When the Philadelphia 76ers hired Brett Brown as their head coach back in 2013, patience was the name of the game. “The Process” was still in the early stages at that time. Joel Embiid was still in college. Ben Simmons was in high school. The Sixers’ roster featured an unenviable cast of characters that even die-hard Philadelphia fans would probably have trouble remembering now.
But that was then. This is now, and here Brown is, six years into his NBA coaching career, and he finds himself coaching for his job in these playoffs.
The Sixers won 51 games and landed the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference this season, drawing the sixth-seeded Brooklyn Nets in the first round. Many felt Philly would cruise to a series win over Brooklyn, but things took quite a different turn on Saturday.
In Game 1 of the series, the Nets soundly beat the Sixers by a score of 111-102, and the game wasn’t even really as close as the score indicated. Brooklyn was up by double figures for a significant portion of the contest, as the Sixers had no answer for the backcourt trio of D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert.
Simmons was almost non-existent, Tobias Harris made just two field goals and, most importantly, Embiid was clearly hobbled due to a sore knee and was not even close to 100 percent.
Now, the Sixers find themselves in a must-win situation entering Monday night, as they are faced with the terrifying prospect of going down 2-0 heading into Brooklyn for Game 3.
Make no mistake about it: Philadelphia has to win this game, or else this might end up being a very short series in a way that none of us anticipated.
And if the Sixers don’t win this series? Sorry to say it, but Brown is almost certainly gone, and that’s not entirely fair.
First and foremost, the Sixers weren’t really expected to reach this level this fast. They won 52 games and made it to the second round of the playoffs a year ago, something that surprised everyone.
This is still a very inexperienced team, which makes its current predicament in this series all the more worrisome. But, realistically, this was really supposed to be the first year that Philadelphia made some noise in the playoffs. It wasn’t supposed to be in 2018.
So, a legitimate argument can be made that the Sixers are actually a year ahead of schedule. That’s No. 1.
Second, it’s not Brown’s fault that Elton Brand put together a flawed roster.
This is a Sixers team with horrific floor spacing and horrendous depth, which is why this team was never a legitimate title contender at any point this season regardless of how prolific their starting lineup looked.
Jimmy Butler is not a great perimeter shooter. Embiid probably shoots a little too much. Simmons doesn’t shoot at all.
As a result, the Nets were able to collapse on drives by Butler and Harris in Game 1 and were also able to mob Embiid in the paint, daring Philadelphia to beat them with its 3-point shooting. And what happened? The Sixers went 3-of-25 from downtown.
Finally, Brown is not the reason why Embiid is injury-prone. This is a big man who missed his first two years in the NBA due to back and foot issues and played in just 31 games during his debut season as a result of a torn meniscus.
Embiid is yet to play 70 games in a single campaign, and even though he is just 25 years old, his body acts like he is in his mid 30s.
Now, to be fair, Brown did a very poor job of managing Embiid throughout the season. He allowed him to play through back issues, and he also let Embiid play on a sore knee for several weeks during the season before finally deciding to give him some rest.
A lot of blame can go around there. The Sixers’ medical staff can take some lumps. So can Brand and the front office for letting that happen. But Brown certainly deserves some flak for sending Embiid out there in relatively meaningless regular-season games when he knew his All-Star center wasn’t feeling right.
But, in reality, the way Brown handled Embiid’s health is his only alarming blemish.
Sure, you can get on him for his questionable in-game adjustments (or lack thereof), and you can criticize him for simply not having his guys ready for big moments, but there is only so much blame you can place on the shoulders of a head coach.
What many people failed to understand throughout the season is that this has always been a flawed roster. It was flawed when the Sixers came into the year. It was flawed when they traded for Butler, as a team already short on shooting as it was traded away two of its best perimeter shooters in Robert Covington and Dario Saric. It was flawed when they acquired Harris at the deadline, as they compromised even more depth in the deal.
Teams with limited perimeter shooting and bad benches simply do not go very far in the playoffs.
Of course, the Sixers can still win this series against the Nets, and one might even argue that they should still win the series. But beating a sixth seed is no huge accomplishment. Philly should be able to do that.
It’s the later rounds where this poorly constructed roster will get the Sixers into a lot of trouble, and that is no fault of Brown’s.
But it doesn’t really work that way in the NBA. Coaches don’t get let off the hook so easily. Just look at Luke Walton.
Again, the 76ers may very well win this series, but if Embiid remains hobbled and the Nets keep taking advantage, they may find themselves going home much sooner than they expected.
That would not be good news for an all-around great man in Brown.