BANGOR, Maine — Brett Brown’s first four years as a head coach in the National Basketball Association have been a study in patience and at times an exercise in frustration.
The rebuilding effort he inherited when he was named the 24th head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers has been derailed by a succession of injuries to top draft picks projected to lead the franchise back toward the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.
Instead, the Sixers have gone 75-253 under the South Portland native’s guidance.
“I will tell you that I did not come even close to thinking that it would be a four-year thing,” said the 56-year-old Brown on Sunday just before he and the rest of the 1979 Class A state champion South Portland High School boys basketball team were inducted into the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame at the Cross Insurance Center.
“We just went through some rough luck with injuries. I had multiple draft picks that didn’t play for a whole year, not just miss a chunk of games but didn’t even play.”
No one can anticipate future physiological setbacks, but things finally may be looking up for Brown and the 76ers.
Philadelphia won 28 games last season — equaling its total for the previous two years combined — and will open training camp next month with what may be its healthiest nucleus since Brown became head coach.
That roster will include a guard tandem made up of the No. 1 picks in the 2016 and 2017 NBA drafts, LSU’s Ben Simmons — who was injured and missed last season — and most recent top pick Markelle Fultz from the University of Washington.
The 76ers also feature 7-footer Joel Embiid, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft who didn’t see his first NBA action until last season when he averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in 31 games.
“The ripple effects of where we were trying to grow young guys but our best young guys weren’t playing put us high in the draft the following years because we didn’t win much,” said Brown. “But now you blink and four years have gone by and you can look at Joel and Ben and Markelle and we’re still trying to figure out Jahlil Okafor (the No. 3 overall pick in 2015) and get him healthy. Those are all one-through-three picks in the draft.”
The 76ers did tap into the free-agent market for some veteran leadership this summer, adding shooting guard J.J. Redick and former Boston Celtics forward Amir Johnson.
“I think the newness excites me more than gets anybody worried,” Brown said. “I think it’s an incredibly exciting stage of our program given where we have come from, and I especially like the possibilities that we all feel are very close to us.”
Qualifying for postseason play for the first time in Brown’s tenure might be one goal, as well as beginning to close the competitive gap between the 76ers and the top teams in the conference, including the Boston Celtics.
“They’re in the elite of the East and are among the tiny handful still in that elite category in the NBA,” he said. “Any time you finish first at the end of the season in the Eastern Conference and you bring in an all-star like Gordon Hayward — and I like the way they drafted, I think Jayson (Tatum) is going to be a really good NBA player and maybe a great one — they’re positionally ready to continue to grow.”
Brown can relate to competing at an elite status within his own basketball life. His high school career playing for his father — fellow 2014 Maine Basketball Hall of Famer Bob Brown — concluded with South Portland scoring 102 points in the 1979 state final to cap off a 22-0 season.
He went on to play for four years at Boston University under coach Rick Pitino, then broke into coaching as a graduate assistant at BU until a backpacking trip to Oceania in 1987 led him to the Australian professional coaching ranks where his teams won two National Basketball League championships and he was named the NBL’s coach of the year in 1994.
Brown joined the San Antonio Spurs’ basketball operations department for a year in 1998 before returning to Australia to coach the Sydney Kings from 1999 to 2002.
Brown became San Antonio’s director of player development in 2003 and in 2007 became an assistant coach under Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich, a post he maintained until being named hired in Philadelphia.
Brown was part of NBA championship teams in San Antonio in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007, and served as head coach of the Australian national team that reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 Olympics before being ousted by the gold medal-winning United States.
Now he’s working with his current team to inch closer to contender’s status in the NBA — an effort known around Philadelphia as “trusting the process.”
And while the 76ers may be a fashionable pick to capture an Eastern Conference playoff berth next spring, the path toward such upward mobility is filled with trepidation and anticipation alike.
“There are still so many parts of our team that are unknown,” said Brown. “Our backcourt hasn’t played a second in the NBA nor a second together. We’re always aware of Joel’s health and trying to make sure that he does and we do as much as we can to deliver him to the court responsibly.
“There’s so many areas where we’re excited to grow and continue to get these young guys playing at a high level of basketball, but the uncertainty of health is always there and I feel like once we all come back, see our guys and get ready to actually play together as a team, which we haven’t done for a while, then we can speak more candidly about that question.”