PHILADELPHIA — Through all of the embarrassing losing streaks, a ghastly 10-win season, and a patience-testing string of top draft picks being forced to sit out all or significant portions of their first seasons, Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown somehow saw hope. When the 76ers were laser-focused on Andrew Wiggins leading up to the 2014 draft, Brown watched film of Kansas and couldn’t help but being enamored by Wiggins’ 7-foot-2 teammate. While Ben Simmons’ size and skill set suggested that he had a future as a forward in league, Brown saw a point guard.
Brown thinks differently, which explains how he was able to endure a four-year stretch of terrible basketball and even more bad breaks, and kept coming back, almost sadistically, for more. He has also seen what wasn’t readily apparent to others, which explains how he gathered his players for the first time in training camp last September and told a squad that was going to rely heavily on two players who hadn’t played even half of an NBA season, “We’re going to the playoffs.”
With the 76ers already set to not only make the playoffs but host a first-round series and win more games than they have in 15 years, and with Joel Embiid proving to be the true gem of his draft class and Simmons garnering comparisons to Magic Johnson and LeBron James, Brown is looking pragmatic and prescient. But he’s not seeking praise for stating what was patently obvious to him — especially when it came to his postseason plans.
“I felt to have any other goal was borderline, sort of cowardly,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “I understood that it was going to be a difficult ask. But I think to walk into a locker room and not declare that to be a season goal at the start of the season is not how I’m wired. You would get different people within our organization that sort of advised me not to go there and I wanted to. I wanted to own it.”
Brown hasn’t been one to shriek or duck, even during those lean years when he had to show up each day to address every loony controversy, every season-ending-before-the-season-started injury and every eyesore loss. But he has survived the hard times, outlasting the man who hired him and maintaining a cult following from fans who believed in Philadelphia’s rebuilding — uh … extreme tanking — plans. Making it to the other side wasn’t a given, but Brown is here, much to the delight of his friend and former boss for parts of 13 years in San Antonio, Gregg Popovich. Though another phrase has come to define the 76ers’ gruesome path to respectability, Popovich believes a quotation about pounding the rock until it splits from social reformer Jacob Riis that fills the Spurs locker room, in multiple languages, best explains the turnaround.
“He’s a perfect human example of what that saying from Jacob Riis explains,” Popovich told Yahoo Sports. “Now, it looks like the rock has split, and it was whatever blow. All those ones that came before it had something to do with it. Those blows are his persistence, his dedication, his positivity, his belief in the future and what it could be. He employed all that. Big time.”
Popovich was one of the handful of colleagues whom Brown has sought for counsel during the more challenging periods of his first job as an NBA head coach. Brown had more than his share of uncomfortable situations but always found the peace of mind to sleep easily at nights, fully confident that he was doing what was right. “He really withstood a lot of slings and arrows to get to this place now. And it’s just a joy to watch them play,” Popovich told Yahoo Sports. “They beat us twice and I was almost happy — in a very sick sort of way. He’s endured a lot and shown unbelievable character in sticking with this.”
The 76ers might appear ahead of schedule to some, but Brown felt success was possible if Embiid was able to stay healthy and Simmons resembled the player they envisioned. “We really haven’t blinked,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “I feel like the confidence I had was born out of facts and stats and certainly gut feel. The needle is moving a direction that sort of makes you feel good about the underbelly of the program.”
Since Christmas, the 76ers have the league’s second-best record behind only Houston, have the best defensive rating and rank ninth in offensive rating. General manager Bryan Colangelo has bolstered the bench with the additions of Marco Bellinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. But Brown has also presented incremental improvement challenges for his team, which it has continued to exceed. “You’re given an opportunity, so he got to see who can react the best. And over the years, he just stuck with it, being big on player development, playing hard and guarding, being a good defensive team and just playing with energy. That’s what we’ve been and that allowed us to get to where we are now,” Robert Covington, one of the successes of the 76ers’ player development program, told Yahoo Sports. “His same principles have not changed since Day 1. Now that we’re in this moment now, everything is falling in place.”
JJ Redick, a 10-veteran who had never missed the playoffs in previous stops with Orlando, Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Clippers, had grown offended by all of the pundits referring to him as a “locker-room presence” when he joined the team as a free agent last season because, “I can still [expletive] play.” He welcomed Brown’s gumption about the team’s playoff aspirations in training camp. “It was a sense of relief — we’re actually trying to play for something here,” Redick told Yahoo Sports. “I feel like our team, because of that, has had really a winner’s mindset the whole year. Even when things were down and dark, we’ve maintained that mentality.”
Embiid has shed the minutes restrictions and inability to play in back-to-backs and became a first-time All-Star. Simmons already has more rookie triple-doubles than Magic Johnson, and Brown calls him the “stone-cold Rookie of the Year. I don’t even think it’s a decision.” The duo has been so good that the bizarre absence of last year’s No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz couldn’t even overshadow the team’s success. Brown pushed for Fultz to play after missing five months, unafraid that it would disrupt what the 76ers were attempting to accomplish once the goals advanced from making the playoffs to getting 50 wins. Embiid is now done for the rest of the regular season after a nasty collision with Fultz on March 28 resulted in a facial fracture that required surgery. But if any coach could keep his group from collapsing despite losing its best player, it would be one who remained upbeat while Embiid missed his first two seasons. It would be the one who didn’t surrender to the darkness and muck of a controversial strategy that went sideways for some.
“We all have a mortality. I live in the real world,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “I’m the son of a coach. I tried to stay really on point — and not get distracted — with what matters most. And it always came back to development and relationships and it enabled us to hold the locker room together. It enabled us to move the coaching staff forward. You feel like you’re just putting in good days on what matters more. That was my road map. That was my compass.”
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