Congratulations. The Sixers fired Brett Brown. Which means, before long, we’ll get another chance to do it all again. Maybe the whole thing will take two years this time. Maybe five. But make no mistake — the only unknown about this next era of Sixers basketball is how quickly it will end.
That is how things work in any organization with a leadership void. Like any vacuum, the rush to fill it results in little more than occupied space. The chief qualifications of those who fill it are an eagerness to be there, and a willingness to do it in a manner that preserves the void’s previous shape. The result is a realm in which the only changes that occur are these forced evacuations. At which point, a new crop of the same old people rush in, and the cycle begins anew.
It has been clear that the Sixers are this type of organization ever since they jettisoned Sam Hinkie for a guy with a better last name. That was the point when those above him on the organizational chain of command decided that a leader should be judged on his ability to look and sound and act the part rather than on the strength of his ideas. They decided that a basketball operations department could be run like most other corporate departments and that the success their franchise had enjoyed in areas like marketing and community relations and ticket sales would eventually translate to the court. They decided that what they really wanted was a team that felt more under their control.
Anybody who has the level of intuition required to make consistently good hires would have immediately recognized Bryan Colangelo as a man whose personal references and Italian loafers were the most impressive things about him. He was a careerist through and through, a product of the personal network he’d inherited and an ability to operate according to convention. The philosophical framework he espoused was the sort of nebulous gobbledygook that is designed specifically to make bosses in board rooms feel comfortable. The NBA, he would say on multiple occasions, is a relationship business.
Four years later, all is well with the Sixers’ relationships. It’s the basketball that’s the problem. After finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference and getting swept out of the playoffs, they will enter the offseason with the NBA’s second-highest payroll and a roster that has been an unmitigated disaster. Without a doubt, the coach was part of the problem, at the very least because he could not fix it. He might have kept his players happy, but he also did not make them better.
Three years into the partnership between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, we have yet to see either make a significant jump in their progress as offensive weapons. Markelle Fultz, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Furkan Korkmaz, Zhaire Smith — not a single one of these first-round picks developed into a competent rotation fixture. Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Jimmy Butler — all spent the majority of their time under Brown looking like fish out of a competent system.
And, yet, this litany of sadness includes more than a few glaring instances of personnel management malpractice. If we’re going to hold Brown responsible for losing eight of the nine playoff games he coached against Brad Stevens, shouldn’t we do the same when comparing the front office that had Fultz No. 1 on their board vs. the one that picked Jayson Tatum?
In hindsight, the decision to trade Mikal Bridges for Zhaire Smith is defensible only because it enabled the front office to overpay in a trade for Harris. And even if we were to rewrite that little bit of history, it probably would only enable them to trade Bridges to the Clippers, too.
Brown might have been on board with the decision to spend their last chunk of salary-cap space on Horford, but somebody above him agreed that the money was worth paying. Whatever you think of Brown’s ability to call a game, it is indisputable that it looked a lot better when Embiid and Simmons were surrounded by shooters.
Which brings us to a question that is too depressing to consider: If the same people in charge of hiring Brown’s replacement are the ones who made all of these previous decisions, what faith can we have that this next transaction will be any more successful?
What the Sixers need more than anything isn’t a coach. It is a singular leader who has a coherent long-term plan and who knows what he is looking at. Since Colangelo’s firing in the wake of his wife’s ill-advised attempt to become a social-media influencer, the Sixers have operated their front office like a shell company with an unstaffed office in the Bahamas. Instead of scouring the league for someone with a record of recognizing individual talent that fit within the NBA’s big picture, they appointed the coach they just fired as interim GM to get them through their most pivotal summer. After that, they hired Elton Brand despite a near-total lack of front-office experience, his chief qualifications being his familiar name and the fact that he worked for the last guy.