. (In Brown’s first four seasons, Philadelphia went 75-253; the last three seasons, 146-91.) He survived two front-office changes: both were dramatic, ugly, and brought in replacements that couldn’t do the job, either. He took Philadelphia to its first postseason in six years. He tolerated countless jabs from Butler and Embiid. He developed the two superstars we now watch in awe. He played press secretary for the Sixers through embarrassing controversy after embarrassing controversy, be it trades or Jahlil Okafor getting in a street fight or having a gun pulled on him at a club. No matter the slant, Brown answered the call with grace. And a Bostralian accent.

Brown also entertained on the sidelines, with his face tan, hair gelled, occasionally bearded, shirt untucked, and no shortage of hilarious and befuddled expressions. In postgame press conferences, Brown gave undecipherable metaphors and bizarre quotes. In February, when asked how long Simmons would be out, he said, “I don’t know. And it really is like how long is a piece of string—who knows?”

Brown’s entire tenure was spent in that uncertainty. Injuries, trades, development, hot seat, front-office moves, front-office switches, more trades, rumors, hot seat, hot seat, hot seat. Before it was even official, everyone was sure that Sunday’s loss was his final game as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. The franchise fell short of trusting the Process, but they did seem to trust Brown. And for a while, he was the right guy. Did he ever get a chance to show his full potential? “No,” Brown said on Sunday. “No. Thank you for asking the question.”