The Philadelphia 76ers just fired their head coach, Brett Brown.
While I’ve watched that basketball team plenty over the last several years, I need not have watched a single minute to conclude that Brown’s biggest mistake was his inability to get his two superstars to co-exist.
With one of those players lost to injury, the Sixers got summarily swept out of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics. Coach Brown was subsequently relieved of his duties. Philly didn’t even wait for him to get out of the bubble before delivering the news.
Star power is essential to success in the NBA, not only for selling tickets but for winning titles. You have to go back decades to find a championship team without a bonified superstar. If you don’t have star power, you’re not getting fans through the turnstiles. On top of that, you also have to employ someone who can manage those superstars, which is far easier said than done.
6’10” point guard Ben Simmons was the Sixers’ number one overall pick in 2016. While the jury may still be out, not only on his ceiling but his ability to stay healthy, Simmons has shown he’s an incredible talent. And he’s only 24 years old.
7’0” center Joel Embiid was selected third overall in 2014, also by the Sixers. He is commonly touted as the best big man in the game. Like Simmons, Embiid has also struggled with injury. With the point guard-center combo, proving a recipe for NBA success over the years, Philadelphia was hoping these two would be a step in that direction.
It hasn’t happened. Someone had to take the fall.
Finding a dynamic duo worth building around like Cousy-Russell, Magic and Abdul-Jabbar, Frazier-Monroe, Jordan-Pippen, Bird-McHale, Shaq-Kobe, Wade-LeBron… Philly thought somehow, someway, Simmons-Embiid would sniff that neighborhood, cementing their own legacy in the league. They still may (unlikely). It just won’t happen under Brett Brown’s watch.
More important than any titles (depending upon who you ask) are the relationships forged by these historical duos. Not only that, but the coaches who mentored them (Auerbach, Riley, Jones, Jackson, Holzman) are recognized as the league’s greatest ever, able to fuse both the egos and the talent that came along with them.
That’s what being an NBA head coach is all about. A pinch of game planning, a heaping portion of coddling, that and a whole lot of luck. If you don’t have talent, you won’t last long. The same can be said if you can’t manage the talent you have.
Maybe the task before Brown loomed too large. Maybe Simmons and Embiid clashed more than he could handle. They certainly don’t appear to be all that chummy. They won’t be the first talented twosome to not meet expectations and be split up for not doing so. After all, these combinations are few and far between… but when they connect, they’re something special.
Most expected, and still expect, Simmons and Embiid to be that special. We’ll see what happens in the off-season, which officially starts today in Philadelphia. They may keep both, one or neither. GM Elton Brand has some difficult decisions to make. He already made one by firing Brown. His eventual replacement will try anew. The cupboard is not bare. It’s just dysfunctional as hell in a town with renewed expectations a lot of eyes watching.
To be clear, this is not a judgment on Brown as a coach. He had back-to-back 50-win seasons, which was the first time a Philly coach had done that in ages. He was one gut-wrenching Kawhi Leonard jumper from leading this team to the Eastern Conference Finals. All that considered, he was unable to get the most out of his stars and that, in bold print, is the ‘objective’ portion at the top of every successful NBA coach’s resume.
Moving forward, Philly needs to determine who’s the Type A on that roster. One would think it’s Embiid. He’s far more vocal than Simmons who is the type to never be shushed in a library. I’m not as appalled as most are about his unwillingness to shoot three-pointers. In three years, Simmons has only attempted 24 three-point shots. That’s a weekend out for Steph Curry. But Simmons could stand to be more aggressive. After all, he’s the one handling the ball most of the time. As professionals, both these two should be able to co-exist. That’s their job; their inability to do so cost Brown his.
Not winning ball games (the Sixers were an underachieving 6-seed in these playoffs) is one thing. When the wrong kind of drama accompanies your team, and its losses, it’s time to make a change. Brown’s alleged spats with Jimmy Butler and his inability to get Markelle Fultz to lose his yips didn’t help matters.
There’s a short list of coaches who have successfully turned egos and talent into championships. The list of coaches who have failed to do so is considerably longer. You can now add Brett Brown’s name to that list.
He’ll land another gig somewhere. The NBA recycles coaches like environmentalists recycle grocery bags. Another coach will soon have a shot at these two. In an increasingly difficult Eastern Conference, he better be able to more than just coach. That’s only a small portion of what the job requires.