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March 30, 2017

Biggest winner of this Sixers season? Brett Brown, by a mile

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A couple of weeks before training camp starts, the Sixers host the media for lunch at a restaurant in the Navy Yard. The purpose of this get-together is for Brett Brown to answer a bunch questions, providing an update on the team’s summer and looking ahead to the upcoming season.

As he was driving to the latest such gathering last September, Brown was prepped about where the Sixers generally were predicted to finish in 2016-17 by some national outlets. One of the numbers that the team’s fourth-year head coach remembers hearing was 24 wins. As in 2.4 times more than the previous season.

Las Vegas initially set the number at 27.5, which some morons declared “way too high” at the time. As it shook out, the Sixers eclipsed that number Tuesday in Brooklyn, despite…

     • Joel Embiid, destroyer of worlds, only playing 31 games while on a minutes restriction.

     • Ben Simmons, passer extraordinaire, following the time-honored Sixers tradition of redshirting thanks to an injury suffered on the last day of training camp.

      • Jerryd Bayless, one of the team’s veteran free-agent acquisitions, having his wrist betray him to the point where he only could gut out three painful games.

Yet there the Sixers were, at the Factory of Sadness Barclays Center, wrapping up their 28th win (as in 2.8 times more than last year) with seven inexperienced players and Tiago Splitter, seeing his first NBA action since January 2016, just trying his best to make it safely up and down the floor a la 2015 Jason Richardson.

“If the season were to end today, this group has exceeded expectations all over the place,” Brown said. “And we will reap the benefit of that spirit and that attitude and that excitement with a very, very calculated and disciplined the summer.”

There is plenty of time to talk about the summer and the future ramifications it will have on this franchise, but for today, let’s take stock of the 2016-17 season. And considering the circumstances, the Sixers have wildly outperformed preseason expectations.

Full stop.

Credit for the improvement in the face of so much adversity goes to a few different parties. The previous front office did a nice job plucking contributors like Robert Covington, T.J. McConnell, and Richaun Holmes from the scrap heap and second round of the draft. The new regime’s moves to acquire Gerald Henderson and Ersan Ilyasova played a factor in the improvement as well.

The credit also has to go to the players, who have generally seized their opportunities. Brown rattled off his entire current rotation before Wednesday’s game against Atlanta, and any disagreement with what he said would be considered nitpicking.

“This team has fought in a higher weight class all year,” Brown said. “Let’s just use our starters as an example. T.J. has had a heck of a year and has improved. Timmy Luwawu has had a heck of year and has improved. Go back to Robert, what he’s done. Dario, as we’ve said, how can the Rookie of the Year not go through Philadelphia? That speaks for itself. Look at what Richaun Holmes has done.”

Brown kept going.

“Look at what Shawn Long has done since he’s come back into this. Nik Stauskas is now a point guard and was a plus-10 last night and has had a heck of a year. And Gerald Henderson statistically has had his best year in the NBA. And so there’s not anybody you say, ‘Wow, he had a rough year this year,’ not any of them.”

On Wednesday night, the Sixers had eight available players against the Hawks, didn’t have the services of Covington, shot poorly from the three-point line (11-39) due to tired legs, and somehow only lost by seven in a game that felt closer than the final score would indicate.

I’m burying the lede quite a bit here, but there is so much Process context necessary to effectively express it: Joel Embiid’s star might have shined brightest for the 2016-17 Philadelphia 76ers, but nobody gained more from this season than Brett Brown.

In October and November, there was a healthy bit of speculation about Brown’s job security (type “Brett Brown fired” into Google). He’s working for a front office that didn’t hire him and the Sixers had the potential to stumble out of the gate yet again. After amassing a 47-199 record through three seasons, Brown had the third-best odds to be the first coach fired according to Bovada.

Any rational observer realized that the Sixers’ brutal record was due to lack of talent, but this is the NBA. This is the league where plenty of coaches get handed a pink slip after making the playoffs. And after some close losses to start the season, portions of the fan base became frustrated with the Sixers’ late-game execution. The target of that frustration was Brown.

As always seems to be the answer, everybody just needed to trust the process. During those tough times, Brown sure did.

“If you came into a practice or locker room, you would never realize that we were a 10-win team just because he found a way to keep everybody happy and motivated,” Nik Stauskas said Brown, who he called the favorite coach he ever played for. “Obviously we’re still not where we want to be, but we’re definitely a better team than we were last year.”

The Sixers are losing ping-pong balls every night, but the team’s resiliency is a testament to Brown’s ability to keep his players motivated. "You just can't tank with Robert Covington and Dario Saric on your team” is not something anyone thought would be legitimately true back in November. That is the sign of a well-coached team.

Listening to Brown talk, he’s still excited about getting to the summer. This is someone who spent his entire NBA career coaching in the postseason, and he wants to get back there. Brown knows that he needs Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to heal, Dario Saric to refine his jumper, and the addition of more lottery picks to get back there. He has loftier goals than getting the most out of an undermanned team.

“If you came into a practice or locker room, you would never realize that we were a 10-win team just because he found a way to keep everybody happy and motivated.”

But in a season where the Sixers wanted to change the negative perception (fair or not), Brown has done that and then some. Always an extremely popular figure among his peers, Brown and his team have consistently received high the NBA head coaching fraternity.

“He lets us know about that,” Stauskas said. “He’s proud of the steps we’re making and he always brings it up to us that other coaches around the league talk to him and they have good things about the style of play we have and whatnot.”

Firing Brown always would have been tricky both locally and around the NBA due to the terrible optics that would come with him never getting an honest chance to win. Now though, he also has one of the league’s best coaching jobs in 2016-17 on his résumé.

“For this year’s team, looking at that board, I got like nine, ten guys that can move forward,” Brown said. “That wasn’t that many, circling three and four, maybe five.”

If the seat was hot, it has cooled down. There is still much work to be done for the Sixers and nothing is guaranteed for Brett Brown moving forward, but despite a 75-245 record, you can feel pretty good about his chances to move forward with those players. Better than when the season began, anyway.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann