Two months following the Game 7 defeat in the 2013 NBA Finals to the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Brett Brown was announced as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. Then general manager, Sam Hinkie, was in the early stages of the (in)famous “process” and took on a coach who hadn’t led a team in 11 years (2001-02 Sydney Kings).
After powering through a difficult four-season stretch, Brown has put together two seasons of 50+ win seasons. Now heading into his seventh season, this is a make-it or break-it year for Brett Brown.
Brett Brown’s Most Important Year
As a true Gregg Popovich disciple, Brown emphasizes ball movement and transition offense. The 76ers finished the 2018-19 season third in passes made per game (316.9), fourth in assists per game (26.9), and third in distance traveled per game (18.7 miles). They will always focus on pace, space, and movement as long as Brown is at the helm.
In an interview earlier this year with Kevin Kinkead of Crossingbroad.com, Brown cemented his emphasis by stating:
“I have given this explanation before and I’m proud to give it again. We led most of the previous years the NBA in passing. That is a fact.”
Adding to his sentiment further, he went on to say:
“Connected to that, we led the NBA in assist percentage or were always in the top two. I’m proud of sharing the ball. Since we all met six years ago, I told you the pass is king. The pass is king, it’s everything because it connects the dots to chemistry. You share.”
Although he stretches the facts slightly, the 76ers have finished in the top three each of the past three seasons in assist percentage. And, they finished first twice as the league leader in passes per game.
Brett Brown’s Defensive Philosophy
Understanding this type of offensive philosophy will – typically – have a negative impact on defense, Brown has been able to – at times – lead effective defensive teams. In their record-setting 10-win season, the 76ers ranked 27th in defensive rating (a calculation of how many points a team will give up, per 100 possessions) at 108.6.
However, during their first 50-win season (2017-18), their defensive rating was 103.9 (3rd). Only for them to fall to their worst defensive rating under Brown the following season (2018-19 – 109.9).
Halfway through his inaugural season, Brown recognized the defensive shortcomings. His interview with Zach Lowe of ESPN he admitted:
“I think I misjudged the repercussions of the pace, even though I’m extremely proud of that pace. If I had to do it again, I’d do it every time over.”
Brett Brown’s Evolution
From the day Brown accepted the position, his focus has been on ball movement and player movement. His roster has seen drastic changes without hampering those points of emphasis. To put that in perspective, the franchise has had 503 players register at least one minute in 70 seasons. During Brown’s six seasons, he has coached 98 of those 503 players.
Regardless of his reluctance to change his emphases, Brown has evolved as a coach on the offensive end. Early in his 76ers tenure, he focused on getting shots in the paint; the 2013-14 76ers took over half their shots from less than 10 feet. As the seasons went along, that number began to dwindle. Five seasons in and the 76ers were taking 10 percent fewer shots from the painted area.
The shots that were no longer taken around the rim have evolved to catch and shoot jump shots, and pullups. Total pullup jump shot field goal attempts increased from 14.7 to over 23, while catch and shoot opportunities ballooned from slightly over 23 to nearly 27 per game.
Brown embraced the evolution of the NBA to become a more jump-shooting team without sacrificing his maintain objective of pace, space, and movement.
Philadelphia 76ers’ Personnel
During his first season, Brown’s highest-rated lineup consisted of Evan Turner, Justin Anderson, Hollis Thompson, Lavoy Allen, and Spencer Hawes. In comparison, last season’s highest-rated lineup was: Ben Simmons (All-Star), J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler (All-Star), Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid (All-Star).
Even considering the loss of Redick and Butler, the 76ers return two All-Stars and a maximum contract player in Tobias Harris. That is simply from a five-man lineup. Elton Brand – current general manager – was busy in the off-season replacing those two players. He ultimately brought in another All-Star in Al Horford and a terrific two-way player in Josh Richardson.
Additionally, the 76ers welcome 2018 and 2019 first-round picks, Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle. Along with veteran role players like Mike Scott, Kyle O’Quinn, and James Ennis. The 2019-20 76ers are loaded with talent that is mixed with youth and veterans.
Make It or Break It for Brett Brown
A first time NBA head coach with four losing seasons – including a 72-loss season – rarely has the opportunity to enter the seventh season. Brown finds himself in that situation. Only 93 NBA coaches have made it their seventh season and no one has a worse winning percentage (.362) than Coach Brown.
If he wants to live up to his mentor, Popovich, he has a lot of catching up to do. Through Popovich’s first six seasons, he led the Spurs to five winning seasons, five playoff appearances, which included an NBA Championship.
The roster is poised for a championship run, and the league is in a rare up-for-grabs season. With a fan base that has high expectations, this is a recipe for a make it or break it year for Brett Brown.
He has the chance to motivate the team to the number one seed in the East. The 76ers could top the Moses Malone and Charles Barkley 1984-85 season of 58 wins. However, their regular-season dominance could fall short in the Eastern Conference playoffs to a highly motivated Giannis Antetokounmpo.
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