The Philadelphia 76ers recently freed themselves of Head Coach Brett Brown after a 4-0 first-round sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics. While the 76ers didn’t have star point guard Ben Simmons, the early exit encapsulates Philadelphia’s repeated failures at building a stable rotation supported by strong leaders.
For Philadelphia, its transformation process begins at head coach. Brown served the 76ers loyally during several dark years, but tensions existed between the head coach and his superstar center dating back to 2018.
During the 2018 season, Brown employed Joel Embiid on the perimeter too much. Embiid is an incredibly talented player, but he’s not a tremendous threat from deep. At the time, Embiid told Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer,
“It seems like the past couple games, like with the way I play, our setup, [Brown] always has me starting on the perimeter … and it just really frustrates me. My body feels great, and it’s just I haven’t been playing well.”
While those comments weren’t red flags at the time, two years haven’t erased Embiid’s uneasy relationship with Brown. After the 76ers got swept out of the playoffs, Marcus Hayes of The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted Embiid saying,
“I wish we had found our identity, offensively or defensively. I felt like the focus was not always there.”
That’s not a direct attack on Brown, but it’s pretty damning testimony that the head coach didn’t get his team in a winning mindset. Brown nurtured the 76ers during their dark years, but he lacked the accountability and assertiveness to handle his star players and win the locker room’s undying loyalty.
Brown never got through to his other star, Ben Simmons, either. Simmons possesses the build and skill set to be on par with LeBron James and even surpass the King when it comes to defense. There’s just one issue, Simmons almost completely refuses even to attempt threes and long-range twos.
Brown admitted in an interview with ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan that he applied heavy pressure to his young point guard, trying to force a few deep shots out of him,
“I told Ben, ‘If you aren’t willing to shoot, then do I just bench you? Because I can do that.’ We could have gone that route or continue to coach him as it relates to spacing. We worked on the ability to use it as a choice to shoot the 3, catch and go, get in the paint, or find someone else.”
Embiid also weighed in on Simmons’ shooting,
“Ben can help me a lot. I feel like I’ve helped him a lot with his game. People keep saying, ‘Oh, you have to stop spending time on the 3-point line,’ but I do it because Ben is such a good driver, going to basket, that I’ve got to help open that up for him. I would like if he would do the same for me, to start shooting [threes]. But I also know how uncomfortable he is with it.”
Here’s the ultimate conundrum for the 76ers. Embiid doesn’t like operating by the three-point line, he said so two years ago. However, the 7-0, 280 lb. superstar feels that he has to space the floor so Simmons can excel. If Embiid sits on the block all game, the middle gets clogged, and Simmons’ drives become nullified. Both of those problems go away if Simmons commits to at least attempting some deep shots, but Brown never reached his young point guard.
The head coach never resolved the biggest issue surrounding Embiid either. The dominant center often blows through other big men with his large frame. However, questions about Embiid’s weight continue attracting attention. Despite the advantage it gives him down low, Embiid’s build limits the superstar’s speed and stamina.
In an article for NBC Sports from May, Brown backed up Embiid,
“I’ve had many conversations with Jo. I spoke with him 30 minutes ago, and he’s got a real desire to be at a playing weight that equals his best since he’s been in the league.”
However, the center looked gassed late in games against the Celtics. While Embiid carried a larger offensive load than usual, which contributed to his fatigue, other stars have weathered the same storm. Embiid didn’t handle it as well as he could have.
Injuries have played a role in Embiid’s fluctuating fitness since his rookie season. The superstar gets caught in a cycle of injury and rehab, which leaves him out of shape when he returns to action. However, Brown could’ve pushed his star player for a better effort when it came to managing his fitness. Nikola Jokić lost a significant amount of weight entering the bubble, and he received praise for the transformation. Embiid never hit that point.
Brown guided the 76ers through some of the worst rebuilding seasons. He trusted the process and eventually made three consecutive postseason appearances. A Gregg Popovich disciple, Brown went 12-14 in the playoffs with Philadelphia. The 76ers came one Kawhi Leonard game-winning shot away from making the Eastern Conference Finals last season. However, Philadelphia hit its ceiling with Brown.
The team needs a new voice at head coach, one who isn’t afraid to challenge its superstars to step outside their comfort zones and not settle for the way things are now.
General Manager Elton Brand managed to avoid getting the axe this year. Despite his role in signing Tobias Harris and Al Horford to untradeable contracts, Brand retains his control over basketball operations. No matter what Brand does during the rest of his time with Philadelphia, if he doesn’t find a way to get rid of one of those contracts, Philadelphia fans won’t forgive him.
Horford signed a four-year, $109 million deal last summer while Harris received a five-year, $180 million contract at about the same time. In 2019, despite averaging 30 minutes per game, Horford shot the lowest field goal percentage of his career and scored his fewest points per game since 2008. The 34-year-old former All-Star scored 28 total points in Philadelphia’s playoff series against Boston.
Meanwhile, the streaky Harris fell short of expectations. When he arrived in Philadelphia, Harris was an All-Star hopeful. A year and a half later, he’s not in that conversation anymore. The 28-year-old only posted one 20-point game as the 76ers got swept into the offseason. This comes a year after the team didn’t retain two-way wing Jimmy Butler, who Embiid still doesn’t seem over losing.
It’s time for Philadelphia to make some hard decisions. The team cannot return with the same roster next season because it’ll only produce the same results. The coaching staff and structural leadership of the organization must change. Most importantly, the team’s star players must change for the better. It’s time to stop messing around and get serious about winning a championship.