February 08, 2019
For the first few years of his tenure, it was basically impossible to have a rational conversation about Sixers head coach Brett Brown. With a team full of misfits, castoffs, and lottery tickets, how could you judge the merits of a rotation on a 10-win team? The core philosophy of a modern NBA team was there, but the ingredients to play winning basketball were not.
That is no longer true. The Sixers, with two All-Stars under 25 years old and two more players who will likely demand max contracts this summer, are built to win right now. There will never be more pressure for Brown to win than there is right now, or higher stakes than he'll face over the next few months.
"We believe we're in position to contend now, and our moves reflect that belief," Elton Brand said on Friday. "The work is not done. We want to bring a championship to our fans, and that's the goal...we have all the resources to do that."
Elton Brand's big bet at the trade deadline was a double-down on November's acquisition of Jimmy Butler. The Sixers are not content to maybe get into the conversation with the rest of the East's elite. Instead of finetuning the depth around their big three, the Sixers created a big four, a fairly unique setup with the salary cap restraints in the modern NBA.
The goal between now and July 1 is winning and winning at a high level, but it is also about selling a quartet of talented players on spending the most important part of their careers together. It's about making Jimmy Butler feel central to their plans, guiding Ben Simmons along the point guard ropes, integrating Tobias Harris into this group, and making sure Joel Embiid knows it's still his team all the while.
That is easier said than done. There were cracks in their harmony before Harris even arrived, challenges public and private on how (and through who) the offense runs. Harris arrives with the right demeanor and reputation to make things work, but he also represents diminished touches for each member of the entrenched group.
These, to be clear, are the sort of problems a head coach dreams of having. If you would have told Brown three years ago that his biggest challenge would be integrating a fourth All-Star caliber player at the trade deadline, he would have jumped for joy at the thought.
But there is a subtext to these moves that reads loud and clear: Brown needs to prove he has chops to bring this group to the top, or the Sixers will turn their eyes elsewhere to find the man best suited for the job. A team unafraid to sell off their future to compete for a title now is not going to remain complacent if they believe that group needs an upgrade on the bench.
To his credit, Brand made public reassurances that the weight does not all fall on Brown following the deadline, after WIP's Jon Johnson brought up the subject on Friday morning.
"Not all the pressure [is on Brown]," said Brand. "As management, staff, and myself, we're going to do our part. And I think Brett can handle it and make this work."
(If that answer sounds short, it's a reflection of Brand's quiet approach to the entire presser, not his feelings on Brown specifically.)
For all intents and purposes, the relationship between coach and GM is a good one. They talk on a daily basis, combine their wisdom on how to build the best team possible, and in many respects became closer over last summer when the Sixers were forced to run a collaborative front office in the aftermath of the Bryan Colangelo scandal. The decision that netted them Zhaire Smith and the 2021 Miami Heat, on top of drafting Landry Shamet, ultimately made it possible to trade for Harris in the first place.
Still, this is a zero-sum business. If the Sixers do not succeed at the level they hope to, the axe will fall on someone. And it is Brown who becomes the likely target, despite the considerable cache he has within the organization.
Brand is the newer man on the job, the guy who turned role players and picks into more stars, the public face of a shift in organizational philosophy. The strength of their relationship does not change the fact that Brown was hired two general managers ago, with the previous GM having seated a replacement in waiting on the bench in Mike D'Antoni.
With increased expectations comes increased accountability. The Sixers' lacking bench will not be able to be leaned on as an excuse when the Sixers can stagger four different stars throughout their lineups. They have adaptable perimeter players who can blend into different looks and styles of offense, switch on defense, and buoy groups with sub-par talent around them.
What's more, Brown is going up against coaches who can rightfully be viewed as difference makers. Brad Stevens has gotten the best of him in a playoff series already. Mike Budenholzer, his old pal from San Antonio, has transformed a Bucks team that was merely talented into a regular-season juggernaut, one of the league's best teams on both ends of the floor.
Internally and externally, there will now be more reason than ever to demand Brown's best. For all that he has given this franchise, he deserves time and some patience to get this group in working order. No one should view this as a simple task.
But the time is now for Philadelphia. If the organization is going to demand that their players turn in championship-level performances, it's quite reasonable to ask for the same from the guy leading them from the sidelines.
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