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February 18, 2019

Angelo Cataldi: The Sixers' weak spot may be head coach Brett Brown

Opinion Sixers
121318-BrettBrown-USAToday Eric Hartline/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown gestures from the sidelines against the Brooklyn Nets during the second quarter at Wells Fargo Center.

In his sixth season as coach of the 76ers, Brett Brown has reached the point where his engaging personality and respectful accessibility are not enough. Now, 468 games into his tenure as the leader of an NBA team, he needs to win.

Already, it’s safe to say no coach or manager in Philadelphia has ever had a career like Brown’s, nor have many of them handled losing with the grace and dignity he has shown. In fact, no other coach in our discriminating city ever had a winning percentage of .228 after four seasons and still held the job. In that regard, Brown is unique.

Of course, we all know that his original quest was not to win games but to provide quirky GM Sam Hinkie with the high draft picks that would turn into Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. And when Hinkie and owner Joshua Harris dodged every microphone during those first few years, Brown was there day after day with honest answers to fair questions.

What never really came up in those early seasons was the simplest question of all: Is Brett Brown a good coach? In the tense final minutes of important games, can Brown design a play, or a defense, that will outsmart the coach of the other team? Is he as adept as Steve Kerr, or Brad Stevens, or his own mentor in San Antonio, Gregg Popovich?

The early signs on that critical issue are not positive for Brown – not positive at all. In fact, the weakest link on this new and improved version of the Sixers may be the coach himself.

A case in point was last Tuesday night, when the Sixers, yet again, flopped to the Boston Celtics, their seventh loss in the last eight meetings. It was another close game between the longtime rivals, and once again Stevens outcoached Brown.

Without belaboring every glitch in the final moments – every timeout Brown failed to call, every misplay Brown oversaw – let’s just say the game came down to Joel Embiid against Al Horford, 34 seconds left, the Celts ahead, 106-104. The NBA would acknowledge in its subsequent Two Minute Report that Embiid was hacked on the ensuing shot, and he was.

But why was the star center left to his own devices with the game on the line? Embiid later took all of the responsibility on himself, saying it would have been better to call a timeout, but his team had none. Actually, the Sixers had two. It was the responsibility of Brown to set up that play, not Embiid. As he so often does, the coach chose to leave it to his players.

Even more perplexing than the way that game ended is Horford’s puzzling effectiveness against Embiid, who is four inches taller and eons better. After losing in five games to Boston in the playoffs last year, Brown must have some new idea on how to exploit this clear physical mismatch, don’t you think? And, if not, isn’t it his job to come up with something?

Normally a measured man, Brown bristles at suggestions that he is still unproven as a strategist, and especially so when the opposing coach is Stevens. Brown snapped, “We’ve been with each other for a minute,” when asked about the failure of his new players to reverse the Boston curse. He actually called me personally last year when I questioned his coaching in the pivotal third game of the Celtics’ playoff loss last season.

I will say even more emphatically now what I said then. Brown is impeccable at blending personalities. He is a master of the locker room. Every player – with the exception of lost-cause Markelle Fultz – responds to his paternal approach. He is also great with the media, the fans and even his harshest critics.

But is he equally adept with the Xs and Os?

Based on the evidence so far, the answer to that question is a resounding no.