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March 18, 2019

Angelo Cataldi: Brett Brown better know he's coaching for his life next month

Opinion Sixers
050318-BrettBrown-USAToday Winslow Townson/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown yells at a referee during the second half of their 117-101 loss to the Boston Celtics in game one of the second round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden.

Brett Brown did something last week that he had ardently avoided through six turbulent seasons as coach of the 76ers. During all of the medical crises of Joel Embiid, the 108-mph race across the Ben Franklin Bridge by Jahlil Okafor, the mental breakdown of Markelle Fultz, through all of it Brown never once refused to comment.

That commendable streak ended on March 8 when he wouldn’t respond to some surprisingly demanding comments by Sixers owner Joshua Harris.

Asked what would happen if the Sixers didn’t go beyond the second round in the playoffs this season, the owner said: “It would be problematic. Very problematic. It would not be what we're playing for. We'd be unhappy. I'd be unhappy. The city would be unhappy. . . . We have enough talent on our roster that if we play the way we're capable of playing, we can beat any team in the East.”

In response, Brown’s exact words were: “I did hear about it. And I don't really have a reaction.”

Like most people, I have been no fan of Harris for countless reasons. He is a financier first, he is absent whenever trouble arises, he employs robots in the front office to serve his every need and he does everything with an awkwardness that is cringe-worthy.

Yet, I am in lockstep with the owner on his current appraisal of the Sixers. After major moves to bring in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, among others, there can be no excuses for an early departure this season from the playoffs. The win over league-best Milwaukee on Sunday only reinforced that belief.

Troublemakers like me have jumped to the conclusion that Harris would be quick to blame Brown if the Sixers lost in either of the first two rounds. After all, how many years does a coach get in Philadelphia when he has a winning percentage of .358?

Brown has led a charmed existence here because of the odd circumstances under which he arrived, the first hire of GM Sam Hinkie, whose original goal was to lose games — so many games that he could accumulate a transcendent talent like Embiid with a high draft pick. For that reason, Brown was judged solely by his composure in those early years.

Now, however, Brown’s job description has changed dramatically. Seats are filled for every game, many of the contests are broadcast nationally, and Embiid is a lightning rod for the NBA. Everybody is watching now, with a scrutiny Brown never faced as a longtime assistant in San Antonio or in his first five seasons in Philadelphia.

Last year, Brown was exposed as a poor bench coach, especially in key moments late in games. This season, the situation has been even more worrisome. In fact, Brown is so sensitive to strategy questions, he sometimes breaks his congenial demeanor with dismissive answers. Maybe he realizes in-the-moment decisions are not his strength.

Well, based on Harris’ comments, Brown may not be able to survive another playoff ouster attributable to own shortcomings. Brown may not be here for the prime of Embiid’s career if he stumbles against better bench coaches like Brad Stevens of Boston.

At this point, it’s impossible to read Harris clearly enough to know for sure just how “problematic” it will be if the Sixers flop in the playoffs. All we can say for sure is that the owner showed a different side when he placed extra pressure on his franchise to win now.

Is Brett Brown coaching for his job when the playoffs arrive next month?

Let’s hope so.

And finally . . . .

• Remember when Andy Reid loved to preach the importance of character during his 14 years coaching the Eagles? Apparently, he has eased up on that requirement since joining Kansas City. First, there was the video of ex-Chief Kareem Hunt assaulting a woman during a dispute in a hotel lobby. And now Tyreek Hill is being accused of breaking his three-year-old son’s arm during a domestic incident. Is it so much harder now to acquire good players who are also good people? Or has Reid stopped trying?

• Despite the recent swoon, Scott Gordon has performed miracles with a Flyers team potholed by his predecessor, coach Dave Hakstol, but still I would call Joel Quenneville after the season to ask if he’d like to mentor Carter Hart and the new brood of young players. It’s hard to argue the other side of three Stanley Cups, even after Gordon launched a noble bid for the playoffs. Gordon is a pretty good choice as the next coach, but Quenneville is easily the best option.

• After the most boring start imaginable — walks, strikeouts, one ground ball and a catcher’s interference — Bryce Harper hobbled back into the headlines last Friday when an errant 96-mph fastball by Toronto pitcher Trent Thornton smacked him in the right ankle. For one brief moment, the newest Phillie thought about charging the mound, inspiring teammate Rhys Hoskins to suggest he would have been right behind the slugger. Hey, it didn’t take long for the two best Phillies to bond, did it?

• James Dolan is the worst owner in sports, a tone-deaf bully with a smothering sense of entitlement. He has ruined one of the most important franchises in sports — the New York Knicks — and his permanent banishment of a fan last week for shouting “Sell the Team!” was just the latest example of his disgusting tenure. Somebody needs to do something about James Dolan. A good start would be the New York media, which has enabled his obnoxious behavior for far too long.

• This is my annual plea for the Sixers to convince Villanova coach Jay Wright to move to the pros without having to change his zip code. Even when he doesn’t have a stacked roster, Wright finds a way to win. He is a brilliant bench coach and the perfect new face of a franchise poised to win for years. If Brett Brown falters in the playoffs — a very strong possibility — there is no better choice than Wright. At the very least, the Sixers have to make that call.

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