“It still gets down to leadership, relationships and communication."
Brett Brown’s eyes were wide open when he became the 24th coach in 76ers’ history six years ago.
Brown realized that the Sixers were not a team on the verge of winning and that general manager Sam Hinkie, who hired him, wanted Brown to develop young players while losing in order to increase the chances of acquiring difference-making high picks in the NBA Draft.
The Sixers went 47-199 in Brown’s challenging first three seasons, including 10-72 in a third year in which they started the season 1-30 and finished it by going 2-29.
“You understood what you’re doing is a heck of a lot bigger than me,” said Brown during a 1-on-1 interview Thursday at the team’s training facility. “You are the gatekeeper of a storied program. You are responsible to the city to grow something that we all took bullets to try to reap the benefit of draft picks and trades and lesser talent to move up a food chain.”
Fast forward three years and the Sixers are coming off of consecutive 50-win seasons in which they advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals. They won more games in either of the past two campaigns than in Brown’s first three combined.
After GM Elton Brand added veteran big man Al Horford and athletic shooting guard Josh Richardson in the offseason, the Sixers and their fans believe the team is capable of winning an NBA championship.
Brown has been here every step of the way. He’ll begin his seventh season as coach Wednesday night against the visiting Celtics.
Brown will become the second-longest-tenured Sixers coach during the Oct. 30 home game against the Timberwolves, which will be his 496th in Philadelphia. Only good friend Billy Cunningham, who coached 640 games and won the organization’s last title in 1982-83, will be ahead of him. Al Cervi from the Syracuse Nationals, the precursor to the Sixers, coached 495 games — three more than Brown — from 1949-56.
There were times when Brown, whose Sixers record is 178-314, admits he didn’t know if he’d reach this point.
“You’re always wondering if that was going to happen,” said Brown, now 58. “I’m proud of what we’ve done. You will come in here and treat people well. You’ll tell them the truth. And you’ll coach and grow something that you believe in.”
The days of players coming and going at a frantic pace are gone. Think about how Brown adapted at the end of the February 2015 all-star break when Hinkie traded 2013-14 NBA Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams to the Bucks for a future first-round pick.
With the 6-foot-6 Carter-Williams gone and replaced by 6-1 Tim Frazier, a 10-day contract signee from Penn State, Brown had to completely overhaul his defensive scheme overnight.
Brown quickly learned that he needed to be adaptable and patient.
“You knew you were never going to win in a blowout,” Brown said. “All games were going to be close. And so you really had to do whatever you could to scrutinize situations, (such as) are you going to foul? Are you going to call timeout? Are you going to advance the ball? You can go on and on and on.”
He’s making the same decisions today, though postseason success is on the line instead of securing more Ping-Pong balls in the NBA Draft Lottery.
Expectations are clearly different, with James Anderson and Henry Sims being replaced by all-stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, than they were in the “early days,” as Brown likes to say. He has a roster filled with legitimate NBA players, at least two of whom are at an elite level. But there are some common threads or “silos,” as he calls them, dating back to his first three years, too.
“It still gets down to leadership, relationships and communication,” Brown said. “Relationships: what’s important there? Leadership: what’s going to really hold this thing together and what do you have to do to be a good leader? Then, how do you communicate to the media, to the owners, to the players? And so albeit different phases and stages and talent levels, those three things never changed for me.”
While Brown is grateful to Sixers managing partner Josh Harris and co-managing partner David Blitzer for sticking with him (“I’ve shared that journey with them in deep and meaningful ways”), he’s also helped bring stability to a franchise that had seven coaches in the previous nine seasons following Larry Brown’s six-year tenure.
“As a leader, he embodies the type of characteristics this city loves and also the traits that make players, coaches and staff gravitate towards him,” Brand said. “He’s a tremendous communicator, he knows how to connect with people and his passion for the game of basketball shines through. We are thrilled to have him as our head coach on our quest for a championship.”
Prior to joining the Sixers, Brown spent 13 seasons with Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, winning four titles during that time. Can Brown help Philly get there this year? Stay tuned.
“I’m not trying to really pad my resume,” Brown said. “And, personally, I’m at a place where I get it. I really do. I don’t take it personally. It won’t define me. This job will not define me.
“Everything is championship habits, championship culture. That’s not a phrase to me. I believe I can articulate what that actually looks like well because of my privileged past. Those types of things were my compass. You live by just trying to do the right thing and I know what the right thing is and I know what a championship looks like.”
Brown also knows what it’s like to be David facing Goliath on a nightly basis. While there’s more pressure now, Brown has certainly paid his dues and earned this opportunity.