The 76ers will open their most anticipated regular season in decades Wednesday evening against the Boston Celtics. Their rise from self-induced doormat status to legitimate championship contender has been remarkable and, in some ways, quite sudden.
They won more than 50 games in each of the last two seasons — breaking a 16-season stretch during which the Sixers failed to reach that mark — but the sense is they have only begun to explore their possibilities.
More remarkable even than the flipping of the switch from the dark night of tanking to the dawn of title possibilities is that the same coach has guided the way throughout the evolution.
“It’s been an amazing life experience,” Brett Brown says. “The stories that could be told and the memories you have, good and bad, are real and they shape you. To take all that in, you hope you created the possibility to have good fortune, and hope that you treated people well, and hope you tried everything you could to hold stuff together and try to create a program, because I knew what a championship looked like. It wasn’t a mystery to me.”
Brown has been the public face of the journey since being hired Aug. 13, 2013. He has served under three general managers — four, if you count the brief period he occupied the role as an interim — coached an exceedingly odd parade of players, lived through the vacillations of the organization’s management, and emerged on the other side as an almost mystic figure, a shaman drawing a five-player pentagram on a dry-erase board.
“The pride of the purpose. The pursuit of the cause. Always remembering this is bigger than you,” Brown says. “You are the gatekeeper for the city, and for a historic program. How do you build it? I feel it’s deeper. It’s about culture. It’s about habits. It’s about standards. It’s about respect. It’s all those things, much more than, ‘Oh, let’s run a play for Joel.’ ”
There are very few examples in professional sports of coaches or managers who survive this sort of transition and keep their jobs. Brown’s regular-season record in six years is 178-314. If the Sixers were to finish 82-0 this coming season, he would still be 54 games under .500 during his tenure.
What has kept Brown around? That is a complicated question. Certainly, he wasn’t logically to blame for Sam Hinkie’s strategy of collecting future assets by fielding a team incapable of winning in the present. Logic doesn’t always save jobs, however.
He outlasted Bryan Colangelo, who was angling to replace him and would have, if Colangelo didn’t immolate himself in the stupidest of ways. Brown then marched the team into its current reality, and no one questioned that he was still the right guy for this new set of expectations.
Principal owner Josh Harris hemmed a bit after last season’s crushing second-round playoff exit, but Brett Brown remains. Now, he gets to seriously coach for a championship.
“There are things you could have done better, but it was always with the greater causes in mind. And you had to navigate through some boomerangs, with draft picks, and GMs, and facilities,” Brown says. “I’ve tried to keep a balance from Day 1. I mean, from the Colangelos and Hinkie, to Jahlil [Okafor], to Markelle [Fultz], to Joel [Embiid] with two navicular surgeries. Go wherever you got to go. I’m the guy who should write a book.”
There isn’t much time for reflection now, however. Every day, he goes into the practice facility with a “WMI” list — what’s most important? — and sets about ticking off those boxes. His head is full of lineup alterations, and situational adjustments, and his focus goes from micro to macro in an instant.
“I’m sometimes looking at what we might do in a Game 7 with everything on the line. Is this the right play? Is this the right player for the play? You don’t want to guess,” Brown says.
One day last week, there were three WMI items on the list. One concerned the offense, one concerned the defense, and one was something away from the actual basketball.
“I wanted to talk about what we do when teams front Joel in the post, because it’s coming. If we want to play bully ball, then we’ve also got to deal with some things. And defensively, I don’t like what we’re doing on the back side of action. Don’t like it.” Brown says. “Then, peripherally, I needed to speak to the big boys about things off the court, culture stuff that we want to get done.”
The “big boys” are Embiid and Ben Simmons, the thunder and lightning of everything the team can accomplish. What kind of off-the-court culture coaching was required is not the sort of thing Brown discloses. But he knocked everything off his list and it was a good day.
“Most times, I get it done,” Brown says. “For me, good days add up. I’m convinced that you can get good at or improve at whatever you choose. I’m always coaching myself.”
The days of Brett Brown in Philadelphia have certainly added up, stacked higher than anyone could have reasonably guessed six years ago. He didn’t count them as they passed because that wasn’t what was most important. There was always something else to do in the pursuit of the cause.