January 05, 2019
With all due respect to the Dallas Mavericks, Saturday night’s game against Luka Doncic and Co. was basically a sideshow compared to the locker room stories emerging from Philadelphia. After a Friday report from ESPN documented Jimmy Butler and Brett Brown clashing behind-the-scenes, it was the subject at the forefront of the discussion before Saturday’s game.
After some initial confusion about what was about to take place — the Sixers initially put out a pair of chairs and microphones before pulling them back — Brown emerged from the locker room, and was quick to dispel the notion that there is any real problem in Philadelphia.
"In that film session that was referenced, I didn't feel like any of it crossed the line. And if it did, it would have been dealt with quickly,” said Brown. “If it were, I would own it. From his standpoint, that is unfair. From my standpoint, judging it in the light of day, I've had many conversations with players over the years that would warrant that type of description. This wasn't one of them."
There is no denying that the conversations inside Philadelphia’s locker room have changed during the time since Butler arrived. It’s what happens when you exchange a pair of role players for a bonafide star. That comes with a louder voice, a lot more cache, and a larger say in how the organization operates from the top down.
Butler has been vocal and opinionated behind-the-scenes, but not to a degree that makes the head coach feel uncomfortable.
“He’s all in. He’s got opinions. But it’s instigated by me, what do you see and what do you think?” said Brown. “We know his personality. None of this should surprise anybody with regards to, he’s got opinions, he wants to be heard. He should be heard.”
Brown was happy to confirm that many parts of the report from ESPN were true. The insistence that Butler was demanding to be put in more pick-and-rolls? True, according to Brown.
And the head coach took that a step further, revealing that Butler is not at all a fan of one of the offense’s signature plays.
“You have to take the reality of my players talents and put them in a place where they can be at their best,” said Brown. “The system has to cater to their talents and it's on me to make sure that happens.”
“The DHO's [dribble hand offs] are not sort of his thing. Coming off staggered DHO's especially, not his thing. He likes to be in a pick-and-roll.”
Considering that’s a staple of Philadelphia’s offense, that is at least a medium-sized deal.
But Brown laid out a clear message in the comments that immediately followed that tidbit on DHO’s. Whether Butler receives it as a direct message or not, it hammered home how this team will live and die under Brown’s watch.
“More and more [pick-and-rolls] should be run. But not to the detriment of Joel Embiid. Not to the detriment of some other things,” said Brown. “I think If you put a gun to my head and said, 'Where should our bread be buttered?' It's through Joel Embiid and then Jimmy Butler. And JJ is going to move and do his thing and Ben is going to find his way and that's the ecosystem. That's on me to create that.”
Translation: at the end of the day, this is Embiid’s team. And Brown is going to try to build an offense that plays through him first, with Butler’s needs coming second.
The era of the authoritarian coach is over, not just in the NBA but across most professional sports. Look across the parking lot to Lincoln Financial Field, and you’ll see a perfect example of that in Doug Pederson. You hear words like communicator, relationship builder, and “player’s coach” thrown around so much you wish you never had to hear them again.
Brown has only had to be those things for most of his Sixers career. Yes, he has had to implement a vision and build a locker room and construct a culture since he was hired back in 2013. But with Embiid and Simmons growing in stature and Butler arriving to stir things up, Brown now has to manage major egos on and off the court, bending what he wants to do to accommodate what his stars want to do.
And really, it’s the first time in Brown’s NBA career he has had to confront a problem of this sort. He referred to his former home in San Antonio as “Disneyland,” and acknowledged that the way the world has changed over the years changes how frequently information leaks to the public.
It will probably not be the last time we hear about some sort of squabble in Philadelphia, whether it involves the coach, the players, the front office, or all of the above.
“We used to always look at coach [Jerry] Sloan's program at Utah and it was like the Iron Curtain, really. It was tight. That is the holy grail, that is what we aspire to have, and in big market teams and societies, which San Antonio is not, it's even more challenging.” said Brown. “[But] it's 2018, it's not 2003.”
(It’s 2019, Brett, but point taken.)
The noise would suggest otherwise, but the Sixers are doing quite alright on the offensive side of the ball. No matter what Butler thinks about running dribble handoffs, the team's defensive struggles are a bigger concern for a team with Finals aspirations. If they can't lock in on defense, nothing else will matter, happy Butler or not.
And for Brown, that's where the story begins and ends. The head coach is okay dealing with the scrutiny, the reports, and the ego management as long as this team continues to build upon a strong foundation.
"You have to hear me the loudest in this area: We are winning basketball games and we have the best team that we've ever had here," said Brown.
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