Reading Jackie MacMullan’s excellent ESPN.com piece on the Sixers’ Ben Simmons last Tuesday, I couldn’t help but recall something the late Chuck Daly once said about coaching in the NBA: “It’s a players’ league. They allow you to coach them or they don’t. Once they stop allowing you to coach, you’re on your way out.”
Mull that a moment. This is from a guy who coached the Bad Boy Pistons to a pair of championships, and headed the Dream Team in 1992. If any coach in pro hoops had juice in his day, it was Daly.
But he always saw it otherwise, which explains why he spent 14 years as an NBA coach, after eight years as a college head coach (the last six of those at Penn). Daly, whose first NBA job was as a Sixers assistant under Billy Cunningham in 1978, realized it was a collaborative venture, that you had to have certain key veterans on board. So he made sure his key guys — Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Rick Mahorn, et al. — were pulling in the same direction he was. That doesn’t mean appeasement necessarily, but it does mean that some common ground must be found.
Other coaches over the years have understood that as well. Red Auerbach had Bill Russell on his side. Cunningham had Julius Erving. Pat Riley had Kareem and Magic. Phil Jackson had Michael Jordan (as we are seeing in the just-released documentary, “The Last Dance”). Gregg Popovich had Tim Duncan.
Even so, these can be tenuous relationships at times. While Andrew Toney respected Cunningham, he broke plays all the time. (Ditto for Charles Barkley and Jimmy Lynam.) And even Dr. J, one of the league’s great gentlemen, bristled if the hard-driving Cunningham took things too far. Case in point: Upset about the team’s poor performance on a road trip, Cunningham called for a practice immediately after returning to Philadelphia. Marc Iavaroni, who was staying in the guest room of Erving’s Main Line home at the time, told me that Doc took his good-natured time getting to St. Joe’s, where the session would be held. “We’ll get there,” he told Iavaroni, “when we get there.”
All this comes to mind given the revelations in MacMullan’s piece on Simmons. He admitted to her that he needs someone to hold him accountable, and said Kevin Boyle — the guy who coached him at Montverde Academy in Florida and is his favorite coach of all time, according to the piece — did so.
Boyle told MacMullan that if he were coaching the Sixers, his antidote for Simmons’ reluctance to shoot from outside would be simple.
“I’d tell him, ‘If you don’t take a pull-up jumper and a perimeter shot in each half — I don’t care about your percentages — you’re sitting,'” Boyle said.
Which brings us to the man who is actually coaching the Sixers, Brett Brown. He told MacMullan that he did in fact broach the topic of yanking Simmons last summer, with Simmons himself. Brown’s precise words to MacMullan were as follows: “I told Ben, ‘If you aren’t willing to shoot, then do I just bench you? Because I can do that.’”
Ultimately, though, that is not what happened. Simmons did make two 3-pointers early in the season, and after the second, on Dec. 7 against Cleveland, Brown told reporters he wanted his point guard to attempt at least one triple a game. “And,” Brown added, “you can pass it along to his agent, his family and friends. I want a 3-point shot a game, minimum.”
Instead, Simmons tried two more treys in the final 33 games in which he played — one of them a halfcourt heave — before he was sidelined by a back injury (an injury that has now healed, according to MacMullan’s piece).
So, again: They allow you to coach them or they don’t.
Contrary to what a certain segment of Sixers Twitter believes, I think Brown is an excellent coach. And on top of that, he’s an excellent human being. That said, he was coaching for his job this season, and it’s not entirely clear he was getting through to Simmons — or, for that matter, Joel Embiid.
While the coronavirus pandemic has saved the head coach for the time being, the Sixers certainly didn’t appear to be trending toward a championship, their stated goal before this season began. At some point they will play again, and there will be some resolution, some clarity.
One question, though: If Brown can’t reach Simmons, who can? Who will he allow to coach him? They are unanswerable questions at present. And only when we get the answers will we know how great he can be, and where this team is ultimately heading.