Donnellon: Sixers' Brown excels at people skills

Donnellon: Sixers' Brown excels at people skills

Donnellon: Sixers' Brown excels at people skills

OF ALL THE wonderful possibilities Sam Hinkie could have imagined or anticipated when he took over running the Philadelphia 76ers in 2013, this is one that was likely not on that radar:

The impressive personnel skills of Brett Brown.

Hinkie’s good, but he could not have predicted how well Brown has navigated his process. No one could have.

Think back to when Brown was hired in 2013. The Sixers took most of the spring and summer to do it, interviewing or mulling a slew of candidates – Brown, Celtics assistant Jay Larranaga, Bulls assistant Adrian Griffin, Hawks assistant Kenny Atkinson all reached a second interview. A slew of other NBA assistant coaches – David Fizdale, Melvin Hunt, Chris Finch, Kelvin Sampson and the Sixers’ own Michael Curry – were at one point under consideration, according to published reports at the time.

Not until Aug. 14 did the official announcement come. And while the Celtics gave Brad Stevens, a college coach with no NBA experience, a six-year deal worth a reported $22 million, Brown – 16 years his senior with experience as both an NBA assistant and Olympic head coach – got what was then reported to be between $8 million and $12 million over four years. He has signed a two-year extension since.

Put aside for a moment the irony of Brown weathering the monsoon-like storm Hinkie’s moves created here and around the league, while the embattled GM ultimately could not.

Put aside for a moment the intense criticism he has diplomatically handled and understood as he tried futilely to “walk down” occasional fourth-quarter leads over the previous three seasons with a jumble of lineups that came and went from the D-League.

So many coaches, good ones included, have wilted under the daily frustration any second-division club implies, never mind one that purposely deals better players for worse ones in an all-in gamble for much better days ahead.

We are on the precipice of those better days, of course. On most nights now, even without Joel Embiid, the Sixers give you your money’s worth. It’s a tight crew, a fun crew to watch, and Brown is understandably proud of the chemistry that has developed among the first team that he has been allowed to keep mostly intact for an entire season. Dario Saric is a different player than he was at the start of the season. T.J. McConnell has been a find, and Nerlens Noel has found a role.

And while Embiid’s latest injury issue and Ben Simmons’ indefinite return date still fuel considerable civic anxiety and debate, the template Hinkie laid down for Brown – an exhilarating stream of top draft picks over the next three seasons – should insulate this team from the normal bugaboos that haunt our sports-obsessed town. Bryan Colangelo would have to make a handful of bad picks like the one that ultimately got him bounced in Toronto – using the first overall pick on Italian big man Andrea Bargnani in 2006 – to mess this up. And since that was an outlier for Colangelo in a year when the draft was indefinite and weak, I’m not too worried about it. He more than made up for it by building much of what is the Raptors’ roster today.

That’s not to say the wacky is over. Last season at this time, it appeared rookie Jahlil Okafor would be the build-around piece toward the ultimate goal. Now he’s not just the odd man out, he’s in a professional sports limbo I don’t think I’ve seen before: too good to risk injury, not good enough to alter the revised vision that a healthy Embiid and utilitarian Noel has provided, the doubts and inconsistencies of his defensive game creating a gap between what the Sixers brass think he’s worth and what other teams are willing to pay.

Somehow, someway – again, I am not sure I’ve seen this before – this has not become either divisive or distracting. Deemed immature after his brushes with the law just a year ago, Okafor deserves a ton of credit for this. But so does Brown, whose candor – and yes, kindness – in dealing with this and Nerlens Noel’s previous discontentment has built considerable equity not just with those players, but their teammates, too.

“Coach Brown has been phenomenal with communicating with me, and I know in the long run I’m going to be fine,” Okafor has said. “I just try to come in here every day and work as hard as I can. I know that he doesn’t have to tell me anything. He could just go out there and coach, I could just be on the bench unaware of anything. He’s done an amazing job. I’m appreciative of that.”

I wonder if Stevens, as good as he is as a coach, could pull that off. Brown’s nine seasons as a Spurs assistant, his experience abroad and in the Olympics – hell, his age (56) – gives his perspective an authenticity Stevens, and most coaches, simply don’t have. Brown has likely drawn on specific instances, specific people even, in telling the former No. 3 pick that his best NBA days lie ahead. Work hard, be a good teammate, take the high road – again, the player deserves so much credit for doing this. But as he tells you repeatedly, the coach is a big part of that, too.

donnels@phillynews.com

@samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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Published at Wed, 22 Feb 2017 06:11:23 +0000

Categories: Sixers

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