Brett Brown has dealt with heightened expectations and harsh disappointment in his coaching career.
He was an assistant with the Spurs when Derek Fisher hit a game-winner for the Lakers in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals in 2004. L.A. won the series and went to the Finals.
He was there when San Antonio had the Heat on the ropes with a 3-2 series advantage in the 2013 Finals. The Spurs had a three-point lead in Game 6 with under 20 seconds left only to see Ray Allen bury a corner three to tie it. Miami went on to win the series.
But none of that hurt quite like Kawhi Leonard’s quadruple doink shot at the buzzer in Game 7 in Toronto.
“This one stings more than them all because I believe that we really could have won a championship,” Brown said at his annual luncheon Wednesday.
It’s fair to say that if a couple bounces go the Sixers' way, Brown would’ve been hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy after beating the injury-riddled Warriors.
But that’s not what happened. Now Brown and his new-look roster have championship aspirations. There are so many factors that will determine how far the Sixers go — Joel Embiid’s health and Ben Simmons’ jumper chief among them.
What could’ve helped them last season was Game 7 being at the Wells Fargo Center. The way to ensure that happens in 2019-20 would be to lock up the Eastern Conference’s top spot.
And Brown didn’t shy away from that goal.
I want the No. 1 seed,” Brown said. “So what does that mean? To me, it just means what it means: I want to go for the No. 1 seed. Of course, I'm going to say the same thing — not to the detriment of Joel's health, and maybe not to the detriment at times of developing players and all the other things that I'm not thinking through right now. I will say that and this is true. But I will put out there now, I want to get the No. 1 seed.
The starting five is different. Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick are out. Al Horford and Josh Richardson are in. The bench will have veterans James Ennis and Mike Scott, both big parts of the rotation during the postseason, for an entire season. They also brought in veterans Kyle O’Quinn, Trey Burke and Raul Neto.
Is this group more talented than last year’s squad that came oh so close to a championship? You could certainly make the argument — especially defensively.
But it’ll take more than just talent to get the job done. Brown had talent last season when the team brought in Butler, Harris, Scott and Ennis. Though Butler was excellent in the playoffs, it took an awful long time for his role to be settled. Harris, who was having an All-Star caliber season with the Clippers, fell into a horrific slump while struggling to fit into the Sixers’ offense.
Heading into a critical training camp, the bulk of Brown’s roster is set. We likely know the top eight or so players in the rotation, something that Brown certainly couldn’t say heading into camp last season (remember when Markelle Fultz was named a starter?)
Unlike in the past, time is actually on Brown’s side.
“I said before, talent does not trump time. You need time,” Brown said. “I'm so excited about our training camp. We will start training camp with a full squad. We want to have a very purposeful, driven, disciplined, clearly articulated by me, this is who we are, these are our priorities, this is your role. I have no gray area in my mind right now of what we're going to do offensively, defensively, role. I'm clear.”
Despite the lack of time last season, rumors swirled about Brown’s job security. Reports surfaced that it would take a Finals appearance for Brown to avoid being fired. Obviously, the Sixers didn’t reach that goal and Brown is still here. Managing partner Josh Harris, general manager Elton Brand and even Brown himself denied that the coach’s job was ever in jeopardy.
There’s no denying that the pressure is turned up even higher this season. The East is considered a two-team race with the Sixers and Bucks — with several pundits believing the Sixers will be the team that comes out of the conference.
Those are lofty expectations that Brown doesn’t take lightly, but he also doesn’t allow them to affect the way he does things.
The hot seat — my temperature concern is my team, it's the locker room, it's what are we doing, it's the health, it's spirit, all that,” Brown said. “I can't look at you and say, 'Oh, I don't care.' That's not true, either. But I can tell you that, completely, I feel at peace with a purpose. I feel at peace with what I need to focus most on. Does it drip feed at times into the pride of being a good coach and winning games and trying to deliver a championship to the city? Of course. Does it dilute or cripple my thinking? Hell no.
If you’re expecting Brown to temper expectations in an attempt to protect his status, that won’t happen either.
There's an expiration date on all of us,” Brown said. “My enthusiasm, my excitement, the belief that we really can contest for a championship. Whatever ghosts or demons you could have, you're reminded. 'Are you serious?' Remember my first press conference with you? I'm reminded by my media people. I actually forgot about it. 'Imagine if we can get this right.' And we're pretty close, no? Right? We're pretty close.
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