If the 2019-20 NBA season is able to resume at some point, 76ers coach Brett Brown might be catching a break. Brown is widely expected to be coaching for his job when or if the playoffs commence, and while the Sixers’ basketball issues will still be firmly in place, at least they will presumably be healthy when, hopefully, that time comes.
Ben Simmons, who last played on Feb. 22, was still out with a nerve impingement in his back when the league’s hiatus began. Initially, he was supposed to be re-evaluated after two weeks. On March 11, just hours before the NBA suspended its season after Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, Philly announced that Simmons was going to need at least three more weeks before potentially coming back.
Do the math, and had the season gone on as scheduled, the earliest Simmons could’ve returned would’ve been April 3 against the Wizards — less than two weeks before the playoffs would’ve been set to begin. Meanwhile, Joel Embiid has missed 21 games this season; injuries, and outright attrition, will likely be concerns for Embiid for the rest of his career. Rest is never going to be a bad thing.
When fully healthy, the Sixers, while an odd collective fit, remain a threat to catch playoff lightning and overwhelm teams with pure talent and size. Win a few playoff series, and a disappointing regular season becomes an afterthought and Brown might keep his job.
But they have to get that opportunity to play again, and you could argue that’s looking increasingly unlikely with every day that passes.
The NBA, in many ways, set a national tone of urgency in suspending its season on March 11 not because of what had already happened, but because of what was going to happen in the coming weeks and months. They got ahead of it. If the league was extra cautious in suspending its season, it would stand to reason it’s going to be equally cautious in potentially resuming it when most every expert is saying the worst is still to come.
That’s not hyperbole. it’s just the reality right now. And the NBA is very much dealing in reality as the league’s dreams of a full-length postseason — let alone a completion of the regular season — are reportedly evaporating, according to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix.
That said, if the playoffs are eventually able to be played in an empty arena via some version of a shortened format, you could argue this would benefit the Sixers, and by extension Brown. Again, the holes on this Philly team are well chronicled. Not being able to shoot or consistently create offense in the halfcourt are crippling handicaps in postseason play.
Over time, those deficiencies would likely doom the Sixers. But if every round was shortened to a five-game series? Any team can shoot above its typical percentages for a few games, and when you combine that chance with the Sixers’ ability to smother any team defensively, they would certainly be dangerous.
If the playoffs don’t happen, or if they do and the Sixers are bounced early, it’s hard to imagine Brown coming back as the coach next season. Reasonable minds can disagree on the degree of blame he deserves for Philly’s relative underachievement. It was GM Elton Brand who traded away — or let walk away in free agency — basically all of Philly’s shooting (Robert Covington, J.J. Redick, Landry Shamet, Dario Saric, Ersan Ilyasova, Marco Belinelli).
By most every measurement, Brand over-traded for Tobias Harris, then subsequently overpaid him to stay. He signed Al Horford to a giant contract when the writing was on the wall that he was not a great fit next to Joel Embiid. Brand went all-in on an already flawed team, and in many ways only wound up exacerbating those flaws. Now he’s being talked about as a target of Leon Rose’s to be the
Meanwhile, Brown could end up taking the fall. It’s not to say he’s been perfect, and perhaps he’s not the right coach to get this team over the hump. Different coaches are right for different parts of every team’s process. Mark Jackson got the Warriors within striking distance and Steve Kerr put them over the top.
Brown had the Sixers within one Kawhi Leonard rim-rolling game-winner from taking the eventual-champion Raptors to overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last season. But if we’re going to credit him with that near success, we have to give him at least some of the blame for a Sixers team this season that currently sits in the No. 6 slot in the Eastern Conference with one of the worst road records in the NBA.
The bottom line is Brown can’t shoot a jumper for Simmons. He can’t create consistent halfcourt offense for Harris. More creativity in working around those issues is where the frustration begins (and please, Brett, stop calling timeouts late in the shot clock), but some other coach being able to do more with the same roster is far from a guarantee. In fact, it’s probably a long shot.
So we’ll see. Brown and the Sixers are hoping for their chance to erase their disappointing regular season with a playoff run. But it could be a long shot that they get that chance, and if that’s the case, it might also be a long shot that Brown ever coaches another game for the Sixers.