Q&A: Brett Brown on His Spurs Past, His Philly Future, and Going for a Jog
Brett Brown had a choice: ascend to Mike Budenholzer’s spot as Gregg Popovich’s lead assistant, or take the head job on what was sure to be a very bad rebuilding team. Brown, a four-year player for Rick Pitino at Boston University and the son of a legendary Maine high school basketball coach, chose the latter. A new Philly ownership group and the team’s new GM, Sam Hinkie, chose Brown as the man to lead the Sixers into the franchise’s next era.
Brown has an adventuresome coaching history, leaving his first job with the Spurs to coach professionally in Australia. Brown did so well there, the national team hired him as head coach — including at the Olympics in 2012. Before facing the Heat on Friday in Philadelphia, Brown sat down for a one-on-one with Grantland about his choice to come to Philly, his basketball philosophy, his jogging habits, and life with Pop.
You’ve been a head coach in different places, and a top-level assistant for one of the most decorated coaches ever. You’ve been around. But is there anything about the top job in the NBA that has surprised you? For which you weren’t quite prepared?
Yeah, a lot. You research the position, and you make a decision: Do you put yourself out there and really fight for the job? Is this the right fit for me, selfishly? I invested a lot of time, I’m fifty-something years old, and I was going to be next to Pop. It was a real decision. Everybody talked about the time it took, but that afforded time for me, too, to really look at the program.
You mean how long it took the team to hire someone?
Yes. And you could use that time to do due diligence — to look at the owners, the roster, and to understand a little bit more about Sam [Hinkie, the Sixers GM]. I grew up in New England, and spent so much time in Boston, I’m acutely aware of the sporting pulse of a city like Philadelphia.
A cold, angry city.
And I love it. I love being back on this side of the country. I like the snow, I like the cold. It’s where I’m from, it’s my upbringing. Where are you from?
So you know: It’s cold, so it’s basketball season. I was in Australia, and it’s 90 degrees, and you’re playing basketball. Something doesn’t connect. Even in San Antonio. So you get flashbacks of BU and growing up in Maine. And now you’re in a real city that is so competitive, and so sport-oriented. All those things you think you know as you’re doing due diligence. But to live it and breathe it, it’s different.
Like what, specifically?
Whether it’s losing badly, or stealing an exciting win — it’s so erratic. It’s so up and down. The volatility of the job surprised me, and so much of it is self-inflicted. You have to keep yourself balanced, and that’s my biggest challenge. I love coaching these guys. The guys have been fantastic.
What drew you to Sam? What common ground did you find, in terms of your ideas about how the game should be played, and building a franchise?
I believe in him. I believed that the patience he talked about was real. I believed that he was gonna find a way to use his background to help rebuild a proud program. I had confidence that he was good enough — that he was gonna be able to be a real asset to my job. For me to leave the program that I left, and come to a city that is everything we just said, he was a big part of that.
What on-court ideals did you share? That the game should be played at a fast pace?
Absolutely. Talk in job interviews can be a little bit cheap. If you watched my team play in London in the Olympics, and if he looked at the programs I have come from, right off the bat, there’s common ground.
Whether it’s pace, or the interest in the 3-point line, or anything to do with probably more offense than defense. Every program I’ve come through has been all about defense, and this year, we’ve struggled at times to defend. The pace has caught me off guard. We’re really moving.
It’s hard for guys to play that fast on offense and still give full effort on defense, right? The Houston coaches have talked about how hard that is, especially for their perimeter guys.
It is! It’s exacerbated with us, because at times we’re gonna play our key players 38 minutes, because you have to. And we have a young roster, so we turn it over a lot, and the game is flying back and forth. I think I misjudged the repercussions of the pace, even though I’ve extremely proud of that pace. If I had to do it again, I’d do it every time over.
Play this fast, you mean?
No doubt. I put a premium on fitness to our guys. I asked them to come in with career-best fitness levels, and when you do that, we’re gonna run at what I hope is the fastest pace you’ve ever run at. But it really does come with some punishment.
The pace thing is interesting, because a lot of analytics folks say playing so fast is a great way to lose games — that if you play a more talented team, pushing for 100 possessions instead of 85 just gives the Spurs, for instance, 15 more possessions to assert their talent superiority. Pace as a tanking mechanism, basically. Do you reject that? And if you do, what’s the deeper reason for playing this way?
I do reject that notion. I think we have a better chance of winning with more possessions. If we start slowing it down, I think we lose 80-68.
I do. I think we have a chance to do some things we’ve done — to beat Miami and Houston at home, and Portland and Denver on the road — I don’t see us doing that playing grind-it-out basketball. It doesn’t jell into the mentality of the players. You take young players, or players that are asking for a chance, I think you need to wind them up — to be in attack mode. If you start trying to move the ball side-to-side, and play afraid — no, we’re gonna go the whole other way. I want to try to play with pace, and to play with space, and to take that aggression and create something.
A team like Miami is so well coached, and they’re so good, that when they put their mind to it and say, “Let’s play better half-court defense,” it’s like, “Uh-oh. We’ve got some issues.” So for a bunch of reasons, I reject it. Maybe the analytics contradict what I just said, but my gut and my history of coaching say you gotta play that way — wind ’em up, and promote that aggression, and to not play with multiple ball reversals and incredible patience.
With shorter contracts under the new collective bargaining agreement, there’s more player turnover. Is it better to play a simpler offensive style, with new guys flowing in every season, instead of using a mammoth half-court playbook?
I think yes. Pace and pass, those are the governing things we talk about on offense. You’re always in attack mode, always trying to play downhill. The Spurs were so interesting because they created a hybrid of classic NBA pick-and-roll basketball, along with European motion, along with speed. And that’s the perfect world. I lived it, and breathed it, and saw it grow.
Tell me one big-picture basketball thing on which you and Pop just fundamentally disagree.
Pop was always wanting to have people disagree with him. Sometimes you’d disagree even if you didn’t, because you knew he wanted it. He doesn’t want yes men around him. As for a significant piece of the sport, I don’t remember any. I remember little things all the time — how to guard a pick-and-roll, how to guard the post, what we were going to do with Kevin Durant.
So just day-to-day stuff.
Yes. Day-to-day, in-game coaching. The experiences I went through with him, whether it was Game 7s, it was real-time decisions. And it happened all the time — closed-door meetings, drafts. But in regards to a big-picture philosophical difference? I can’t think of any.
You’ve mentioned the 3-point shot. The league takes more and more every season, and Houston’s D-League team is taking like 50 a game — and convincing some people that is the future of the sport. Do you agree with that? Do you like that direction?
Everybody in analytics tells me it is, but I don’t like it. There is no stat that talks about the disappointment and frustration of an interior player not getting touches while running rim to rim to rim to rim. Look at the extreme of last [Thursday’s] game, with Houston and Oklahoma City.
Seventy-something points in the first half, 19 in the second.
I’m just so curious to see what happened. In my opinion, it just ends up a carnival. I don’t see it [as the future]. And I could be entirely wrong. You have to embrace the 3. We embrace the 3. We’ve embraced it as much as anybody, I hope. We’ve encouraged Spencer [Hawes] and Thaddeus [Young] — dragged them out and spaced the floor. I think the future of the game is the Ryan Anderson type. One of your bigs has to be able to do that. But to just scream up and down the floor, and jack 3s — I don’t like that.
You guys give up a lot of 3s, and watching you, it seems like your perimeter defenders are maybe a step or so farther toward the paint — and away from shooters — than is the case for most teams.
You’re seeing it exactly right. This is the plan. We came into this thing saying that if we’re gonna hang our hat on anything, we’re gonna go pace and paint. We’re gonna run as fast as we can, and then on the other end, we’re gonna guard the paint. We don’t have a shot-blocking front line, so let’s try as a group to guard the paint. And then Portland tees off from 3-point range, and the Warriors tee off. It has been a real challenge. It drives me crazy at night, when at times we don’t guard. I don’t sleep so well.
I’m sure you’ve debated dialing it back a bit — having those perimeter defenders slide out a step, right?
We’ve tinkered a little because I was so frustrated with it all. That West Coast road trip [when the Sixers went 4-1 against Western Conference teams] was really the start of trying to do things a bit differently. I tried initially to come in with a system that was pretty vanilla: “This is what we do, and let’s just do it well.” Some of that is me being stubborn, and some of it is just wanting to put in a system. But that was the plan, and that’s why we’ve given up lots of 3s.
I hear you jog all around here — like in the parking lot, or on the streets around the arena?
There’s a park here.
How far do you run?
It’s like a city park, and I go for a little under an hour.
That’s pretty damn good.
I don’t go fast. But I keep my legs moving.
Do people say hello?
Because in Philly, given your record at this point, you might want to take the jogging out of the public arena. [Editor’s note: I was joking.]
Hey, in San Antonio, I used to run all the time, and you know the arena there is not in the best area. Pop used to always say, “You’re running in the wrong places.” But if you pass stray dogs, you always run a little bit quicker. It keeps my head clear. It’s funny — I need to be outside. I can’t do it on a treadmill.
No matter how cold it gets?
No matter how cold, no matter if it’s raining. I need to get out and get some fresh air. It’s a little bit sick, but that’s me.
One day the Sixers will get really good, and you’ll be on national TV a lot. You’ll have to do those between-quarters interviews. When that day comes, will you take after Pop and give curt, one-word answers? Has he given you advice on this matter? Or will you be expansive?
The length of Pop’s answers is mirrored in his number of rings. The answers have become shorter as his success has grown. So if I ever come up with shorter answers, that would be a good thing.