There were eight men sitting on a dais inside the 76ers’ headquarters in Camden on Friday afternoon — managing partner Josh Harris and general manager Elton Brand, Tobias Harris and Al Horford, Josh Richardson and James Ennis, even Kyle O’Quinn and Raul Neto — and there was an aspect to the scene that was odd, unfamiliar. It was not because of the new players who were there. It was because of the coach who wasn’t.
Brett Brown was in a car late Friday morning, heading toward New England for a family vacation but, according to a team spokesman, still in touch with everyone in the franchise’s front office. Not long ago, the Sixers wouldn’t have dreamed of holding a press conference without Brown, without the man who had been their public face and voice ever since he’d joined the franchise in 2013.
Sam Hinkie could account for every decision of The Process with logic and thoroughness; he just didn’t care to do it. Bryan Colangelo’s true insights were better revealed in the bitter, backstabbing tweets his wife allegedly sent than they were during any of his stumbling, corporate-speak interactions with the media.
No, Brown was always there to absorb the bullets and sandpaper the rough spots. He would explain why Markelle Fultz still couldn’t shoot, or why Jahlil Okafor was throwing punches on a Boston corner after midnight, or why the team’s most recent recipient of a 10-day contract would be in the starting lineup that night.
Those days presented their own challenges for Brown. At times, it seemed that the act of coaching basketball was, by necessity, a secondary concern for him — and that when he could focus on what his primary job was supposed to be, he still had to do it on the fly. So many trades, so much turnover, so much change. Even last season, once the Sixers had acquired Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, the starting lineup that Brand believed should reach the conference finals had played fewer than 15 games together during the regular season. So be it. That was the standard, and Brand and Josh Harris were happy to say so, to put enough pressure on Brown that it became fair to wonder whether, less than a year after the Sixers had extended his contract, they would fire him. Brown had to figure it out, and fast, and if not for Kawhi Leonard’s delivering the kind of performance that no coach can overcome, he would have.
Those days are over now, and the challenges for Brown will be different. The Sixers, through their spending this offseason, have offered him the promise of a benefit that he has never enjoyed here: continuity. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Horford, Richardson — none of them is going anywhere for a good long while, and it’s on Brown to see that the group plays at its best when the games matter most.
The questions are obvious: Will Embiid get and remain in shape? Do the Sixers have enough outside shooters? Can Simmons be any kind of shooter? What can they expect from the young, still-developing players — Zhaire Smith, Matisse Thybulle — on the bench?
But the Sixers’ advantages are obvious, too. Their starting five won’t have a player shorter than Richardson, who is 6-foot-6. The average height of those players is more than 6-9. That’s a lot of size and length for any opposing team to contend with when it possesses the ball, and it should allow Brown to get creative with his lineups and schemes.
“Defensively, that’s where we’re going to wear our hat,” Brand said. “We should be one of the top defensive teams in the league, in my opinion.”
In bidding farewell to Butler, in re-signing Harris, and in acquiring respected veterans such as Horford and O’Quinn, Brand also left no doubt that he considered professional character and cohesion to be valuable qualities and that he wanted to fortify them as much as possible. That approach should lighten Brown’s burden. He generally has been a players’ coach, quick to defend Embiid and Simmons for their mistakes or shortcomings, and if, say, Horford can deliver counsel or a stern warning to the rest of the locker room, if there are older, credible players reaffirming Brown’s message, then his job becomes all the easier.
It would be perhaps the most welcoming change of all for Brown. He knew what he signed up for when he came here, but after four years of tanking and two years of upheaval, when has anything felt settled and stable for him? When has he been given the benefit of the doubt that he could finish what he helped start?