PHILADELPHIA — Brett Brown survived a 10-win season to steer the Philadelphia 76ers toward the top of the Eastern Conference. Brown’s chances of returning for a seventh season as coach are on the rocks following back-to-back 50-win campaigns.
So it goes in Philly, where patience with the Process has worn thin. The Sixers — who rebuilt their roster with two blockbuster trades — were knocked out of the Eastern Conference semifinal for the second straight season.
Kawhi Leonard sank the first Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history and Toronto struck its biggest dagger in the sports heart of Philadelphia since Joe Carter went deep for the Blue Jays in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series.
Joel Embiid walked off in tears, his girlfriend cradling the face of the crestfallen 7-footer.
Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick are headed into free agency, a max contract likely looming for Butler.
Brown appears in limbo, and the should-he-stay-should-he-go decision will be the most crucial one yet for first-year general manager Elton Brand. Long championed by ownership and the front office, team owner Josh Harris for the first time put public pressure on Brown to at least reach the East final. And at an impromptu press conference before the start of the playoffs, Harris refused to say if Brown would return and offered only a lukewarm endorsement of his performance. Brown endured the growing pains of the rebuild but his time to finish the Process may have expired.
“What he’s done for this organization is nothing short of remarkable,” Redick said Monday. “I would just say this in general, for any NBA team, when you think about a coach, and potentially replacing that coach, you have to consider what coaches are available. I don’t feel it necessary to defend Brett to anyone. I think his work speaks for itself.”
Like Redick, Brown’s players have never shied away from expressing their admiration and confidence in Brown. Brown never cracked at the pressure or sniped at the media as he became the public face of the franchise through the early years of the Process. He outlasted general managers Sam Hinkie and Bryan Colangelo and turned the team into conference contenders even as expected cornerstones Markelle Fultz, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and others flamed out. Only six NBA coaches have longer active tenures with one team than Brown does in Philadelphia.
“I don’t think he should have anything to worry about,” Embiid said. “If there’s someone to blame, put it all on me.”
But the Sixers struck it big when Embiid became a franchise player and No. 1 pick Ben Simmons turned into an All-Star. Both have major flaws in health (Embiid) and shooting (Simmons) that will stunt the franchise’s growth until they are resolved. Sure, the Sixers could pluck two-time national champion Jay Wright from Villanova much like the Cavaliers hired John Beilein, but the coach might not matter if Embiid can’t consistently stay on the court.
Brown, though, has taken heat for a lot of the team’s failures late in close games. Yes, Leonard’s four-bouncer through the rim was the defining play, but a pair of late shot-clock violations and rushed shots as it ticked down made the Sixers appear disorganized in the final minutes.
The Sixers must decide Brown’s fate soon but there are plenty of other questions in a crucial off-season.
NEED FOR EMBIID
Embiid has all summer to dry his tears and soothe his upset tummy.
The Sixers will only go as far as their franchise centre takes them, period. They were willing to wait two years for him to sit out with injuries because they knew the tantalizing talent ahead. But he has yet to play more than 64 games a season, one reason why the Sixers played Game 7 on the road instead of home. He missed a playoff game against Brooklyn with a bad left knee and had multiple digestive issues that made his starting status unknown for other games. Embiid needs to become a 70-game player who never sniffs the injury report in the post-season for the Sixers to win it all.
“I feel like I let everybody down by not playing or by sitting out,” Embiid said.
Butler, acquired from Minnesota in November, is sure to ask for the max contract of nearly $190 million over five years. The Sixers would be wise to give it to him. Brown repeated through the playoffs that Butler was “the adult in gym” and other teams with cash to spend will be hot for the four-time All Star.
“I haven’t thought about it too much,” Butler said Monday. “I’ve got to sit down and really talk to my team.”
Harris, a trade deadline pickup from the Clippers, can also command a max deal from the Sixers. The Sixers are already on the hook for the $121 million left on Embiid’s deal and Simmons is a year out for earning a max-level extension. The Sixers have to solve some tricky financial questions if they’re willing to pay all their stars, while still leaving room to sign needed reserves as they chase their first NBA championship since 1983.
SIZING UP SIMMONS
Defences sagged on Simmons daring him to shoot because the speedy All-Star can’t do much outside the paint. Simmons is 0 for 17 from 3-point range in two seasons and the ability to expand his game is needed as much as a healthy Embiid.