These were the words of men who want a new boss.
Whether it’s the lack of repercussions for chubby, gun-shy teammates, inefficient scheming, or uncertainty about what they’re supposed to do, the Sixers didn’t protect coach Brett Brown on Sunday evening after the hated Celtics swept them out of the first round of the NBA playoffs. He was fired Monday.
All-Star center Joel Embiid, free-agent gem Al Horford, and Josh Richardson, the fruit from the Jimmy Butler trade, had chances to endorse Brown, who was relieved of his duties with two years and $10 million left on his contract. None did. Instead, each criticized him, either directly or obliquely, speaking as if his dismissal was a fait accompli, knives flashing from under their senator robes.
Et tu, Joel?
“I wish we had found our identity, offensively or defensively,” Embiid said. “I felt like the focus was not always there.”
No identity? No focus? No coach.
Those are the coach’s responsibilities. You might say they are his primary responsibilities. If players cannot attain the main objective because they’re uninterested, then coaching completely failed.
Yes, the Sixers dealt with injuries all season, the most significant the recent knee surgery for Ben Simmons. But this was supposed to be a Sixers team of both great talent and respectable depth. The talent never jelled. The depth never surfaced.
The Process failed.
While Simmons, Brown’s most versatile player, missed the Celtics series, but there’s a good argument his presence would not have changed the Sixers’ fate. He was the primary ball-handler in Brown’s offense for much of the past three seasons, but his refusal to shoot his ugly outside shot -- despite Brown’s orders to do so -- made the Sixers easier to defend. Simmons’ refusal was met with Brown’s anger, right? No. Indifference.
Brown also expected Embiid to show up in shape for the first time in his six-year career. Embiid did not, neither in regular training camp last fall nor in the COVID-19 restart in June.
Center’s sucking wind? Point guard won’t shoot? The coach must act. Brown never did. Unlike Flyers coach Alain Vigneault, who has benched big-money veterans Jake Voracek and James van Riemsdyk, and now finds himself in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Brown never dared bench Simmons. He never dared bench Embiid.
That’s one of the reasons that Brown never earned the respect of veteran newcomers like Horford and Richardson.
“He’s got to have some more accountability. I don’t think there was much accountability this season,” Richardson said as he skewered Brown in the gizzard. “I think that was part of our problem.”
There is no greater condemnation of a leader than his acceptance of insubordination.
And could be no return from that kind of performance evaluation.
Brown’s teams went to the playoffs the past three seasons, but his defense-first team, anchored by Embiid’s rim protection, always has struggled to handle versatile offensive players despite the skills of Simmons, Jimmy Butler, and Robert Covington. And without them? Celtics forward Jayson Tatum averaged 27.0 points on 48.7% shooting and point guard Kemba Walker averaged 24.3 points on 49.3% shooting. Simmons might be an elite defender, but the rest of the team allowing two players to average more than 50 points left the Sixers humiliated.
“I’m not sitting here for moral victories because Ben wasn’t here,” Richardson said.
Sixers sources say Richardson was also displeased that Brown almost never devised plays with him as the likely scorer. This is not unusual. For the past three seasons, regardless of the roster, Brown always has had two or three players with unclear roles. This led to frustration, confusion, and, ineffectiveness. Horford was Exhibit A this season.
“[I was] learning how to play differently to what I’ve been accustomed to my whole life,” Horford, 34, said Sunday after the end of the first, awful season of the four-year, $109 million contract he signed last summer, with $97 million guaranteed.
This was the second time this season Horford asserted he wasn’t used efficiently. It has been a common refrain for players who cycled through Philadelphia, including Butler last season and Glenn Robinson III this season.
When players don’t know their role, that’s the coach’s fault.
Hired in 2013 at the beginning of The Process, Brown proved himself to be a brilliant player developer, an innovative and knowledgeable strategist, an elegant spokesperson for the most dysfunctional franchise in the NBA. He has been in Philadelphia for every minute of “The Process,” in which Josh Harris gave deposed general manager Sam Hinkie millions of dollars, a wrecking ball, and his blessing to demolish and rebuild the organization.
Brown transformed Simmons from a college power forward into an NBA All-Star point guard; melded legions of no-name players into competitive teams by creating NBA careers for players such as Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell; and, essentially, he taught Embiid — who spent part of his only college season coming off the bench — how to play basketball. He accomplished all of this while working with two incompetent GMs, Hinkie and Bryan Colangelo, both of whom left in disgrace by 2018. The current GM, Elton Brand, was an in-house hire just two years removed from his playing career.
But Richardson is right. He’s a fabulous nurturer, but accountability is not Brown’s strength.
The best illustration of Brown’s failure to assert himself involves the absurd indulgences of Embiid, who was not just permitted but was encouraged to present himself as the most important piece of The Process — so much so that he co-opted and trademarked the term. But basketball can never be all about one player. That’s doubly true when that player — in this case, Embiid — has never won anything; has never played a season without a significant injury, and has never been NBA-fit. The last issue begets the first two. Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown told NBC10 on Sunday night that Embiid should weigh 240 pounds, not the 250-plus he hauls around.
Brett Brown was clearly reconciled to his doom after Sunday’s loss. He accepts that the puzzle he faced this fractured season — one beset by injuries that limited his ill-matched starters to 19 of 65 games before the pandemic locked the world down — befuddled him, and that it would spell his end in Philadelphia.
“That’s the job of an NBA head coach. You’ve got to take the team you have and maximize it. Get the most out of it,” Brown said. “And I did not do that.”
Brown never gave himself a chance to “do that.” He never controlled this team, and no team without accomplished, complete, committed superstars wins anything in the NBA. His veterans know that.