Fresh off an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers fired coach Brett Brown on Monday as something of a symbolic gesture for an organization basically out of actual moves to make. Put simply, Brown was an old-fashioned scapegoat.
It's not to say Brown was a perfect coach. Two league sources who spoke with CBS Sports during the Boston series used the word "disappointed" when asked about Brown's offensive game-planning, and surely that sentiment would be echoed by plenty of Sixers fans who are fed up with watching a bunch of non-shooters stand around like non-cutting statues while Joel Embiid operates 20-25 feet from the basket.
It's not that simple, of course. Embiid does not consistently establish post position, or even show consistent interest in trying to do so. Even if he did, in the absence of Ben Simmons, the Sixers were so devoid of competent guard play against the Celtics that a simple entry pass, let alone creating a modicum of one-on-one space, was starting to feel like asking too much.
That, ultimately, feels like the common thread on a Sixers team that has, for the moment, come unwound: Everyone, from Brown on down, was being asked to do too much. Tobias Harris was fine when he had JJ Redick as the main shooter and Jimmy Butler as the one-on-one creator, but he's way out of his depth assuming either, let alone both, of those roles. The Sixers paid Harris like a superstar and needed -- and still need -- him to perform accordingly, and he's just not that good.
Butler somewhat covered for the Sixers' inability to create late-game offense with Simmons at the point, and when he left, Philly was suddenly trying to get Josh Richardson to fill that void. Again, out of his depth. Shake Milton is a nice piece off the bench, but he's not a starter, let alone a true difference maker, as Philly needed him to be in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Al Horford has a lot more game left in him than he showed this season, but asking him to thrive on a team with Embiid and Simmons, both of whom have to occupy the paint to come close to being optimized, is, again, too much. It doesn't take some kind of basketball genius to understand Simmons and Embiid need shooting around them, which begs the question why GM Elton Brand let just about every marksmen the Sixers employed over the last three seasons get away.
- Redick: Walked as a free agent so they could sign Horford.
- Robert Covington and Dario Saric: Traded for Butler, who left for Miami.
- Landry Shamet: Traded for Tobias Harris, who just shot 13 percent from 3-point range against Boston.
- Mikal Bridges: Traded on draft night for Zhaire Smith, who has played in 13 games over two seasons.
- Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova: Not even a second thought as they walked out the door, which would've been fine had the Sixers prioritized finding halfway equivalent shooters on the free agent or buyout market, but they didn't. That the Jazz got Bojan Bogdanovic, legitimately one of the best shooters in the world, for $35 million less than the Sixers gave Horford, is laughable.
In 2017-18, Brown, with a lot of those shooters above to put around Simmons and Embiid, had the Sixers operating at a higher half-court offensive clip than this year's Dallas Mavericks, who are literally the best offense in history. To break all that up, and lose Butler in the offseason, and still ask Brown to pull a thriving modern NBA offense out of his hat this season was a pipe dream.
Think about the hand he was dealt, even beyond the compromised roster with which he entered the bubble. In today's NBA, where shooting point guards reign supreme, for the last two years he had to work around a guy like Simmons, who either can't or won't shoot, and even worse, Markelle Fultz, who just full on forgot how to shoot after the Sixers took him No. 1 overall in 2018.
The juxtaposition of Fultz potentially turning a career corner with the Magic while Brown takes the fall in Philly is criminally cruel. We can talk all day about Brand's ill-conceived, painfully shortsighted roster moves, or Simmons' shooting role, or Embiid's frustrating offensive approach and/or inconsistent conditioning, or even Brown's ultimate lack of offensive creativity with the resources he did have at his disposal, but the bottom line is Fultz really jammed the Sixers up.
Fultz was supposed to be the playmaking guard who actually complemented Simmons and Embiid -- a three-level, one-on-one scorer with enough versatility to fill various holes on the fly. Instead, he was a complete bust in Philly (perhaps he won't be an overall bust, but there is no other way to describe his Sixers tenure). Had Fultz been what he was supposed to be, there's a chance the Sixers never trade for Butler, and there's almost no chance they ever would've gotten mixed up in the Harris business.
On Monday, Fultz put up 15 points, seven assists and five rebounds in a starting role for the Magic. He hit two of his four 3-pointers. It's a continuation of a trend that has been building all season, particularly after the turn of the calendar year. His mid-range jumper looks about as natural as it did in college, and while the 3-point form is still a bit Bill Cartwrightish, he is at least capable of spotting up and punishing teams for going under ball screens. He's fast and powerful as heck, and he's a really tough, athletic defender and finisher. Just having a functional shot is going to make him a good NBA player for years to come.
It's not to say this version of Fultz would have the Sixers in a dramatically different place. They need someone to legitimately run a top-end offense as a scoring and playmaking threat, and Fultz is still not anywhere near the guy he was supposed to be. He's not going to be hitting off-the-dribble 3s any time soon. Even a fully formed Fultz perhaps wouldn't be a championship difference maker in a world where Butler still leaves for Miami.
It's reasonable, in fact, to visualize a fully formed Fultz as something close to a more athletic Butler, at least back when Butler could shoot a little bit, and while it's true that the Sixers, with Butler at the top of the offense, had the eventual champion Raptors on the Game 7 ropes in last year's Eastern Conference semifinals, it's also true that their 98.0 fourth-quarter offense ranked 12th out of 16 playoff teams, with each of the four teams ranking below them eliminated in the first round.
In other words, the Simmons shooting problem was always there, and it isn't going anywhere. Simmons is a terrific all-around player, but if you think the next coach that comes into Philadelphia is going to magically muster up a money half-court offense with a ball-dominant player who won't shoot and hardly any shooters around him, you're almost certainly mistaken.
Meanwhile, absolutely nobody is going to trade for Harris, who might have the worst contract in the league, or likely Horford, and the Sixers have given away all their meaningful draft assets for the foreseeable future. They have no cap space. Short of trading Embiid or Simmons, they're pretty stuck with a team that's as top-end talented as it is ill-fitting.
Still, that top-end talent will continue to tantalize. And when you imagine Simmons and Embiid with a fully realized Fultz, it's pretty hard to stomach thoughts of what might've been. The Process worked. The Sixers landed two superstar talents and had every right to believe they'd landed a third in Fultz. There is a very reasonable alternate scenario in which Brett Brown wins a championship in Philadelphia, his shortcomings notwithstanding.
Instead, he's unemployed. Fultz is in Orlando. And watching his career continue to develop is going to be a bittersweet thing for a lot of Sixers fans, and certainly for Brown, who stood by Fultz as long as he could only to lose his job in large part because of him. That is a harsh thing to say. Fultz doesn't deserve to wear that kind of burden on top all the pressure he's felt to start his NBA career. But professional sports is a tough business. The Sixers, Brown, Brand, everyone in the Sixers organization needed Markelle Fultz to be the player he's starting to become somewhere else, if only to cover for all the other mistakes they made. And it just didn't happen.