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April 11, 2019

Sixers' playoff mandate puts Brett Brown under heavy pressure

Brown may be under more pressure this postseason than anyone on the Sixers' roster.

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021519-BrettBrown-USAToday Brad Penner/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown reacts during the fourth quarter against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

The last 12 months in Philadelphia have been driven by, in large part, the Sixers' failure to get it done on the big stage against an undermanned Boston Celtics team. Trading for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris? Picking up an extra pick for trading hometown kid Mikal Bridges? Changes in the defensive scheme? All tied to that five-game series, which ended in a pretty humiliating defeat for Philly.

Elton Brand, who has been behind the wheel for much of the upheaval, made it clear on Wednesday night that everything they've done has been about improving on last season's final result.

"Expectations changed since the beginning of the season. Now I'm confident that my expectation is to make a deep playoff run," Brand told reporters. "My goal and my expectation is to definitely get past where we got last year with this team. That's why I made those moves. We got to the second round, we lost to Boston, so I expect us to pass that."

Between Brand's comments and those from Joshua Harris following the trade deadline, the mandate is clear. The Sixers need to win now, or someone is going to be held responsible. It's certainly not going to be Brand, on his first year on the job, or Harris. The Sixers can hardly afford to dump it all on their new stars, who they paid a price to acquire and who they likely have to keep this summer to keep the team in contending shape moving forward.

So the ax, naturally, hangs over Brown, who has had the ire of some segments of this fanbase for years. At this point, it is more than fair. He was effectively the GM during the draft and free agency last summer, he has more than enough talent to win with, and he has had beyond enough time to set a tone, establish a culture, and contribute to the vision of the present and future 6ers.

He's aware of this and hasn't backed down from his preseason goal of a Finals appearance. Doing so would probably be the "safer" option for Brown in this environment, but it is not the route he has chosen.

"I would feel like a coward sitting in front of you all saying, 'My goal is to lose in the second round.' It has to be [the Finals]," Brown said Wednesday. "We get how hard it is to be the last man standing. We get how hard it will be coming out of the East. We understand the lack of consistency we have been able to generate with our starting five. We understand we are still searching for that bench...but to me, the goal can't change, and that's the way it is. I own it, I'm going to coach like that, we're going to try to coach these like that, no one is playing or coaching afraid."

The talent discrepancy may render it moot in round one, but Brown's matchup with Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson will be a fascinating one on many levels. They are two coaches in considerably different positions, reflected in part through how they set their teams up.

Philadelphia, of course, is the playoff incumbent that came into the season with high expectations. Failure was not an option for them in October, and it certainly isn't now after Brand pulled the trigger on multiple win-now moves. In some ways, this has played into some of Brown's natural instincts. When they've been healthy enough to suit everyone up, Brown has skewed traditional and what I suppose you could call "conservative" instead of exploring roles for younger players, relying instead on veterans who know who and what they are.

Atkinson's Nets, of course, had the luxury of low expectations entering this season because of the forced rebuild they've gone through. That has allowed them to play (and Atkinson to coach) with a level of freedom and fight that established playoff teams often don't. There is no fear of failure, so the Nets' coach can throw things at the wall and hope it works, like playing Chester native Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as a small-ball center when Brooklyn is in need of a curveball.

It's not a curveball that should work against the Sixers. Assuming we get a healthy Embiid — and I suppose that's in a bit of doubt now — the Sixers can punt Brooklyn's version of small ball to the moon. But Atkinson can tinker and experiment without fear of real repercussions after the season, even if the Nets lose. The Sixers, on the other hand, need to win and win comfortably.

Brand did provide a small out to Brown (and everyone else, in fairness) later on during his Wednesday press availability, clarifying that how the Sixers get somewhere will be important, not just where the season ends.

"You look at how the series went, you look at the factors," Brand said. "Health and what was going on out there, you definitely have to look at that."

Ideal or not, this is Brown's opportunity to make his case as the guy who should be given a chance to lead this team moving forward. Regardless of how you feel about him, that much is clear.

That's a good thing, assuming we can take it at face value. But there are competing interests at play here, regardless of how strong the relationship between Brown and Brand is (and my understanding is that they are close). The latter has more incentive than anyone to prove the major trade deals he struck were the right ones. He is in a position to leave his imprint on the franchise, flanked by a front office brought in by a GM who had his own plans in place to oust Brown.

Brown has survived plenty during his time here, but it is the first year he has been the leader of a team that started at the front of the pack. The Sixers have had reasons to sputter, but they have not worn that honor well. From the botched Markelle Fultz experiment to the early Jimmy Butler issues to their disjointed stretch run, there have been more fires to put out than ever. And while Brown has remained the same relentlessly positive guy — save for a few tense moments — his reputation as a motivator and steadying force has been challenged more than ever.

For a team trying to make the transition from fun, young story into a full-blown contender, this is not an unfamiliar story. For every Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, there is a Doug Collins and Paul Westhead*. Winning at a reasonably high level with big-time talent is not often a guarantee of anything.

(*And in fairness to Westhead, he did win a title in 1980 before he was shown the door in L.A. Some of you may remember that series.)

The goalposts have shifted for Brown often, and (to a degree) rightfully so. In the early days, you wanted to wait and see until they had a real roster because he got supreme buy-in out of just about everyone and introduced a modern style to the Sixers. As they started to come along, you wanted to see whether he could take the elite prospects they'd been after and coach them up into stars. Heading into this season, the thought was that you wanted to see what the Sixers would look like with their first year of roster continuity.

They didn't end up maintaining that, and their bench may have gotten even worse. But the Sixers have two of this year's All-Stars, a recent All-NBA player, a big-time scorer in his prime, and one of the greatest shooters of all-time in the midst of a career season. Short of a major injury, no one wants to hear excuses for why they couldn't get it done, even if their inexperience playing together is unprecedented for a team with their expectations.

Ideal or not, this is Brown's opportunity to make his case as the guy who should be given a chance to lead this team moving forward. Regardless of how you feel about him, that much is clear.


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