As the East Coast was preparing Friday for the Blizzard of 2016, an equally impactful storm of NBA news hit the wire with the announced firing of David Blatt by the Cleveland Cavaliers. While the news wasn’t surprising based upon the assumed disconnect between Blatt and star player-slash-franchise figurehead LeBron James, it was shocking given the nature of how success is typically measured in the coaching profession.
In 99 percent of coaching positions across the world of sports, what Blatt has accomplished since taking over as head coach would be seen as a rousing success. First, he overcame major injuries to two of his three star players to lose in the NBA Finals in six games to a Golden State Warriors team that measured out as historically great.
Blatt followed that up by positioning the Cavaliers with an Eastern Conference-leading 30-11 record halfway through this season. While political positioning within the organization certainly played a large role in his departure, recent losses to San Antonio and Golden State also contributed to convincing management Blatt wasn’t the right guy to achieve their own lofty, championship-or-bust expectations.
On the end of the spectrum so opposite it might as well be the bizarro world, you have the Philadelphia 76ers and Brett Brown. Despite the team having the worst record in the league at 6-38, the Sixers recently extended Brown’s contract for an additional two seasons just last month.
Obviously, the benchmarks for success in Philadelphia are much different than those in Cleveland these days, with wins taking a backseat to player development and an eye toward the franchise’s distant future. Brown is rightfully lauded for his ability to connect with his young players, maintain an optimistic attitude about the team in the face of intense media scrutiny, and keep the roster playing hard amidst a nearly unprecedented stretch of losing these past few years.
Still, even though winning in the short team isn’t the primary goal, it doesn’t stop people from evaluating Brown like any other coach when those infrequent opportunities for victory do present themselves. In late November, Monday morning quarterbacks scrutinized every substitution and play design during a five-game stretch during which the Sixers lost a sizable fourth-quarter lead each night. Then, there was intense debate over sitting Jahlil Okafor for the entire fourth quarter and both overtimes in a recent double-overtime loss to the Knicks, a game in which Okafor still finished as the team’s leading scorer.
Another ongoing topic is the grouping of Jerami Grant, Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, a lineup that causes a large portion of Sixers fans frustration due to its lack of spacing. The most-used configuration of that lineup has an abysmal net rating of -26.9 on the season, per NBA.com, far below the team’s -10.4 mark overall. However, the second-most-utilized arrangement, swapping T.J. McConnell out for Ish Smith, has a positive net rating of 0.5. That difference perfectly illustrates the difficulty in judging how much of a coach’s success is due to his decisions or the available talent at his disposal.
Certainly, there are reasons to believe Brett Brown will be an effective coach at the NBA level. You don’t win a Coach of the Year award and title in Australia’s NBL, helm the Australian national team, or ingratiate yourself with the San Antonio Spurs organization without a high degree of proficiency. Yet, we’re still at least one favorable draft lottery away from finding out how he’ll succeed with a true NBA level roster. At least for Brown’s sake, it appears the Sixers are willing to wait to discover that answer. That’s more of a fair shake than David Blatt was given.