In August 2013, Brett Brown was hired as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. If any coach in NBA history has had a rougher 27 months, we’d like to hear of it.
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The Sixers, by design, have lost 137 of the 174 games Brown has coached. The team’s front office has limited payroll and has refused to sign free agents while harboring a cadre of assets, projects, future draft picks and injured prospects. The team has yet to win a game in 10 tries this year, it's the only such winless team in the NBA, and it’s fair to question why Brown isn’t pocketing a flask in his sportcoat on the sideline.
Brown shared a bench with San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich for nine seasons before finally earning his own shot at a head gig at age 52. Prior to Philadelphia’s loss to San Antonio in Brown’s old stomping grounds on Saturday, Coach Pop took a pause to appreciate the staggering task ahead of Philly’s beleaguered coach:
“I honestly don’t know who else could be in Philadelphia doing what he’s doing. I couldn’t do it. I’d last a month. Two years ago, I mean. A month. Not in the third year.”
Popovich has his own history of working with lacking teams. Well, if we’re honest, one lacking team – a 1996-97 Spurs outfit that he took over after a 3-15 start, leading it to a 17-47 record as it worked without a healthy David Robinson or Sean Elliott. The reward for his initial struggles was the chance to draft Tim Duncan with the first overall pick in the 1997 draft; a pick that some 18 years later is still paying dividends as San Antonio currently works with the league’s best defense.
Philadelphia, after a surprisingly strong showing last year, is working with the league’s third-worst defense and worst offense. During Brown’s tenure the team has drafted an injured big man in the lottery that sat out for one season, in the form of Nerlens Noel, and another that has sat out for two seasons and counting in the form of Joel Embiid. Brown helped craft Michael Carter-Williams’ Rookie of the Year season in 2014, yet he watched as the team dealt MCW to Milwaukee in exchange for a Lakers lottery pick that might not show up until 2017 … or even later.
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The team’s 2015 top pick, Jahlil Okafor, is playing terrifically on offense, but his rebounding is well below par and his defense will need years' worth of work. The team’s top offseason pickup, Nik Stauskas, has missed exactly two-thirds of his shots this season. Embiid is perhaps a year away from contributing and next June’s lottery pick (or two) will bring yet another teenager.
It’s enough to drive a guy batty. Yet, according to Popovich, Brown hasn’t taken a bat to his blackboard just yet:
“And honest to God, he loves coaching that team. He actually enjoys coaching those guys in a modest, sincere way. Because what he’s all about, basically, is not skipping steps, setting standards. He knows the way to do things. He communicates great and it all shows in the way that those guys play. Those are not the most talented players in the world and five or six of his best players aren’t there.”
“In the league when you lose a lot of games, guys are going to tank. Often. And these guys just keep playing at a certain level and at a certain standard. The fact that they’re not as skilled as players on some other teams is irrelevant. Work ethic is a tribute to their character and Brett’s ability to keep them fighting for a standard and trying to progress. I think he’s incredible. I don’t say that because I’m trying to make him look good or because he’s my buddy or anything like that. It’s really true. They’re lucky to have him there.”
This is true, as anyone who has watched Sixers action this season will tell you – these players are getting after it. At least for now. If the team starts to drag a bit as this season moves along, even if they do pick up a win or two before Thanksgiving, could you blame them for going through the motions as yet another losing season slogs on?
Philadelphia has lost its first 10 games by a combined 169 points, and even though the average age of this roster points to a birthdate from around the time Wayne’s World 2 hit the theatres, that has to wear on a person. There really hasn’t been a team like this in NBA history – sloughing off three full seasons in order to accrue high-end assets – and we’re genuinely years away from finding out if this is a good thing.
Everyone understands the Great 76er Experiment, especially after years of watching various “win, now” attempts from several Philadelphia general managers bring middling at best results. What we’re learning with this group is how this sort of on-paper stuff plays out with actual carbon-based life forms, though. Including both the guys on the court and those who fill in the seats, and post away on those message boards.
And the coach. The guy who came straight from San Antonio to a team that was designed to lose every one of the 137 games (and counting) they’ve lost under Brett Brown. If Brown quits tomorrow, future prospective hiring teams will understand that his 21 percent winning percentage is an anomaly, and not representative of his gifts, but they might have to factor in any potential for dyspepsia.
Nobody, least of all Gregg Popovich, knows how Brett Brown manages to handle all this.
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