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Marcus Hayes: Brett Brown is having best season so far as Sixers head coach

The Philadelphia Inquirer — By Marcus Hayes The Philadelphia Inquirer

Feb. 13-- PHILADELPHIA-It doesn't feel like it, but this might be Brett Brown's best season yet.

Yes, the 76ers recently lost four in a row during a stretch that put Brown's job in immediate peril, which was stupid. Yes, they play worse on the road, which is why they stand No. 5 in an Eastern Conference that they were favored to win.

But here's the thing: They never should have been favored to win the East. Not after losing JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler, their two most reliable perimeter players, and replacing them with Al Horford and Josh Richardson, decidedly unreliable perimeter players. The Sixers said they would win playing "Bully Ball." Bully Ball died with the Reebok Pump.

Here's another thing: Asking a reconstructed team with little shooting and less depth to consistently and immediately win on the road is too much to ask. Besides, the Sixers' worst moments have come against their best competition. The Sixers have two four-game road losing streaks, which markedly skews the ledger, but seven of those eight losses came against teams that would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today, and five of those losses came against teams with seeds equal to or higher than the Sixers' current No. 5 slot.

Impatience is understandable. The city and league are seven years into the flawed and foolish endeavor called The Process, but The Process began in earnest just two seasons ago when the team established a healthy centerpiece, Joel Embiid, and finally acquired a point guard, Ben Simmons. Both need at least two more seasons of development as the franchise achieves stability and real contention. Brown, the coach since the inception, might not be around to see that, but once again, he is ably shepherding The Process.

Does this mean that Brown is a better coach than Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee, Nick Nurse in Toronto, Erik Spoelstra in Miami, or Brad Stevens in Boston? No. But they don't face the challenges Brown faces every year. I'd love to see what they would do with a team with ill-fitting parts, overseen by meddlesome, dilettante ownership.

Brown has won 34 of 55 games with a flawed roster, a poor bench, and injury issues to two starters. It's actually been kind of a miracle.

Embiid missed a dozen games and Richardson missed 14-or 22 and 25% of the schedule. After they lost four straight, Brown regrouped his troops and won three in a row entering this All-Star break.

The second win came after general manager Elton Brand reconfigured the bench with the additions of Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks at the trade deadline. The third win came after Brown benched $97 million forward Al Horford and made him Embiid's backup, because these days you can't play two brontosaurs in a league dominated by velociraptors, no matter how badly Brand wants to recreate the yesteryear in which he flourished.

The third win also came amid the latest Embiid-centric controversy. Embiid shushed and cussed a booing home crowd Sunday, then spent Monday on Instagram quoting Batman and hinting that he might want to join Butler in Miami, ostensibly while sucking on a cookies-and-cream milkshake.

These are handicaps outside of Brown's control.

Embiid was supposed to be sleeker this season, but he's still out of shape, and Brown cannot help that. Simmons was supposed to start shooting from the outside, but he still refuses, and Brown cannot control that. Tobias Harris, whom they chose to max out over Butler, was supposed to play more aggressively, but he remains passive in the clutch, and Brown cannot control that, either. So, while the 9-19 road record and the 34-21 start aren't exactly satisfactory, understand that it could be much, much worse.

Brown has controlled what he can control.

Did you like Simmons' performance on Kawhi Leonard in the win over the Clippers on Tuesday? Do you like how rookie Matisse Thybulle has already become an elite defender? Do you like that the Sixers are the fourth-best defensive team in the league? Defense is Brown's obsession, so credit the coach.

Furkan Korkmaz, an afterthought entering this season, registered 30-point games Friday and Sunday. Brown has turned him into JJ Redick Lite. The Sixers are 25-2 at home, the best record in the league. No team has a better home-court advantage, and before fans dislocate their shoulders patting themselves on the back, understand that Brown's teams play well at home even though they boo them.

Consider, too, that Brown coaches with little real support, as evidenced last week. Brown and Brand entered the season as equals, both reporting directly to ownership, but ownership recently changed the hierarchy. Now Brand, in just his second full season as general manager, oversees Brown, whose power over his players continues to erode.

Members of the ownership group often pal around with the star players. They did so most recently at the Super Bowl in Miami, the night before a crushing loss to the Heat. As a result, Simmons and Embiid fear no reprisals from their coach, which is why Simmons won't shoot and why Embiid won't diet.

Amid all that distraction, the Sixers still beat the Clippers on Tuesday, and Brown's two stars shined brighter than ever in the biggest win of the year.

"I think that when we add up Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid's stat line, it's arguably the best game that those two have paired up with since I have been the coach here," Brown said.

They combined for 52 points, 21 rebounds, and 12 assists and shot 51.3% from the field, all against the No. 6 defensive team in the league and the No. 3 team in the superior Western Conference.

This was not an aberration. Brown's team beat the Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 25 and beat Budenholzer's Bucks on Christmas Day, and those teams lead the conferences. The Sixers also posted wins against the three other Eastern Conference teams ahead of them-the Raptors, Heat, and Celtics-and won the season series with the Celts, 3-1. With the win over the Clippers, the Sixers have beaten the top four teams in the West, with earlier wins over the Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz.

They can beat any team. They're on track to win at least 50 games for a third straight season, and considering the caliber of their competition over their last 20 games, they'll probably win 54 or 55. That would be the most wins since Larry Brown took them to the NBA Finals in 2001.

That won't be enough to quell the critics, of course. Brown needs to reach the Eastern Conference finals, and his first two postseasons will haunt him, which is unfair, because they were not bad playoff outs.

It will be remembered that, two seasons ago, the Celtics won their second-round series. It will be forgotten that Brown guided a remade roster to the No. 3 seed with Simmons, a rookie point guard freshly converted from power forward, and Embiid, a second-year center coming off yet another injury. The Celtics promptly got bounced in the next round, but Stevens somehow is still a genius.

It will be remembered that, last season, the Raptors won their second-round series. It will be forgotten that Embiid, unfit and unmotivated, coasted through that series, and that the Sixers were still a last-second, four-bounce shot from forcing overtime in Game 7, and that the person who made that shot was Kawhi Leonard, the league's best player, and that Leonard then led the Raptors to their first NBA title.

Did Brown make every perfect decision in those playoff losses? No. Has he been flawless this season? No.

But, all things considered, he's been pretty damn good.


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