Laying out the Coach of the Year case for Brett Brown

The Sixers are approaching 50 wins, having exceeded every possible expectation this season. Head coach Brett Brown might have surged into the thick of the Coach of the Year conversation.

Before the season started, 76ers Head coach Brett Brown, had a goal to make the playoffs, even if the goal seemed lofty or too early for some.

“I felt to have any other goal was borderline, sort of cowardly,” Brown told Yahoo Sports in an interview published on Wednesday. “I understood that it was going to be a difficult ask. But I think to walk into a locker room and not declare that to be a season goal at the start of the season is not how I’m wired. You would get different people within our organization that sort of advised me not to go there and I wanted to. I wanted to own it.”

Two years ago, the Sixers won ten games. That's right: Ten games.

Fast Forward to now. The Sixers have finished the season with 52 wins, they are riding a 16 game winning streak and finished as the Third seed in the East as they gear up to play the Miami Heat in the first round.

When you put that 10-win season into context, a 42 win improvement spanning over two seasons is insane. 

At the end of that 2015-16 season, the playoffs felt like it was a loooong way down the road. Even after drafting Ben Simmons, the young core that was being built still needed time together and games under their belt before even thinking of a playoff berth.

A season later the fans got a brief visual of the otherworldly talents displayed by Joel Embiid, while Simmons, was sidelined with a broken foot, which he suffered by a freak accident on the last day of training camp. The team finished with 28 wins. Like Brett Brown, Joel Embiid, while having only played 31 games, started expressing that his goal was to make the playoffs in the 2017-18 season.

With Joel Embiid's health in question at the time, I pegged the Sixers for 38 wins and an 8th seed in the east. Obviously, I was wrong about the win total and also didn't expect the East to improve so much. For all intents and purposes, the Sixers have exceeded any and all expectations. There have been a lot of key ingredients to this successful season. The collective greatness of the young stars, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons (and they are going to special), the underrated play of Robert Covington, the sharpshooting JJ Redick provides, a bench later retooled by buyout options, the team has been well coac---

Wait. Well coached? 

Why isn't Brett Brown in the Coach of The Year conversation? 

Since the award only applies to this year, we won't count the 3 years Brown had to endure, which was a lot (the 2016-17 season I think Brown finally started to see some light at the end of the tunnel). Brown has played a huge part in blowing expectations out of the water, despite a lot of question marks before the season.

Preseason/Early Season adjustments

Brett Brown started his mad science by declaring that Ben Simmons was going to be a point guard, despite Simmons never playing the position in his life. There is a debate if he really is a "point guard" (after all, he does draw different defensive assignments), but he has the ball in his hands more than a prototypical point forward. He has been the point guard on offense, and that's a whole adjustment in itself.

The team is definitely running on the backs of its two young stars. But we cannot ignore the fact that Brown had to figure out how to fit his two young stars together. Before the season, Simmons and Embiid had not played a single game together. Not only that, JJ Redick was added to the mix, too, and that wasn't even the end of the adjustments Brown made to the starting lineup.

The big adjustment came when Markelle Fultz suffered a shoulder injury that put him out for 5 months. Brown made the decision to bench Jerryd Bayless and inserted Dario Saric into the starting lineup. The fit of Saric paired with Embiid and Simmons had a lot of questions but it turns out Saric's adaptability and improved three-point shooting was the key that unlocked the most effective starting 5 in basketball.

As it stands now, the starting lineup of Simmons, Saric, Embiid, Redick, and Robert Covington has a 117.1 offensive rating and a 95.7 defensive rating, yielding an absurd 21.4 net rating. That's better than the Warriors starting lineup, better than the Thunder's starting lineup (when Andre Roberson was healthy), and better than any Rockets lineup. That Net rating is by far the best among 5-man lineups that have played over 400 minutes. This 5-man unit is absolutely crushing opponents, and Brown was the one who tinkered with the lineup in the first place. 

Player's bought into the philosophy

On a recent Lowe Post podcast, Zach Lowe picked Quin Synder (A great choice by the way!) and one of the things he mentioned is how the players have bought into Synder's philosophy. Which is very true.

Duane Casey has changed his offensive philosophy and players have bought in.

The same can be said in relation to Brown and his Players.

Pace, Space, and Defense have been Brown's mantra since he was first hired in August of 2013, even when the team started tanking. He laid the groundwork for his philosophy and no matter which D-league player or undrafted free agent who came through Philly during the Hinkie era, they had to abide by that philosophy.

Now, we see what this young and talented team has been able to do in these categories despite being everyone basically playing together for the first time this season.

On the season overall, the Sixers have turned into a dominant defense finishing 3rd in defensive rating, allowing 102 points per 100 possessions. They passed the ball 344.3 times per game (1st in the NBA) and they finished 2nd in assists per game at 26.8. 

In the Brett Brown era, the Sixers have always been at the top of the league in three-point baskets made and attempted. The caveat is they were always at the very bottom of the league in efficiency. This year with an influx of talent the Sixers finished 12th in three-point makes, 12th in attempts and 10th in percentage. Overall, they finished 11th in offensive rating. 

Those numbers accounted for how the team before Christmas, which was about .500 basketball, but Brown stuck with the plan, and the improvement really started after the Christmas day game against the Knicks.

Following a stretch where the team lost 10 of its previous 12 games, the Sixers were 14-18 and positioned in the 9th seed heading into the Christmas day game. At that point, everyone and their mothers were calling for Brett Brown's job (which was stupid). The team was learning how to close out games after gaining huge leads, and then subsequently blowing them. They also had trouble beating the bottom feeders that aspiring playoff teams were supposed to beat, losing to the Kings twice, the Suns, the Bulls, and the Lakers.

But after that faithful Knicks game, the Sixers took their play to another level. The Sixers have had the 7th best offense in the NBA since then, coming in at a cool 110.1 points per 100 possessions, and they have had the second-best defense in the NBA, producing a 100.7 defensive rating, trailing the Utah Jazz by a hair.

The Sixers also have a 38-12 record over that span, a mark that is second-best in the NBA behind the Houston Rockets. Their 9.4 Net Rating since that time, which is also first in the NBA by 2 points.

For the first two months of the season, the Sixers played like a team many of us expected -- young and talented, but one that would obviously have some growing pains. No one expected the Sixers to have a prolonged stretch where they would play like one of the best teams in the NBA. The improved play and the complete trust in running the offense and buying into playing defense can all be traced back to Brett Brown. During this 16 game winning streak, Brown lost his best player 8 games in, and pushed a few buttons, increasing the offensive pace to breakneck speed. Since Embiid's injury on March 28th, the Sixers increased their pace from it's 102.73 pace to 106.52, which is tops in the league. 

The team's play has been so intoxicating that numerous media members can see this team as a dark horse team to make a deep playoff run -- something I would've never expected to see on the Twitter timeline. 

Every coach that's a candidate for this award have also received credit for how they've responded to in-season circumstances, and Brett Brown deserves credit when you look at this list.

  • Starting Ben Simmons at Point Guard
  • Lost a Number 1 pick for 5 months
  • Inserted Saric into the starting lineup, and despite legitimate fit concerns, it has worked out beautifully
  • Had to win games while having ZERO productive bench Wings for most the year.
  • Dealt with a power forward logjam before releasing Trevor Booker. 
  • Did not have his best player available for back to backs until February.
  • Integrated 2 buyout players into the team seamlessly 
  • Since the start of 2018, the Sixers have had a 16.1 net rating in the 3rd quarter, which is the best in the NBA. Before the New Year, The Sixers had a -1.7 Net rating in the 3rd quarter from October to December which was 19th during that time. 
  • The Sixers have reduced their turnover output month by month. 
  • Out of necessity, Brown turned a young team into the best passing team in the NBA, even ahead of the Warriors. 

There are few times throughout history where a team won fewer than 30 games in a season and then ended up with 50 wins the next season (hello, 2009 Thunder). The Sixers have 52 wins after having 28 the year before. It's rare when a young team skips steps in its maturation process, but when you consider how little the roster had played together before the season started (the two young stars in particular), Brett Brown has done a masterful job.

A playoff berth was definitely a possibility, one that was mainly contingent on Embiid's health. No one expected the Sixers to have a 50-win season and now that they have the 3rd seed, they have a realistic roadmap to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Of course, there are very strong arguments for a lot of coaches. When was the last time an NBA season had so many worthy candidates for Coach of The Year? Throughout the season, I bounced between Brad Stevens, Gregg Popovich, and Duane Casey for Coach of the Year. Much of the reasons were for in-house adjustments on the fly within their respective teams. Stevens has had to deal with injuries to star and role players, Duane Casey decided to move to a more modern offense and developed a deep bench. The Greatest Coach of All Time: Gregg Popovich, has had to rely on lineups that feature Point-forward Kyle Anderson, Brynn Forbes, and Davis Bertans while his best player has only played 9 games.

This award isn't a no-brainer by any means; there are at least 7 solid candidates worthy of the award. Brown has forced his way into the conversation and given the expectations, the mid-season adjustments, and the overall improvement that has led to the Sixers accelerating it's developmental timeline, there is no reason that Brett Brown shouldn't be worthy of being named Coach of the Year. My hypothetical vote has changed once again.

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